The Inky Digit of Defiance review – Tony Harrison turns 80

The arts are never far from politics in this collection of Harrison’s prose from the past half-century, edited by Edith Hall

Thirty years ago in Greece a friend drove the poet and dramatist Tony Harrison to a village called Askri. It was a dump. Nearby was a stinking “vast, untended, smouldering pile of rubbish and old lorry tyres”. In the village itself, a local Boeotian man made a gesture that clearly meant “Why the hell have you come?” They had come, Harrison explained, because Askri was the birthplace of the ancient Boeotian poet Hesiod. After further conversation, one of the locals said they should check out the Valley of the Muses.

To get there was hard going. Wearing sandals, the tourists were led up a steep track covered in thorns. Soon their feet were cut and bleeding, but they kept walking. Eventually they reached an overgrown amphitheatre. In this ancient “Mouseion” poetry festivals had been held in honour of the Muses. Standing right at the centre of this great circular theatre space, Harrison imagined what it would be like to read poetry there, and raised his eyes to where the very back row of the audience would have sat. As he did so, the poet’s hair stood on end. He realised that he was looking straight at Mount Helicon, the Muses’ sacred mountain, and that “the spectators on the ridge” would have been “none other than the Muses” themselves. For Harrison, this situation exemplified what poetry must do: have the courage to face up to the Muses directly, without apology or excuse.

On stage and page, Harrison’s poetry has attempted to confront head-on the Muses of history, tragedy and comedy: famously, in verse published in the Guardian he wrote about the horrors of war in Bosnia and Iraq.

Born in Leeds in 1937, Harrison saw as a young boy in one of that city’s cinemas newsreel footage of Nazi concentration camps: “I felt that jumbling cascade of bulldozed, emaciated Belsen bodies were being dumped on to the art deco carpet of the cinema.” His readiness to make poetry that faced up to the atrocities of history was intensified by his study of the classics as a working-class scholarship boy in an institution of “class conspiracy”, Leeds Grammar School, then at Leeds University where he went on to work on a thesis on Virgil’s Aeneid.

The best of the work in this new collection of his selected prose combines an strong sense of poetic commitment with purposeful political engagement, and literary research all the better because it doesn’t feel like research. Harrison’s great essay, Facing Up to the Muses, is one that anyone who cares about poetry needs to read and ponder on. Reading his prose reminds us that poetry – whether that of ancient Greek drama, or of Virgil, or of Shelley or of Harrison himself – can, in some of its modes, be intensely political. For Harrison, as for the ancient Greeks, poetry and the polis are linked.

Harrison’s essays tend to relate to his own specific verse projects. The earliest piece in the present book dates from 1966 and sets out how he and Irish poet James Simmons translated and adapted Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata for a student drama group when they were working in northern Nigeria. Another, fuller early essay, Shango the Shaky Fairy, from 1970, draws on Harrison’s experience of Afro-Cuban culture; like a number of his other works, it also relishes unsettling conventional ideas about sexual identity. Linguistic and cultural translation, so important in poetry, are recurring topics in The Inky Finger of Defiance – which takes its title from a phrase used of Afghan women whose ink-stained fingers show that they have voted in an election.

A poet who has learned from Dryden, Milton, Browning and Pound, Harrison is deeply thoughtful about literary translation. He argues in an essay on Molière that translations “are not built to survive, though their original survives through translation’s many flowerings and decays”. Though some readers may find such musings arcane, the atrophying of language teaching in state schools across Britain has been one of the clearest indications of the mentality that has produced Brexit. Like other English-language poets of his generation from Douglas Dunn in Scotland to Les Murray in Australia, Harrison has made translation vital to his art.

Edith Hall, editor of this selection of Harrison’s prose, is a distinguished and energetic professor of Greek who once worked with the Scottish miners’ leader Mick McGahey. She calls attention to the way “Harrison has found in classical antiquity his most fruitful medium for discussing the class politics of art”. She understands his political anger as well as his artistic generosity. This Yorkshire poet’s example has been important for younger English poets from Sean O’Brien and Simon Armitage to Helen Mort, and for Scottish poets from Liz Lochhead to Don Paterson. Indeed, Harrison’s work aligns so closely with Scottish culture that he can seem a fully fledged countryman of Robert Burns.

No one interested in poetry and theatre can afford to ignore this book. Yet sometimes the essays seem to ramble and risk a tone of luvvie-ish self-indulgence. A sharper editorial pencil would have helped: the powerfully provocative essay “Square Rounds”, which presents “metre, rhythm and ballistics” as apparently “ineluctably bonded”, quotes too many of Harrison’s own below-par lines. After introducing “Arturo Brachetti, the Italian quick-change genius”, Harrison three pages later mentions “Arturo Brachetti, the Italian quick-change genius”, then (on the following page) “Arturo Brachetti, my Italian quick-change genius”. The same essay, which includes a moving tribute to Harrison’s theatre designer friend Jocelyn Herbert, quotes 11 lines of her prose, and then a few pages later quotes again 10 of the same 11 lines. This is a book to be savoured and pondered, but also, more than once, indulged.

Prefacing The Inky Digit of Defiance as he turns 80, Harrison, whose plays were staged at London’s National Theatre in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, sounds sore that there seems “no further interest from the present NT management in any of my work”. His tone in his introduction is “very elegiac”. Yet this may only serve to remind readers that his greatest poems are arguably his elegiac sonnets about his boyhood and memories of his parents in Leeds. Where the ancient poet Hesiod seems to have scorned Askri, yet knew it was close to the Mountain of the Muses, the modern poet Harrison’s triumph has been to articulate a deep kinship between his northern native place and Helicon.

• To order The Inky Digit of Defiance for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Robert Crawford

The GuardianTramp

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