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David Morley on Harrison, Reading and Raine

The ‘Seventies and early ‘Eighties: Harrison, Raine, Reading.

David Morley

We will be looking closely at three poets: Tony Harrison, Craig Raine and Peter Reading.

The chief focus of the seminar will be on the work of Tony Harrison. Please read these poems and items of critical reading before the seminar.

Please ask yourself what is the significance of heredity, in a literary sense, even a linguistic or “class” sense, in the work of Harrison and of Simon Armitage?

I also want you to consider the role of controversy: in Harrison’s long poem set during the Miners’ Strike, V (printed here in  full), in Reading’s work in The New Poetry and also the response to Raine’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.





How you became a poet's a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?

I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry-
one was a stammerer, the other dumb



On Not Being Milton

Read and committed to the flames, I call

these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Cahier d'un retour au pays natal,

my growing black enough to fit my boots.

The stutter of the scold out of the branks

of condescension, class and counter-class

thickens with glottals to a lumpen mass

of Ludding morphemes closing up their ranks.

Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress

clangs a forged music on the frames of Art,

the looms of owned language smashed apart!

Three cheers for mute ingloriousness!

Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.

In the silence round all poetry we quote

Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting.



From the sonnet sequence ‘The School of Eloquence’

Book Ends

Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.

Shocked into sleeplessness you're scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don't try.

You're like book ends, the pair of you, she'd say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare…

The 'scholar' me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.
At night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we're alike!

You're life's all shattered into smithereens.

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what's still between 's
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.


The stone's too full. The wording must be terse.
There's scarcely room to carve the
FLORENCE on it--

Come on, it's not as if we're wanting verse.
It's not as if we're wanting a whole sonnet!

After tumblers of neat Johnny Walker
(I think that both of us we're on our third)
you said you'd always been a clumsy talker
and couldn't find another, shorter word
for 'beloved' or for 'wife' in the inscription,
but not too clumsy that you can't still cut:

You're supposed to be the bright boy at description
and you can't tell them what the fuck to put!

I've got to find the right words on my own.

I've got the envelope that he'd been scrawling,
mis-spelt, mawkish, stylistically appalling
but I can't squeeze more love into their stone.



Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he'd hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she'd just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven't both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there's your name

and the disconnected number I still call.



'My father still reads the dictionary every day.
He says your life depends on your power to master words.'

Arthur Scargill
Sunday Times,
10 January 1982

Next millennium you'll have to search quite hard
to find my slab behind the family dead,
butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard
adding poetry to their beef, beer and bread.

With Byron three graves on I'll not go short
of company, and Wordsworth's opposite.
That's two peers already, of a sort,
and we'll all be thrown together if the pit,

whose galleries once ran beneath this plot,
causes the distinguished dead to drop
into the rabblement of bone and rot,
shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop.

Wordsworth built church organs, Byron tanned
luggage cowhide in the age of steam,
and knew their place of rest before the land
caves in on the lowest worked-out seam.

This graveyard on the brink of Beeston Hill's
the place I may well rest if there's a spot
under the rose roots and the daffodils
by which dad dignified the family plot.

If buried ashes saw then 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,

which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem
and taking a short cut home through these graves here
they reassert the glory of their team
by spraying words on tombstones, pissed on beer.

This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.
Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.
One leaning left's marked FUCK, one right's marked SHIT
sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.

Far-sighted for his family's future dead,
but for his wife, this banker's still alone
on his long obelisk, and doomed to head
a blackened dynasty of unclaimed stone,

now graffitied with a crude four-letter word.
His children and grandchildren went away
and never came back home to be interred,
so left a lot of space for skins to spray.



The language of this graveyard ranges from
a bit of Latin for a former Mayor
or those who laid their lives down at the Somme,
the hymnal fragments and the gilded prayer,

how people 'fell asleep in the Good Lord',
brief chisellable bits from the good book
and rhymes whatever length they could afford,
to CUNT, PISS, SHIT and (mostly) FUCK!

Or, more expansively, there's
the opponent of last week, this week, or next,
and a repertoire of blunt four-letter curses
on the team or race that makes the sprayer vexed.

Then, pushed for time, or fleeing some observer,
dodging between tall family vaults and trees
like his team's best ever winger, dribbler, swerver,
fills every space he finds with versus Vs.

Vs sprayed on the run at such a lick,
the sprayer master of his flourished tool,
get short-armed on the left like that red tick
they never marked his work with much at school.

Half this skinhead's age but with approval
I helped whitewash a V on a brick wall.
No one clamoured in the press for its removal
or thought the sign, in wartime, rude at all.

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

Class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM,

Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought on's Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past never found.

The prospects for the present aren't too grand
when a swastika with NF (National Front)'s
sprayed on a grave, to which another hand
has added, in a reddish colour, CUNTS.

Which is, I grant, the word that springs to mind,
when going to clear the weeds and rubbish thrown
on the family plot by football fans, I find
UNITED graffitied on my parents' stone.

How many British graveyards now this May
are strewn with rubbish and choked up with weeds
since families and friends have gone away
for work or fuller lives, like me from


When I first came here 40 years ago
with my dad to 'see my grandma' I was 7.
I helped dad with the flowers. He let me know
she'd gone to join my grandad up in Heaven.

My dad who came each week to bring fresh flowers
came home with clay stains on his trouser knees.
Since my parents' deaths I've spent 2 hours
made up of odd 10 minutes such as these.

Flying visits once or twice a year,
And though I'm horrified just who's to blame
that I find instead of flowers cans of beer
and more than one grave sprayed with some skin's name?

Where there were flower urns and troughs of water
And mesh receptacles for withered flowers
are the HARP tins of some skinhead
Leeds supporter.
It isn't all his fault though. Much is ours.

5 kids, with one in goal, play 2-a-side.
When the ball bangs on the hawthorn that's one post
and petals fall they hum Here Comes the Bride
though not so loud they'd want to rouse a ghost.

They boot the ball on purpose at the trunk
and make the tree shed showers of shrivelled may.
I look at this word graffitied by some drunk
and I'm in half a mind to let it stay.

(Though honesty demands that I say if
I'd wanted to take the necessary pains
to scrub the skin's inscription off
I only had an hour between trains.

So the feelings that I had as I stood gazing
and the significance I saw could be a sham,
mere excuses for not patiently erasing
the word sprayed on the grave of dad and mam.)

This pen's all I have of magic wand.
I know this world's so torn but want no other
except for dad who'd hoped from 'the beyond'
a better life than this one, with my mother.

Though I don't believe in afterlife at all
and know it's cheating it's hard not to make
a sort of furtive prayer from this skin's scrawl,
his UNITED mean 'in Heaven' for their sake,

an accident of meaning to redeem
an act intended as mere desecration
and make the thoughtless spraying of his team
apply to higher things, and to the nation.

Some, where kids use aerosols, use giant signs
to let the people know who's forged their fetters
Like PRI CE O WALES above
West Yorkshire mines
(no prizes for who nicked the missing letters!)



The big blue star for booze, tobacco ads,
the magnet's monogram, the royal crest,
insignia in neon dwarf the lads
who spray a few odd FUCKS when they're depressed.

Letters of transparent tubes and gas
in Düsseldorf are blue and flash out KRUPP.
Arms are hoisted for the British ruling class
and clandestine, genteel aggro keeps them up.

And there's HARRISON on some Leeds building sites
I've taken in fun as blazoning my name,
which I've also seen on books, in Broadway lights,
so why can't skins with spraycans do the same?

