Essay | Tony Harrison: Poetry & Class

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Patrick Maxwell


Tony Harrison:
Poetry & Class


The use of poetry as a form of class war has arguably never had particularly significant results in much of literary history, perhaps due to the fact that vitriol and verbose anarchy make it difficult for prose and poetry to endure. However, Tony Harrison’s poetry can be seen as one of the exceptions to this generalisation. 

Harrison’s background, as a working-class boy from Leeds who rose to become an enfant terrible of sorts, is always noted and used as a scapegoat for his somewhat offensive pronouncements. His work is consistently filled with the desire to go back to youth, back to the basics of existence, back to the certainty of a previous life. Yet his poetry also offers a grim assessment of that forgotten time, beleaguered by the scarcities and dreariness of existence in an industrial age. This intriguing conflict which seems to offend both the literary and political establishment who speak with ‘Received Pronunciation’, and on the other side, the butcher, publican, and baker who surrounded him growing up, and whose lives he was expected, even supposed, to emulate. The expletive-strewn language that he employs is juxtaposed with the authority, the tradition of Byron and Wordsworth, the intellectualism of Rimbaud and Alban Berg.

Harrison’s most famous poem, ‘V’, is centred around a graveyard in Leeds and overlooks two parts of the poet’s life. On one side lies Leeds Grammar School, where Harrison, as an eleven-year-old scholar, was given the education that gave him a life in poetry, and the university where he gained his Classics degree. On the other is Elland Road, the Leeds United football ground.

If buried ashes saw them I’d survey
The places I learned Latin, and learned Greek,
And left, the ground where Leeds United play
But disappoint their fans week after week

It is from this courtyard that Harrison continues his story, the rhyme structure consistent, as he breaks into conversation with an imaginary passer-by; ‘Can’t you speak / the language that yer mam spoke? Think of ‘her!’ This man, a foul-mouthed football supporter, echoes the voice inside Harrison’s head, accusing him of forgetting his roots on his quest to gain entry into the intellectual elites. In beseeching him to remember his mother, the man is taking the role of his own, who, having read her son’s first book The Loiners, said that ‘You weren’t brought up to write such mucky books’.

‘V’ is a long paean to the world of working-class industrialism; written in the aftermath of the Miners Strike in 1984. The ideas of struggle against authority, the division between the community of the mining community, and the threat of the Thatcher government are ever-present, but Harrison’s own view is never fully exposed. Instead, the poem is a long polemic of indignation at the moral degeneracy that he sees in late ‘80s Britain, with his relatives’ vandalised gravestone acting as a metaphor.

The history of English working-class literature, from Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist to Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, Engels’s Condition of the Working Class to The Road to Wigan Pier, has included some of the most poignant but bitter attacks on what Auden called ‘the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky’. Whether Harrison’s poetry is an attack on Thatcherism as such or just the growing negation of his childhood ideas is never fully understood. Indeed, the title ‘V’ could well express his viewpoint best:

These Vs are all the versuses of life
From LEEDs v. DERBY, Black/White
And (as I’ve known to my cost) man v. wife,
Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right

It would be a horrendous cliché to brand Harrison as an outsider; he would certainly seem estranged from the community he grew up in, and from what A.E. Housman called ‘the happy highways where I went  / and cannot come again.’

Politically, Harrison has always been an indomitable presence, and his poetry is a kind of reportage narrating the emotions and hypocrisies of a time. His vehement opposition to the Liberation of Iraq in 2003 stemmed from his ‘existential unease with war’, and his lifelong aversion to the antediluvian British monarchy was expressed in Laureate’s Block:

Nor should Prince Charles succeed our present queen
And spare us some toad’s ode on coronation.
I’d like all suchlike odes there’ve ever been
Binned by a truly democratic nation.

Iconoclastic, and yet a brilliant defender of tradition, Harrison spoke vociferously in defence of Salman Rushdie in the wake of The Satanic Verses fatwa, standing for the liberty of free speech in defiance of despotic theocracy and many self-proclaimed liberals. Harrison’s documentary, The Blasphemers’ Banquet, saw him go to Bradford, a city that played host to mass burnings of The Satanic Verses, and orchestrate an imaginary dinner with religious dissenters from history; Omar Khayyám, Byron, Voltaire, Molière, and Rushdie. ‘Blasphemy’, that malicious word employed by religious enforcers to quell dissent, was never going to repel Harrison. Instead, he used it as a mark of pride. Much of the religious establishment, as well as supposed liberals, tried to halt the broadcast of the programme, as reactionaries tried to halt the first broadcast of V, but were rebuffed by the BBC. 

