divendres, 22 d’octubre de 2010


Harrison has forged a singular career as a poet, dramatist, film-maker - and these all in verse. He was a working class scholarship boy and his obsession with class and his passion for classical literature remain the two driving forces of his work. His early poems, collected in The Loiners (1970) (Loiners are residents of Leeds), were muscular and anguished about sex, class, family and the struggle to acquire culture. The characteristic poem was perhaps 'Thomas Campey and the Copernican System', the poem that opens the book. Thomas Campey was a poor second-hand bookseller who sold books off a handcart. Harrison is a buyer of second-hand books and the ironic distance between the culture Campey purveys and his own pathetic circumstances is at the heart of Harrison's art. He insists on both high art and the consequences for the class he came from of the stratification of society that high art entails.

Harrison travelled very widely in his early years as a poet, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe. The African poems convey a teeming panorama of self-disgust and degradation 'I murmur over and over; / buttocks...buttocks...BUTOX, / marketable essence of beef - / negritude - dilute to taste!' from 'The Zeg-Zeg Postcards'.

In his early years Harrison didn't publish conventional self-contained volumes, but worked on series of poems, From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems (1978) and Art & Extinction which were added to over a long period. This hindered an appreciation of his work and his poetry only reached a wide audience with the publication of the Penguin Selected Poems in1984.

From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems contains his best-known poems, sonnets about his parents and extended family, class, and poetry. The title is a good one because all these poems are about 'utterances' of various kinds. He reflects on the inarticulacy of his family, his Uncle Joe who stammered and could 'handset type much faster than he spoke', his English teacher telling him 'Poetry's the speech of kings. You're one of those / Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!' There is an obsessive zeal about these tightly interlocked poems. Themes echo in many poems: fire and destruction, with special reference to the VJ celebrations in 1946 (which he remembers as a boy of 9) and Hiroshima, the extinction of species, the power that articulacy brings, the painful self-limitation of the working class ('too posh for me! He said (though he dressed well) / If you weren't wi' me ah'd nivver dare!').

Harrison spent some time in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the poems that emerged were longer, more relaxed and discursive. He said 'I don't read America with the same spikey class instincts as I read England'. Poems like 'Cypress and Cedar', 'The Red Lights of Plenty', 'The Lords of Life', are wide-ranging meditations on nature, homesteading, the American way.

In poetic terms Harrison returned to England with a vengeance with the publication of his most famous poem, v. (1985). A long poem in rhyming quatrains deliberately echoing Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, v.. captures a moment in English life when the collapse of traditional industries like mining undermined a whole way of life. Harrison puts the resultant nihilism into the mouth of a lager-swilling yobbo and admits, for all his berating of the youth, that there's something of the vandal in him too: he remembers as a teenager letting off a fire extinguisher at a singer and orchestra. The justification he gives for this is revealing:

What I hated in those high soprano ranges

Was uplift beyond all reason and control

And in a world where you say nothing changes

It seemed a sort of pricktease of the soul.

Harrison's next full collection The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992), although a normal miscellany volume, did have some unity. Harrison's poems about the Gulf War, 'Initial Illumination' and 'A Cold Coming', began a new phase for him, appearing in the Guardian newspaper rather than a literary magazine (v. had first appeared in the London Review of Books). Harrison believes that poetry should address the great issues of the day and that it should strive for a mass audience.

This tendency became even more pronounced during the Bosnian conflict of 1992-4. The Guardian sent Harrison to the region as poetic war correspondent. Thanks to poems like these and his television films Harrison had a very high profile during the 1990s. Inevitably his name was mentioned as a contender for Poet Laureate when Ted Hughes died. But Harrison is a fierce republican and he published another poem in the Guardian, 'A Celebratory Ode on the Abdication of King Charles III', which effectively ruled himself out. This and other new poems were published as Laureate's Block by Penguin in 2000. Some critics have felt that in such recent poems the ferocity of his polemic has been detrimental to his verse, which can seem clumsy when compared to the early sonnets.