But why inscribe these graves with CUNT and SHIT?
Why choose neglected tombstones to disfigure?
This pitman's of last century daubed PAKI GIT,
this grocer Broadbent's aerosolled with NIGGER?

They're there to shock the living, not arouse
the dead from their deep peace to lend support
for the causes skinhead spraycans could espouse.
The dead would want their desecrators caught!

Jobless though they are how can these kids,
even though their team's lost one more game,
believe that the 'Pakis', 'Niggers', even 'Yids'
sprayed on the tombstones here should bear the blame?

What is it that these crude words are revealing?
What is it that this aggro act implies?
Giving the dead their xenophobic feeling
or just a cri-de-coeur because man dies?

So what's a cri-de-coeur, cunt? Can't you speak
the language that yer mam spoke. Think of 'er!
Can yer only get yer tongue round fucking Greek?
Go and fuck yourself with cri-de-coeur!

'She didn't talk like you do for a start!'
I shouted, turning where I thought the voice had been.
She didn't understand yer fucking 'art'!
She thought yer fucking poetry obscene!

I wish on this skin's words deep aspirations,
first the prayer for my parents I can't make,
then a call to
Britain and to all nations
made in the name of love for peace's sake.

Aspirations, cunt! Folk on t'fucking dole
'ave got about as much scope to aspire
above the shit they're dumped in, cunt, as coal
aspires to be chucked on t'fucking fire.

'OK, forget the aspirations. Look, I know
United's losing gets you fans incensed
and how far the HARP inside you makes you go
but all these Vs: against! against! against!

Ah'll tell yer then what really riles a bloke.
It's reading on their graves the jobs they did –
Butcher, publican and baker. Me, I'll croak
doing t'same nowt ah do now as a kid.

'ard birth ah wor, mi mam says, almost killed 'er.
Death after life on t'dole won't seem as 'ard!
Look at this cunt, Wordsworth, organ builder,
This fucking 'aberdasher Appleyard!

If mi mam's up there, don't want to meet 'er
listening to me list mi dirty deeds,
and 'ave to pipe up to St fucking Peter
ah've been on t'dole all mi life in fucking

Then t'Alleluias stick in t'angels' gobs.
When dole-wallahs fuck off to the void
What'll t'mason carve up for their jobs?
The cunts who lieth 'ere wor unemployed?

This lot worked at one job all life through.
Byron, 'Tanner', 'Lieth 'ere interred'.
They'll chisel fucking poet when they do you
and that, yer cunt, 's a crude four-letter word.

'Listen, cunt!' I said, 'before you start your jeering
the reason why I want this in a book
's to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing!'
A book, yer stupid cunt, 's not worth a fuck!

'The only reason why I write this poem at all
on yobs like you who do the dirt on death
's to give some higher meaning to your scrawl.'
Don't fucking bother, cunt! Don't waste your breath!

'You piss-artist skinhead cunt, you wouldn't know
and it doesn't fucking matter if you do,
the skin and poet united fucking Rimbaud
but the autre that je est is fucking you.'

Ah've told yer, no more Greek...That's yer last warning!
Ah'll boot yer fucking balls to Kingdom Come.
They'll find yer cold on t'grave tomorrer morning.
So don't speak Greek. Don't treat me like I'm dumb.

'I've done my bits of mindless aggro too
not half a mile from where we're standing now.'
Yeah, ah bet yer wrote a poem, yer wanker you!
'No, shut yer gob a while. Ah'll tell yer 'ow...'

'Herman Darewski's band played operetta
with a wobbly soprano warbling. Just why
I made my mind up that I'd got to get her
with the fire hose I can't say, but I'll try.

It wasn't just the singing angered me.
At the same time half a crowd was jeering
as the smooth Hugh Gaitskill, our MP,
made promises the other half were cheering.



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 prick-tease of the soul.

I tell you when I heard high notes that rose
above Hugh Gaitskill's cool electioneering
straight from the warbling throat right up my nose
I had all your aggro in my jeering.

And I hit the fire extinguisher ON knob
and covered orchestra and audience with spray.
I could run as fast as you then. A good job!
They yelled 'damned vandal' after me that day...'

And then yer saw the light and up 'eavy!
And knew a man's not how much he can sup...
Yer reward for growing up's this super-bevvy,
a meths and champagne punch ini t'FA Cup.

Ah've 'eard all that from old farts past their prime.
'ow now yer live wi' all yer once detested...
Old farts with not much left'll give me time.
Fuckers like that get folk like me arrested.

Covet not thy neighbour's wife, thy neighbour's riches.
Vicar and cop who say, to save our souls,
Get thee beHind me, Satan, drop their breeches
and get the Devil's dick right up their 'oles!

It was more a working marriage that I'd meant,
a blend of masculine and feminine.
Ignoring me, he started looking, bent
on some more aerosolling, for his tin.

'It was more a working marriage that I mean!'
Fuck, and save mi soul, eh? That suits me.
Then as if I'd egged him on to be obscene
he added a middle slit to one daubed V.

Don't talk to me of fucking representing
the class yer were born into any more.
Yer going to get 'urt and start resenting
it's not poetry we need in this class war.

Yer've given yerself toffee, cunt. Who needs
yer fucking poufy words. Ah write mi own.
Ah've got mi work on show all ovver
like this UNITED 'ere on some sod's stone.

'OK!' (thinking I had him trapped) 'OK!'
'If you're so proud of it, then sign your name
when next you're full of HARP and armed with spray,
next time you take this short cut from the game.'

He took the can, contemptuous, unhurried
and cleared the nozzle and prepared to sign
the UNITED sprayed where mam and dad were buried.
He aerosolled his name. And it was mine.


The boy footballers bawl Here Comes the Bride
and drifting blossoms fall onto my head.
One half of me's alive but one half died
when the skin half sprayed my name among the dead.

Half versus half, the enemies within
the heart that can't be whole till they unite.
As I stoop to grab the crushed HARP lager tin
the day's already dusk, half dark, half light.

That UNITED that I'd wished onto the nation
or as reunion for dead parents soon recedes.
The word's once more a mindless desecration
by some HARPoholic yob supporting

Almost the time for ghosts I'd better scram.
Though not given much to fears of spooky scaring
I don't fancy an encounter with mi mam
playing Hamlet with me for this swearing.

Though I've a train to catch my step is slow.
I walk on the grass and graves with wary tread
over these subsidences, these shifts below
the life of
Leeds supported by the dead.

Further underneath's that cavernous hollow
that makes the gravestones lean towards the town.
A matter of mere time and it will swallow
this place of rest and all the resters down.

I tell myself I've got, say, 30 years.
At 75 this place will suit me fine.
I've never feared the grave but what I fear's
that great worked-out black hollow under mine.

Not train departure time, and
not Town Hall
with the great white clock face I can see,
coal, that began, with no man here at all,
as 300 million-year-old plant debris.

5 kids still play at making blossoms fall
and humming as they do Here Comes the Bride.
They never seem to tire of their ball
though I hear a woman's voice call one inside.

2 larking boys play bawdy bride and groom.
3 boys in
Leeds strip la-la Lohengrin.
I hear them as I go through growing gloom
still years away from being skald or skin.

The ground's carpeted with petals as I throw
the aerosol, the HARP can, the cleared weeds
on top of dad's dead daffodils, then go,
with not one glance behind, away from Leeds.

The bus to the station's still the No. 1
but goes by routes that I don't recognise.
I look out for known landmarks as the sun
reddens the swabs of cloud in darkening skies.