This marks one of the most persistent themes in Harrison’s poetry; his iconoclastic tendencies, a tendency to fight, as the sincerest polemicists do, against any force that violates one’s set of moral and personal principles. The intellectual establishment, the Leeds United supporters who graffitied on his parent’s grave, the politicians who dismissed his poetry as ‘Bolshevik’ – all of these are lamented by him in his poetry which mocks, and yet manages to stifle, all notions of snobbishness. Harrison is self-deprecating and regretful; mourning his own ineptitude as a poet rather than butcher, publican and baker, regretting that he was never to explore his parent’s lives with them and their feelings about his poetry.

The family didn’t always feel together.
Those silent teas with all of us part
when no one spoke except about the weather
and not about his football or my art.

The way in which his school-teachers dismissed him due to his accent, the fact that ‘I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth’, and ‘My first mention in the Times / automatically made Tony Anthony!’, all contributes to the wretched feel of his verse.

Harrison uses many different forms to promote his poetry; be it theatre, television, books or the concert hall. Poetry, ‘the speech of kings’ as his teacher said, has been the centre of Harrison’s life, whether it is when expressing the political situations he is living through, the feelings of bitter regret at the passing of his parent’s, the deep melancholy of English working-class existence as he sees it, or the eternal fight between ‘Them & [uz]’.

You can tell the Receivers where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,
[uz] can be loving as well as funny.

Here, he is expressing his deep-rooted loyalty to his roots, the vandals he patronises in ‘V’ come through, scathed, his heart is really with his ‘Mam and Dad’. Harrison uses a language of working-class speech; he speaks of its repression, and his revival of it, to bring to life the dialogue that is inherent in his works. His working-class background and estrangement from his parents overshadowed his widespread success and popularity as a poet, and the two have never been convincingly reconciled to our eyes. This private discord, made public by his poetry, has encapsulated the melancholy lament for an Albion – an old England that we know was never bountiful or prosperous, but, as with Harrison’s father’s grave plot in Leeds, was dignified until it was scorned and defaced. This political and social value that clings intrinsically to Harrison’s work always seems to end in moral defeat, as does the sense of literary destitution for us the reader, in the face of his masterful word-painting. Yet the question still remains, despite the forlorn hope of reconciliation, and knowledge that any idea of a deity of salvation is a mere fallacy.

Victory? For vast, slow, coal-creating forces
That hew the body’s seams to get the soul.
Will earth run out of her ‘diurnal courses’
Before repeating her creation of black coal?

If, having come this far, somebody reads
These verses, and he/she wants to understand,
Face this grave on Beeston Hill, your back to Leeds,
And read the chiselled epitaph I’ve planned:

Beneath your feet’s a poet, then a pit.
Poetry supporter, if you’re here to find
How poems can grow from (beat you to it!) SHIT
Find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind.

Harrison’s last elegiac verse is revelatory, despite the curses of the intruder earlier on in ‘V’, we are still reminded that Harrison does regard his poetry as essentially unavailing, in that words will give succour to only a few who can read them, but will not provide for life’s needs as his forebears did – the butcher, publican and baker – who gave us the essentials for material survival. If Harrison does regard his struggle as a form of conflict, then he may well still believe that ‘it’s not poetry we need in this class war’.

Poetry defines Tony Harrison as a writer, who said that ‘Poetry is all I write, whether for books, or reading, or for the National Theatre, or for the opera house and concert hall, or even for TV.’ His dramatic writings include adaptations of classical tragedies by Phrynichus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes. These plays are distinctly poetical, Shakespearean almost, but with a large dose of Harrison’s assertive, direct language. They give him a public platform that gives his poetry a new outlook and vision, outside the book, metamorphosed into the tales of his characters. Harrison is an evocative dramatist; his ancient stories given fresh life by a revitalised classicism, which is shadowed the fact that his life as a poet, the ‘books, books, books’ that separates him from his parents, would only have come into being with his scholarship to Leeds Grammar School.

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Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.


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