The Guardian view on Tony Harrison: a people’s poet | Editorial

In embracing the past as a way of tackling the present, he remains a constant reminder of the power of words to tell us about the world we all live in

The 80th birthday of the poet Tony Harrison brought scholars from all over the world to London this week for a two-day conference topped off by an evening of recitals and reminiscences. There were fond anecdotes from the golden era of the National Theatre when he commanded the main stage with fiery demotic adaptations of world classics such as The Oresteia and The Mysteries. As emcee Melvyn Bragg pointed out, such productions were not only a high point for public poetry but for state education. When, before or since, might one witness the domination of one the UK’s most prestigious national institutions by a stationmaster’s son from Suffolk, a bus conductor’s son from Greenock and a baker’s son from Leeds (directors Peter Hall and Bill Bryden and Mr Harrison, respectively)?

Maybe it was a different, more rebellious, socially mobile time. True, all three rose through selective education. But to become misty-eyed about the glory days of grammar schools, and the public figures they created, is to miss the point of Mr Harrison, who remains a politically abrasive presence and has always embraced the past as a way of tackling the present. For more than a decade he was the Guardian’s own unofficial poet laureate, invoking figures from Greek myth to frame furious responses to wars in the Gulf, Bosnia and Iraq. His poem Iraquatrains, published in April 2003, a month before the “dodgy dossier” scandal hit the news, urged readers to “Go round to Downing St, get Tony Blair’s hard disc”. Coincidentally, Mr Harrison’s birthday week also marked another cause for celebration among those who believe in the power of old-fashioned literary values, with a report from the Publishing Association that sales of physical books were up 8% year on year, while those for consumer ebooks had dropped by 17%.

It’s not all bonkbusters and vlogger memoirs either, according to a separate set of figures, which revealed that annual sales of poetry books rose last year by 12%. Poetry purists might sneer at the share that self-published and “Instapoets” – not traditionally regarded as bastions of high culture – have taken of the 1.1 million book sales officially registered by market analysts. But the increase is also due to the vigour of the performance poetry circuit, many of whose practitioners sell their books by hand at gigs or readings, thus bypassing the official data. There is an enduring snobbery about the divide between poetry for page and stage, even though the new generation of spoken-word poets are often as serious and political as Mr Harrison himself. They include Luke Wright, author/performer of the fringe theatre hit What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, and Kate Tempest, whose book-length poem Let Them Eat Chaos was released simultaneously as an album and as part of the blue-chip Picador publishing list last year.

Mr Harrison has always scorned pigeonholing, saying that “poetry is all I write” whether it is for television, for newspapers, for the opera house or the theatre. One of his party pieces is to sing Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott to the tune of George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows. So perhaps the real message we should take from this week of celebrations is that poetry in its truest, most democratic sense is alive and well and – as the skinhead would say in V, one of the angriest and finest poems of the 20th century – still kicking shit. It behoves the rest of us to listen to it.



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