Home, home, home, to my woman as the red
darkens from a fresh blood to a dried.
Home, home to my woman, home to bed
where opposites seem sometimes unified.

A pensioner in turban taps his stick
along the pavement past the corner shop,
that sells samosas now, not beer on tick,
to the Kashmir Muslim Club that was the Co-op.

House after house FOR SALE where we'd played cricket
with white roses cut from flour-sacks on our caps,
with stumps chalked on the coal-grate for our wicket,
and every one bought now by 'coloured chaps',

dad's most liberal label as he felt
squeezed by the unfamiliar, and fear
of foreign food and faces, when he smelt
curry in the shop where he'd bought beer.

And growing frailer, 'wobbly on his pins',
the shops he felt familiar with withdrew
which meant much longer tiring treks for tins
that had a label on them that he knew.

And as the shops that stocked his favourites receded
whereas he'd fancied beans and popped next door,
he found that four long treks a week were needed
till he wondered what he bothered eating for.

The supermarket made him feel embarrassed.
Where people bought whole lambs for family freezers
he bought baked beans from check-out girls too harassed
to smile or swap a joke with sad old geezers.

But when he bought his cigs he'd have a chat,
his week's one conversation, truth to tell,
but time also came and put a stop to that
when old Wattsy got bought out by M. Patel.

And there, 'Time like an ever rolling stream''s
What I once trilled behind that boarded front.
A 1000 ages made coal-bearing seams
and even more the hand that sprayed this CUNT

on both Methodist and C of E billboards
once divided in their fight for local souls.
Whichever house more truly was the Lord's
both's pews are filled with cut-price toilet rolls.

Home, home to my woman, never to return
till sexton or survivor has to cram
the bits of clinker scooped out of my urn
down through the rose-roots to my dad and mam.

Home, home to my woman, where the fire's lit
these still chilly mid-May evenings, home to you,
and perished vegetation from the pit
escaping insubstantial up the flue.



Listening to Lulu, in our hearth we burn,
As we hear the high Cs rise in stereo,
what was lush swamp club-moss and tree-fern
at least 300 million years ago.

Shilbottle cobbles, Alban Berg high D
lifted from a source that bears your name,
the one we hear decay, the one we see,
the fern from the foetid forest, as brief flame.

This world, with far too many people in,
starts on the TV logo as a taw,
then ping-pong, tennis, football; then one spin
to show us all, then shots of the Gulf War.

As the coal with reddish dust cools in the grate
on the late-night national news we see
police v. pickets at a coke-plant grate,
old violence and old disunity.

The map that's colour-coded Ulster/Eire's
flashed on again as almost every night.
Behind a tiny coffin with two bearers
men in masks with arms show off their might.

The day's last images recede to first a glow
and then a ball that shrinks back to a blank screen.
Turning to love, and sleep's oblivion, I know
what the UNITED that the skin sprayed has to mean.

Hanging my clothes up, from my parka hood
may and apple petals, browned and creased,
fall onto the carpet and bring back the flood
of feelings their first falling had released.

I hear like ghosts from all
Leeds matches humming
with one concerted voice the bride, the bride
I feel united to, my bride is coming
into the bedroom, naked, to my side.

The ones we choose to love become our anchor
when the hawser of the blood-tie's hacked, or frays.
But a voice that scorns chorales is yelling: Wanker!
It's the aerosolling skin I met today's.

My alter ego wouldn't want to know it,
His aerosol vocab would baulk at LOVE,
the skin's UNITED underwrites the poet,
the measures carved below the ones above.

I doubt if 30 years of bleak
Leeds weather
and 30 falls of apple and of may
will erode the UNITED binding us together.
And now it's your decision: does it stay?

Next millennium you'll have to search quite hard
to find out where I'm buried but I'm near
the grave of haberdasher Appleyard,
the pile of HARPs, or some new neonned beer.


Find Byron, Wordsworth, or turn left between
one grave marked Broadbent, one marked Richardson.
Bring some solution with you that can clean
whatever new crude words have been sprayed on.

If love of art, or love, gives you affront
that the grave I'm in 's graffitied then, maybe,
erase the more offensive FUCK and CUNT
but leave, with the worn UNITED, one small v.

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.


Life and Work of Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison is Britain's leading film and theatre poet. He has written for the National Theatre in London, the New York Metropolitan Opera and for the BBC and Channel 4 television. He was born in Leeds, England in 1937 and was educated at Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University, where he read Classics and took a diploma in Linguistics.

He became the first Northern Arts Literary Fellow (1967-8), a post that he held again in 1976-7, and he was resident dramatist at the National Theatre (1977-8). His work there included adaptations of Molière's The Misanthrope and
Racine's Phaedra Britannica.

His first collection of poems, The Loiners (1970), was awarded the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1972, and his acclaimed version of Aeschylus's The Oresteia (1981) won him the first European Poetry Translation Prize in 1983. The The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) won the Whitbread Poetry Award.

His adaptation of the English Medieval Mystery Plays cycle was first performed at the National Theatre in 1985. Many of his plays have been staged away from conventional auditoria: The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus was premièred at the ancient stadium at Delphi in 1988; Poetry or Bust was first performed at Salts Mill, Saltaire in Yorkshire in 1993; The Kaisers of Carnuntum premiered at the ancient Roman amphitheatre at Carnuntum in Austria; and The Labours of Herakles was performed on the site of the new theatre at Delphi in Greece in 1995. His translation of Victor Hugo's The Prince's Play was performed at the National Theatre in 1996.

His films using verse narrative include V, about vandalism, broadcast by Channel 4 television in 1987 and winner of a Royal Television Society Award; Black Daisies for the Bride, winner of the Prix Italia in 1994; and The Blasphemers' Banquet, screened by the BBC in 1989, an attack on censorship inspired by the Salman Rushdie affair. He co-directed A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan for Channel 4 in 1994 and directed, wrote and narrated The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems, screened by Channel 4 in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb. The published text won the Heinemann Award in 1996. He wrote and directed his first feature film Prometheus in 1998.

In 1995 he was commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to visit
Bosnia and write poems about the war. His most recent collection of poetry is Laureate's Block and Other Occasional Poems (2000).


Earthworks   University of Leeds, 1964

Aikin Mata: The Lysistrata of Aristophanes   (translator)   Oxford University Press, 1966

Newcastle is Peru   Eagle Press, 1969

The Loiners   London Magazine Editions, 1970

The Misanthrope   (translator)   Rex Collings, 1973

Palladas: Poems   (translator and introduction)   Anvil Press Poetry, 1975

Phaedra Britannica   Rex Collings, 1975

Bow Down   Rex Collings, 1977

The Passion   Rex Collings, 1977

From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems   Rex Collings, 1978

Looking Up   (with Philip Sharpe)   Migrant Press, 1979

A Kumquat for John Keats   Bloodaxe, 1981

Continuous (50 Sonnets from the School of Eloquence and Other Poems)   Rex Collings, 1981

The Oresteia   (adaptation)   Collings, 1981

US Martial   Bloodaxe, 1981

Selected Poems   Penguin, 1984

Dramatic Verse 1973-1985   Bloodaxe, 1985

The Fire Gap: A Poem with Two Tails   Bloodaxe, 1985

The Mysteries   Faber and Faber, 1985

V   Bloodaxe, 1985

Theatre Works 1973-1985   Penguin, 1986

Anno Forty Two: Seven New Poems   Scargill Press, 1987

Ten Sonnets from the School of Eloquence   Anvil Press Poetry, 1987

The Mother of Muses   (limited edition)   Rampant Lions Press, 1989

Losing Touch   (limited edition)   Rampant Lions Press, 1990

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus   Faber and Faber, 1990

A Cold Coming: Gulf War Poems   Bloodaxe, 1991

Square Rounds   Faber and Faber, 1992

The Common Chorus   (an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata)   Faber and Faber, 1992

The Gaze of the Gorgon   Bloodaxe, 1992

Black Daisies for the Bride   Faber and Faber, 1993

Poetry or Bust   Salts Estates, 1993

A Maybe Day in Kazakhastan   Channel 4 Poetry, 1994

Penguin Modern Poets 5   ((Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage, Sean O'Brien))   Penguin, 1995

Permanently Bard   Bloodaxe, 1995

Selected Poems   Penguin, 1995

The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems   Faber and Faber, 1995

Plays   (Contents: Poetry or Bust; The Kaisers of Carnuntum; The Labourers of Herakles)   Faber and Faber, 1996

The Prince's Play/Victor Hugo   (translator)   Faber and Faber, 1996

Prometheus   Faber and Faber, 1998

Plays 1: The Mysteries   Faber and Faber, 1999

Laureate's Block and Other Occasional Poems   Penguin, 2000

Plays 4: The Orestia/The Common Chorus (parts 1 and 2)   (translator)   Faber and Faber, 2002


Prizes and awards

1972   Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize   The Loiners

1983   European Poetry Translation Prize   The Oresteia

1987   Royal Television Society Award   (film)   V

1992   Whitbread Poetry Award   The Gaze of the Gorgon

1994   Prix Italia (Italy)   (film)   Black Daisies for the Bride

1996   Heinemann Award   The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems










Critical Perspective

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 Charless 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.

© Peter Forbes



Author statement

'Poetry is all I write, whether for books, or readings, or for the National Theatre, or for the opera house and concert hall, or even for TV. All these activities are part of the same quest for a public poetry, through in that word 'public' I would never want to exclude inwardness. I think how Milton's sonnets range from the directly outward to the tenderly inward, and how the public address of the one makes a clearing for the shared privacy of the other. In the same way I sometimes think that my dramatic poetry has made a clearing for my other poems. I sometimes work with ancient originals written at times when poetry had the range and ambition to net everything, but if I go to them for courage to take on the breadth and complexity of the world, my upbringing among so-called 'inarticulate' people has given me a passion for language that communicates directly and immediately. I prefer the idea of men speaking to men to a man speaking to God, or ever worse to Oxford's annointed. And books are only a part of what I see as poetry. It seems to me no accident that some of the best poetry in the world is in some of its drama from the Greek onwards. In it I find a reaffirmation of the power of the word, eroded by other media and by some of the speechless events of our worst century. Sometimes, despite the fact that the range of poetry has been diminished by the apparently effortless way that the mass media seem to depict reality, I believe that, maybe, poetry, the word at its most eloquent, is one medium which could concentrate our attention on our worst experiences without leaving us with the feeling, as other media can, that life in this century has had its affirmative spirit burnt out.'



Go round to Downing St, get Tony Blair's hard disc

Here's certainly a man from whom children are at risk.

Blair's a 'risk to children' with his Iraqi war.

I trust he's being fingered by Operation Ore.


The Iraqis now are truly shocked and awed

at the inexorable Bushkrieg Juggernaut

all the more crushing since it's got on board

the broad Brum bum and bosoms of Clare Short.


'Decapitation' to win minds and hearts,

a bombing bruited surgical, humane, 's

only partially successful when its start 's

a small child's shrapnelled scalp scooped of its brains.


Dead Iraqis vote BUSH after all!

Florida's Bushibboleth 's become Baghdad's.

He's re-elected by them as they fall

with flayed off human flesh like hanging chads.


Sorry they're shrivelled, your liberators' petals!

There's no water here to keep the flowers fresh

though your laser-guided shower of shattering metal 's

sown these damp red roses in our flesh.


Once executioners would kindly bind

the victims' eyes, so they died unaware.

Now Death's open-eyed as all the blind-

folds have been bagged by Bush and Blair.


Nicholas Wroe on Tony Harrsion

Saturday April 1, 2000

The Guardian
It was the culmination of four years' toil for Tony Harrison on his monumental theatre work, The Kaisers of Carnuntum, a play in verse. Specifically written to be set in the remains of Marcus Aurelius's Roman stadium at Carnuntum, 40 kilometres outside
Vienna, the piece was to have only two performances, in the summer of 1995. The extravagant logistics of the work - which required real lions, tigers and bears - were so complicated that the first time it could be put together was at the dress rehearsal the evening before the first performance.

Just as the rehearsal was due to start, a massive thunderstorm broke. As the night wore on the set was washed out, and to the background accompaniment of increasingly restless lions, the rehearsal was finally cancelled in the early hours of the morning. No one would know what the show was like until it was staged the following evening. Harrison was drenched and exhausted after climbing around on rigging in an attempt to lash plastic covers over the set. A member of the crew told him the bad news. His response was unequivocal. "I couldn't give a fuck", he said. "I'd rather be here than anywhere else in the world."

Harrison has always relished the struggle to produce art, and this struggle matched the scale of his ambitious expectations. When the play was staged next day it was a triumph. "I think it's probably the best thing I've done in the theatre," he says. It might have had a brief existence, but the play neatly encapsulates much of Harrison's view of life and art. It was set in the classical world and drew on it to expose the brutality of the Romans as opposed to Harrison's beloved Greeks.

It applied the politics of the past to the present and presciently identified - through a line in the play - the then little-known local demagogue Jörg Haider as a man to watch. It mixed vulgarity with great seriousness and placed Yorkshire vowels - as delivered by the definitive Harrison actor Barrie Rutter - among the words of emperors. And, like earlier Harrison works, it caused a bit of a stir. It was Ezra Pound who asserted that literature is news that stays news, and Tony Harrison is living proof. While the journey from arts page to front page has proved a leap too far for most writers, Harrison takes it in his stride.

His habit of breaking out of the literary ghetto is made all the more remarkable in that his varied body of work for the theatre, opera, film, television and print is not only all written in verse but is also steeped in an appreciation of classical literature and culture. The attention of news editors was first sparked by Richard Eyre's 1987 film of his poem v. The potent mix of swearing, Yorkshire accents, football hooliganism and Channel 4 attracted the rabid attentions of rent-a-quote MPs, Mary Whitehouse and the Daily Mail.

His 1989 verse film, Blasphemers' Banquet, prompted by the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie, led to more headlines and almost a caricature of an establishment reaction when the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a discreet note to the BBC asking that it be withdrawn. To the BBC's credit it was not. Most recently his very public refusal to be considered for the post of poet laureate - he wrote a poem for this newspaper, setting out his objections - and his accompanying sideswipe at Andrew Motion, who subsequently got the job, sparked another minor media frenzy. This has been kept going by publication of his most recent work, the collection Laureate's Block - which includes that eponymous Guardian poem - and which has been pretty well savaged by the critics.

But it is not only through literary rows that Harrison has made the news. In 1995 the Guardian sent him to Bosnia. He wrote a poem while travelling in an armoured vehicle outside Sarajevo. It was filed along with the dispatches of other war correspondents. Much to their chagrin Harrison's was the only piece to be on the front page the next day. So what is it about his work that strikes such a nerve?

"Well for one thing people know what he is talking about," says fellow Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage. "It makes them feel legitimised in joining the argument. It's difficult to imagine some other poets causing a similar stir because no one really understands the context of the poetry. But Tony invites discussion and is not afraid to put himself in the firing line. He senses that it is part of his bardic task."

This task is often explicitly confrontational across a range of cultural, political and personal fronts. He not so much probes the fissures in himself and in society as sends down depth-charges. In the poem Laureate's Block he reserved the right to "blast and bollock Blairite Britain", which includes having a go at friends who step outside his moral or political code. When Richard Eyre accepted a knighthood, Harrison wrote him a poem called "[untitled]". When his friend and collaborator Harrison Birtwistle accepted one he wrote the three line English opera, Sir Harry/ Sir Gawain /Surtitles!.

"We had this conversation years ago," recalls Eyre. "I said he'd be the next poet laureate and he said he'd sooner do that than I'd take a knighthood. When I did accept one he sent me this embossed Victorian postcard with the letters RE on it which he had bought intending to send if I ever did take a knighthood. Tony takes his friendships seriously, which means you can fall out with him, but he is a very caring friend."

"Honours seem to be the nature of British life," says Harrison. "It's horrible. Maybe I'm mad, but the older I get the less I want to have honours loaded on me. I want to be free and keep my spirit open. If you gradually acquire all this baggage and honour, it inhibits you moving forward. I really admire the great Japanese artists who could change their name three times in a lifetime. You could get rid of one and renew yourself."

Despite operating under the same name, renewing himself has never seemed a problem. His three major projects over the past year have been in three different forms: film, theatre and a collection of poems, all in verse of course. His adaptation of the medieval Mystery plays, first staged between 1977 and 1985, is on at the (Royal) National Theatre until May. His verse film version of Aeschylus's Prometheus was released last year. It is a powerful and hugely imaginative work but, although well received, had only limited distribution. Most recent has been Laureate's Block, a collection of occasional poems including republican verses. It also includes the poems written in Bosnia, and some touching verses to his schizophrenic son, to a dying friend, and to his mistress.

The bad reviews have been vicious. Harrison's increasingly direct approach to his verse has not been universally popular. Robert Potts, reviewing it for this paper, called the collection "cloth-eared" and said it read "like a cruel parody of Tony Harrison". Simon Armitage, however, sees it differently. "His work has been moving further and further away from what you might call literature. I don't mean that pejoratively. But it has less in common with the canon of studied literature and more in common with a verse that is trying to gain an audience, rather than what might be called a readership.

"I was taken aback because it was so upfront. I don't know whether it's a bold thing or a bonkers thing. My assumption is that he knows what he is doing. If you look at the earlier work, it is far more complicated and challenging. These poems are like Lowry paintings. It's difficult to tell if they are naïve, or faux naif or just brick-built or what. But he has such a great intellect it makes you think that the poems are strategic. I think these things are done out of choice and not senility."

The fact that he is currently on the receiving end of acclaim (The Mysteries), indifference (Prometheus) and hostility (Laureate's Block) doesn't seem to surprise Harrison. "You get early inoculation against the idea of success if you're a poet," he says. "When I published my first collection of sonnets I sold about five copies, now kids study them for A level. Wanting to be successful in that other world of money or fame is not interesting. Poetry isn't like that and it never has been.

"There's something wonderful about having that as the centre of your life, which is untouchable and incorruptible. And I'm not starving. I just want to do the work I want to do. But that can become harder. People say, 'you can do anything you want'. So you tell them what you want and they say that's not quite what they had in mind."

Harrison has been confounding expectations of what people had in mind for him all his life. The story of how the baker's son from Leeds went to grammar school and became a classicist, and what that meant for him, for the people he left behind and his take on the world at large, has been the starting point for much of his subsequent work.

He was born in 1937, the first child of Harry and Florrie Harrison. He has one younger sister. Even at primary school he remembers himself "ravenous" for knowledge, and he won a place at Leeds Grammar School and then went on to Leeds University. There is an explanation of where his interest and talent came from in the poem Heredity: "How you became a poet's a mystery/ Wherever did you get your talent from?/ I say: I had two uncles; Joe and Harry-/ One was a stammerer, the other dumb."

"Out of that atmosphere of inarticulation came my ravenousness for articulation, for language," he explains. "I wanted to learn Latin and Greek and become a poet and acquire power over language. I only understand this clearly in retrospect, that my ability to study came from a hunger to learn all the resources of articulation."

He remembers his parents being nervous about his academic success. "They felt if you're launched on a path of education, it would take you completely away from them, and it does. I was one of the few people from south Leeds at the school and they were very shy about things like meeting people. Maybe there was some resentment too. They were told I'd be a professor when I was 20-odd and stuff like that."

Harrison has written extensively about his parents - v. was sparked by obscene graffiti on their headstone in a Leeds cemetery - but says that he only found the right voice to address them after they were dead. "The shock of their death made me find that. My mother hated my early poems. I didn't give her The Loiners [his sexually and emotionally explicit collection, published in 1970] because I knew she would find it upsetting. A friend got a copy from the library and said to her 'look what I've found by your Tony'. She was shocked. She didn't really learn to accept that I was going to be a writer until she came to the National and saw my adaptation of The Misanthrope in 1973. Laurence Olivier gave her a big kiss and said 'how proud you must be of your little boy.'"

Although his parents never saw the poems he wrote about them, they are still included in his audience. "I'm a total atheist but I do write things for them. For quite a long time I didn't do justice to my father. He's this rather curmud geonly, hostile presence in some of the earlier pieces. But I have done a poem more recently about him spending days decorating a wedding cake and then it being immediately cut up and eaten. And he had no feeling that that was a tragedy. I think I learned something about how you give your art through that gesture, but I was very late in coming to that realisation."

Harrison's most anthologised poem, "Them & [uz]", comes out of his time at Leeds Grammar where he recalls not being allowed to recite Keats because of his accent. Its bold declaration, "We'll occupy/your lousy leasehold Poetry", and revelation that in Wordsworth "matter/water are full rhymes" set the tone for his future assault on the cultural barriers that divide the classes.

At university he took part in a revue show written by a fellow student, the writer and comedian Barry Cryer. "In one show everyone had to dress up in very smart dinner jackets and all that," recalls Cryer. "We had to forcibly hold Tony down and apply Brylcreem to his hair. It infuriated him." Another university friend and fellow member of Cryer's revue was the Nobel prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka. It was his friendship with Soyinka that contributed to him taking a post in the English department at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria in 1962.

Harrison had married his first wife Rosemarie in 1960. Their daughter, Jane, was born the year they moved to Nigeria and their son, Max, the following year. He has three grandchildren. His first collection of poems, Earthworks, was published in 1964, and he and the Irish poet James Simmons, also at the university, worked together on Akin Mahta, a Nigerian version of Aristophanes's comedy Lysistrata, incorporating African music and dance. Works for stage and page have continued in tandem ever since.

After four years, Harrison moved to Prague, partly because his wife's family lived in East Germany - her father had been a communist under Hitler - and Czechoslovakia was one of the few places where the whole family could meet. The city's vibrant theatrical life also fed the development of Harrison's drama. "I went to theatre every day for 18 months. It was fantastic, a really important part of my life. With the official media being censored, in something like Shakespeare you got productions of intense power, and people reading them in terms of news about today from the past. It gave me the sense of the power of what you could unlock from a play from the past."

The other influence on his theatrical ideas was the variety shows he saw as child in Leeds. "Music hall was my diet and I think a lot of my work has been a serious metamorphosis of things I saw as a child. It was quite hard to think about verse drama when I started out. It was Eliot and Fry, which I didn't like. I thought they ruined verse drama. But the verse of musicals and of pantomime was wonderful. I remember men playing women and women playing men speaking in verse, and I think those experiences go quite deep."

Richard Eyre says Harrison has not been yoked to the usual list of great British dramatists because he has chosen to write exclusively in verse. "Which ironically is the great British tradition, with the greatest British dramatist Shakespeare. Tony is saying here is a medium, verse drama, which has incredible vigour, which uses the source of rhythmic language to distil and provide a pulse for dramatic action. It is a conscious choice for him as it was for Shakespeare."

By the time Harrison returned home from Prague in 1967 he was determined not to end up teaching in England and decided "to venture everything on being a poet. It had to be a real job, like my father's." And so began his policy of "it's all verse," as he started to work as much for the stage as for the page. The success of his adaptation of Molière's The Misanthrope was his big break at the National Theatre, followed by his adaptation of The Oresteia and then The Mysteries.

Eyre places his 1990 play, The Trackers Of Oxyrhynchus - in which satyrs with giant phalluses clog dance - among the five most imaginative pieces of drama in the 90s. Jocelyn Herbert, doyenne of British theatre design and a long-time Harrison collaborator, acknowledges that his ideas are intrinsically dramatic. "The idea of satyrs jumping out of boxes in Trackers is wonderful for the stage. Some writers just write and have little idea what it will look like, but Tony always knows exactly what he wants."

He also knows exactly what it should sound like. The Yorkshire actor Barrie Rutter has featured in many Harrison productions. He recalls a time when the accepted wisdom was that "Rutter couldn't play kings, because of my accent. And here was Harrison writing the greatest drama for voices like mine. He showed that high art needn't be appropriated by received pronunciation. His stuff is tremendous material for an actor, and I love to rock'n'roll on his language. He is very actor conscious and his speeches work every faculty."

Harrison's poems began to become increasingly direct and simple when he realised his own parents couldn't understand his work. From the time of v. in 1985 he set out on a new route. "He doesn't distinguish between the lyric, the narrative and the dramatic work," says critic Sandie Byrne. "He illustrates how we shouldn't expect poetry to be homogenous and consistent. It is a wonderfully flexible medium. Sometimes he writes lines of stonking doggerel and that is intentional. The sheer audacity of the bad rhyme is part of the poem. His early works are highly finished and have obviously been through a number of drafts, but things like the Bosnia reportage poems were written at speed. It would almost be an insult to their subject matter for them to be polished in the same way."

The critic Neil Corcoran is more wary. "I'm not entirely negative about Tony Harrison," he says. "In his earlier work there's an enormous amount of energy and exuberance. There are lots of ingenious little anecdotes and historical vignettes which are often the instruments of class antagonism and venom. This exuberance makes many of these lyrics very dramatic, especially in his own readings. But I think there's a danger in that. The poems can seem too much merely a performance, with insufficient inwardness and subtlety to sustain repeated readings. Perhaps that element comes to predominate in some of the more recent work, much of which is conceived in a theatrical or cinematic context."

Corcoran argues that it can be hard to differentiate necessary antagonism to a repressive class system from self-admiration. "That's to say, the poet celebrating his own triumph in adversity. And this is particularly the case when this theme is repeated as often as it is in Harrison. To my mind, some of what he does in this regard is done with greater complexity by poets such as Douglas Dunn or Seamus Heaney - who, it should be said, are nevertheless both admirers."

When his name was trotted out in relation to the poet laureateship after Ted Hughes's death, he thought his refusal to be considered was a statement of the obvious. "Anyone who read my poetry would know that I was the most unlikely person. But people know me as a public poet and thought I was an obvious candidate. I think I was even on the list the time before. People would say we want somebody serious. And I'd say it's not a serious position."

The fall-out from his refusal was as much personal as literary, and included some unwelcome tabloid scrutiny of his own love life. He and Rosemarie had been divorced in the late 70s and Harrison had married the Greek soprano Teresa Stratas in 1984 after meeting her some years earlier when he adapted the libretto to Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride for the Met in New York. In Laureate's Block he referred to both Stratas and his long-term girlfriend, the actress Sian Thomas.

"Anybody who knows me knows I've been with this woman for years," he says. "It's not new. But the papers hounded both Sian and my wife. It was revolting." For all the self-revelatory material in his poetry, particularly in the ongoing sonnet sequence, "From the School of Eloquence", Harrison says he is "not somebody who can easily share personal things with people in conversation. But if I get the poem right there's no embarrassment about sharing it. It's not a simple thing of saying I have this feeling and I've got to get it into this book. You actually discover what the feeling is by writing the poem. Things like rhyme and meter are instruments of discovery. It's like water is used by a potter to keep the clay malleable."

But he acknowledges that while he can articulate his feelings in verse, that in itself doesn't change the source of pain. These lines were written to his son:

I never pray; I scorn religious quacks
but do things I despise, for my son, Max,
out of unbearable panic at his pain:
like light a candle in a church in

"These poems, like the ones I wrote for my friend Jonathan Silver who was dying, do raise the question as to what does poetry help. It doesn't stop the person from dying. The poems become a kind of looking for fullness and celebration in the darkest situations."

Harrison has been able to utilise his own periodic descents into darkness - into depression - as another instrument of discovery. "It's part of my nature to be dark and I bask in it. I absorb it and I use it. And then I have sort of manic weeks and I finish everything.

"Death gives us all our appetite. Eros and Thanatos. The idea of death gives us our sexual impulse. It's not a canceller of appetite, it's an enhancer. If you really are aware of it, then it gives you an immense capacity for living in the here and now. Feeling your sorrows to the full, as well as your joy. And most people have more sorrows than joys."

Richard Eyre recalls Harrison treating his actors backstage to a sip of champagne from a 2,000-year-old Greek cup before they went on. "He's the only writer I know who would do something like that. He does have a terrific appetite for the taste of life. And that includes the taste of melancholy; he is a melancholic, not a depressive. He did once say to me that if he couldn't write he would go mad. He has a sense of a soul within him that is fighting for expression and if it didn't legitimise its expression through art would dissolve into madness."

Over the past decade or so Harrison's art has been increasingly visual, and he is the first poet since Betjeman to establish a regular niche with his verse films. They started in 1987 when he wrote In Loving Memory, four television films about cemeteries. Next was Blasphemers' Banquet in which he placed himself at the table with Voltaire, Omar Khayyám, Byron, Molière and Salman Rushdie. Black Daisies For The Bride was his study of Alzheimer's sufferers. He started to direct with his film about economic migrants from Kazakhstan selling tatty Soviet memorabilia in a street market in Athens, and followed it with The Shadow Of Hiroshima, which marked the 50th anniversary of VJ Day.

With Prometheus, the story of the titan who stole fire and made the gods' world ours, he follows Shelley in seeing it as an example of class warfare, with Zeus and his henchman Hermes agents of capitalism, and Prometheus a reminder of socialist idealism. His anger at Zeus is deeply personal. On some level he inhabits the classical world as part of his daily life.

His contempt for Roman theatre is visceral. "I loathed the way the Romans adapted almost every ancient Greek theatre into a killing place. Even the great theatre of Dionysus in Athens has marble slabs which are clearly blood-guards so that people in the front row didn't get splashed. For the Greeks, when something terrible happens a messenger would come on and tell you about it in spellbinding language. The ear goes much closer than the eye would ever accept. Their masks always had the eyes and mouth open.

"But the Romans used to get prisoners out of the prison, dress them up as Hercules and literally burn them. It was snuff theatre. It was an expression of power to kill 100 rare ostriches in a morning, but after the Greek theatre, it was such a failure of the imagination."

Harrison's work has been a lifelong struggle to respect the powers of imagination and make them accessible. Simon Armitage acknowledges that he has blazed a trail for many poets. "He has allowed my generation to do our own thing without having to worry too much about where we come from and what accents we've got. Trying to write in a way that's representative of our voices was a pitched battle for him."

And what of Harrison's own perception of his legacy? "Well, like anyone, I hope the people who knew me will talk about me over a bottle of wine after I've gone. But what I'm proud of is that I can read poems about my parents in Leeds or Bradford, and men especially are suddenly sobbing in the audience. That a short poem has touched them that deeply and brings that kind of response is better than a rave review.

"But I always feel, especially in my fallow periods, that I don't recognise this monster who finishes my work with such intensity. It's like Rumplestiltskin coming in and turning all the straw into gold and then going away again. I've done poems for the page, the stage, the opera house, television, film and newspapers. It's all one work. You know, maybe the life is really about dodging about to achieve moments where the work can happen. And often you fuck up your life in order to get that moment. But that's the way it can be when the muses have your telephone number."

Life at a glance: Tony Harrison

Born: Leeds, April 30 1937.

Education: Cross Flatts county primary school; Leeds grammar school; Leeds University.

Family: Married Rosemarie Crossfield 1960 (one son, one daughter), marriage dissolved; married Teresa Stratas 1984.

Teaching: English lecturer, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria 1962-66; Charles University, Prague 1966-67.

Some poetry: Earthworks 1964; Newcastle Is Peru 1969; The Loiners 1970; Palladas 1975; From the School of Eloquence 1978; v.1985; Selected Poems 1987; A Cold Coming 1991; Laureate's Block 2000.

Theatre: Akin Mahta 1966; The Misanthrope 1973; Phaedra Britannica 1975; Bow Down 1977; The Oresteia 1981; Yan Tan Tethera1983; The Mysteries 1985; The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus 1990; The Kaisers of Carnuntum 1995; The Prince's Play 1996.

Some film: Blasphemers' Banquet 1989;Prometheus 1999.




Simon Armitage on Tony Harrison

I was watching telly during the afternoon, so I must have been bored or on holiday or ill. There was a man in a pub reading poems from a book. The people in the bar were standing in silence, pints in their hands, gobstruck. They didn't look like people who might go to a poetry reading, they looked like people who might go to the pub. Some of them were crying. When the camera moved in on the man reading the poems, he was crying as well. He had a Yorkshire accent - Leeds, possibly - and the poems were about his parents: living with them, losing them, loving them. The programme finished but the credits didn't name him, so it was another five or six years before I realised he was Tony Harrison.

Most writers can identify a few moments in their early life that somehow pushed them into picking up a pen, even if they didn't recognise them at the time. For me, that half an hour of daytime television was one of them. When I eventually clapped eyes on the poems, read them, it dragged the memory out of its dusty box, and I heard that voice again, making cry-babies out of the blokes in the boozer. From then on Harrison became a new section on the bookshelf, not far from Hughes and Heaney.

It's a theory of mine that the more you admire a person, the less likely you are to imitate them, mainly because you know the tricks of their trade so well that blood rushes into your cheeks when you find yourself passing them off as your own. You look over your shoulder to see if they're watching, and they are. That doesn't mean I've never written a Tony Harrison poem - I have - but it was more a question of having to go through one place to arrive at another. The most genuine form of influence, I think, is a lesson in attitude or disposition, and in that sense, I have taken certain things from him. His opinion that the poet should be a poet first, last and always, is wide open to all sorts of flamboyant interpretations, but his own rendition of the notion seems to boil down to this: getting on with the thing you're best at.

In an interview last year, I asked him if he saw his films, theatre work and journalistic pieces as separate from his writing as a poet. He replied that people are always hyphenating him into film-poet, news-poet, drama-poet, etc, but he sees it all as part of the same task, the task of being a poet. "So you're not double-bar-relied then?" I asked him. He just threw back his head and laughed.

If getting on with the thing you're best at also implies a certain amount of productivity, then his output and the range of his work says it all. At sixty he strikes me as more industrious and fired-up than ever.

I've also been impressed with the way he deals with his upbringing and back-ground in his poems, and more specifically, his accent.

Some have said that Harrison writes in the way he speaks, but that isn't true. Nobody does that. What he has done is to establish a written version of his voice, a sort of acceptable presentation of West Yorkshire utterance that stops short of dialect poetry. In making the point, he spared those of us from the same region the strife of having to write in another hand and read in another tongue. Who'd have thought that some of t'most moving poems in t'language would have been composed in a form of English normally reserved for sheep-shaggers and colliers?

Not that coming after Harrison has always made for an easy life. When I first got involved with writing for film, a lot of producers I met had an understanding that the poet would sit in the cutting room and knock out rhyming quatrains as the pictures sped past, or that the poet would make relevant social comment in regular metre. Some TV bosses think Harrison is to poetry what David Attenborough is to wildlife. When I sat down to begin writing a verse drama last year, it took an effort of will and a few false starts to get his theatre work out of my mind, and have the gumption to try something else.

Once people have worked with Harrison they are in his grip or under his spell - a muscle in the face twitches when you say his name. Harrison's achievements in those poetic fields have helped to create the opportunity for others, such as me, to have a go. In that situation it feels almost disloyal to do your own thing.

I was at the offices of a production company in London a couple of years ago, and mentioned his name in passing. "How strange," said the man in charge. He led me along a dark corridor and opened a small door into a cubby hole. Harrison was inside, head down, carving what might have been hieroglyphics into a notebook full of cuttings and photographs. He looked like he'd been there for weeks, chained to the table at his own request, grinding out the next project.

The last time I bumped into him was in a bar, where he was drinking rather than reading. I told him I was making a film about Leeds, in verse. He pulled a peculiar expression; I think it meant "Good luck, you'll need it", but it could as easily have been "Watch it, lad that's my patch."

COPYRIGHT 1997 New Statesman, Ltd.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group




Anger is a country Peter Reading has been colonising for years. ......[his] anger is expressed with classical clarity. Rage against the state of the nation, yes, but also rage against the darkness of death, exile and inability to show love — Helen Dunmore, The Observer (London).


Poet Peter Reading was born on 27 July 1946 in Liverpool, England. He worked as a school teacher in Liverpool (1967-8) and at Liverpool College of Art where he taught Art History (1968-70). He was Writer in Residence at Sunderland Polytechnic (1981-3) and he won a Cholmondeley Award in 1978. His collection Diplopic (1983) won the inaugural Dylan Thomas Award. Stet (1986) won the Whitbread Poetry Award and he was awarded the Lannan Award for Poetry in 1990. In 1997 he held the Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. The collection Marfan (2000) was inspired by his tenure as Lannan Foundation Writer in Residence in Marfa, Texas, in 1999. His recent collections of poetry include Faunal (2002). His Collected Poems: 1997-2003 was published in 2003. Peter Reading is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Ludlow in Shropshire.



Water and Waste   Outposts, 1970

For the Municipality's Elderly   Secker & Warburg, 1974

The Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery   Secker & Warburg, 1976

Nothing for Anyone   Secker & Warburg, 1977

Fiction   Secker & Warburg, 1979

Tom O'Bedlam's Beauties   Secker & Warburg, 1981

5 x 5 x 5 x 5 x 5   Ceolfrith Press, 1983

Diplopic   Secker & Warburg, 1983

C   Secker & Warburg, 1984

Ukelele Music   Secker & Warburg, 1985

Essential Reading   Secker & Warburg, 1986

Stet   Secker & Warburg, 1986

Final Demands   Secker & Warburg, 1988

Perduta Gente   Secker & Warburg, 1989

Shitheads   Squirrelprick Press, 1990

Three in One   Chatto & Windus, 1991

Evagatory   Chatto & Windus, 1992

Last Poems   Chatto & Windus, 1994

Collected Poems Volume 1: 1970-84   Bloodaxe, 1995

Penguin Modern Poets 3   (Mick Imlah, Glyn Maxwell, Peter Reading)   Penguin, 1995

Collected Poems Volume 2: 1985-96   Bloodaxe, 1996

Chinoiserie   Bay Press, 1997

Work in Regress   Bloodaxe, 1997

Apophthegmatic   Bay Press, 1999

Ob   Bloodaxe, 1999

Repetitions   Cleveland State University, 1999

Marfan   Bloodaxe, 2000

Faunal   Bloodaxe, 2002

Collected Poems: 1997 -2003   Bloodaxe, 2003


Prizes and awards

1978   Cholmondeley Award

1983   Dylan Thomas Award   Diplopic

1986   Whitbread Poetry Award   Stet

1990   Lannan Literary Award (Poetry)



Critical Perspective

Reading is an extremely prolific and original poet who took half a dozen books to become widely known. From the early 1980s his stance has been easy to grasp or parody 'the laureate of grot' is the usual phrase. This is apposite because when not used loosely laureate implies a classical garland and Reading applies classical Greek and Roman metres to squalid contemporary material. Arguments have long raged about his rationale for using this material. Is he an upholder of classical dignity who faces the worst and has to admit that in the teeth of modern barbarism poetry and other hi-falutin' arts are useless. Or is he, as his detractors would say, part of the problem. It is quite clear that the first line is correct 'he doesn't make it up you know', as a line in one of the poems puts it. He insists on detailing these things because they demonstrate what Hom. Sap. is capable of - not to do so would be to reduce poetry to frivolity, as his book Ukulele Music (1985) has it ('Muse, sing the grotty. Scant alternative'). Reading's work is very self-aware and self-referential and the terms in which it is discussed have usually appeared first in the poems.

Peter Reading is one of the few poets working today who uses classical metres. Often these are toyed with outrageously, words sometimes being replaced by metrical symbols; the syntax played over the metre is often fragmentary, and he rarely writes full sentences, preferring agglomerations of phrases, such as 'Crapulous death-fright at 3 in the morning, grim fantasising... / Morphean, painless, idyllic expiry, easeful, Sabaean...'.

Reading is an ornithologist and tends to look at Hom. Sap. through the long glass of evolutionary time. His work is obsessed with last things (in geological terms these probably are the last days of humankind). Just as the geologist interrogates fossils, Reading scans the shoal of textual messages humans produce for clues: tabloids, graffiti, naïve letters by uneducated people. All are documentary evidence of this strange species.

He is also much concerned with the sickness of the species. C. (1984) was all about cancer, and the oozings of failing bodies recur in his work.

Reading's books are strongly thematic and/or structurally organised, Final Demands (1988) is built around 'found' correspondence from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Ukulele Music is built on the idea that poets are plinking on their tinny little instruments whilst atrocities rage all around them.

For some time
Reading's books - a body of work which tended to write off Homo sap - themselves seemed on the verge of self-termination. 1999's book was Ob, but that was quickly followed by Marfan (2000), about Reading's sabbatical year in a redneck mid-Western US town and Untitled (2001).

Reading's latest poems give free rein to his ornithological bent, Homo sap. presumably having finally been despaired of. Reading the natural historian and Reading the classicist have always played second fiddle to Reading the Laureate of grot but this new phase is interesting. Reading wrote about tabloid atrocities because he was a thwarted celebrant of the natural world, fine wines and the serene beauty of classical Greece (not that that didn't have its grot too).

© Peter Forbes


Repeat to fade

Peter Reading has been killing himself off in his work for years, says Robert Potts. And yet his new Collected Poems shows a poet writing at a prodigious rate

Saturday December 13, 2003 The Guardian

Collected Poems: 1997-2003
by Peter Reading
319pp, Bloodaxe, £9.95

Over the past decade, Peter Reading has produced roughly a book each year, and it now seems that every so often these will automatically be bundled up into another fat Collected. (Volume two was published only seven years ago.) His patrons, the Lannan Foundation, have meanwhile assembled his own readings of these books into a mind-boggling set of 22 DVDs. A monument is being built around his still-writing figure. And this despite the fact that Reading has now spent his entire poetic life telling us that he was going to fall silent, killing himself off in his poetry time and again, rendering the typeface progressively tinier in the diminuendos that have ended so many of the books, imagining a posterity of cockroaches and subliterates to whom the texts would appear merely as strange symbols. One vision of a future catastrophe ended with "force 12s dispersing disbound Collected Works". That was in 1992. Since then there have been nine fresh volumes (three of them available only in his now thrice-bound Collected Works).

The ironic tension between this persistent production and its contrasting avowals of silence, suicide and pointlessness has inevitably slackened somewhat: the boy has cried wolf so often that it has become a catchphrase. The precedents for such an approach are ample. There's Beckett, of course, and his ne plus ultra of Breath; or John Cage, with the silent 4'33", who once remarked, "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it, and that is poetry". Reading's first collection, the pamphlet Water and Waste (1970), began with the junking of the poet's "Juvenilia", and contained the lines:

But having found love, I am left with nothing to say,
And I find, in place of Socialist leanings,
a ninety per cent misanthropy
which once expressed gains nothing by repetition.

The work that followed, though, had plenty to say: it ranged over ecological damage and ornithology; adultery, cancer, homelessness, madness, nuclear catastrophe; pastoral, farming communities, rural eccentrics; verse forms and their arbitrariness or aptness; nuclear physics and astronomy; urban violence, sectarian hatred; the mediocrity of commercial culture; translations from Dante, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, Armenian, Langland and many others. For starters.

Nor was it as "misanthropic" as it appeared: its tenor was pessimistic to the point of nihilism but, as a result, its brief epiphanies and heavily qualified sentimentalities were scarce enough to startle, and thus escaped "mawkishness" (one of Reading's favourite pejoratives). For all his protests that "it is a fucking good job/ that it all doesn't matter" (1983, but repeated in his latest poem), the books also knew that "the only thing it matters to is us", and that some things were worth our valuation - "verse, viticulture, and love", perhaps, or acts of hospitality and kindness, especially to the dismayed and dispossessed.

In its use of carefully adapted classical and foreign metrical patterns, Reading's work could also be an education in poetics for the curious reader: alcaics, alcmanics, alexandrines, elegiac couplets and many other forms, right down to the humble haiku and the odd limerick. The work also played conflicting perspectives off each other, allowing his grand canvas to represent more approaches to life than his (admittedly dominant) voice of impersonal, nihilistic despair. A tension was maintained between his respect for a tradition of technique and craftsmanship and the assertion that none of this could matter given the imminence of apocalypse (whether through war, disease, pollution or complete civil collapse: Reading has put his money on all the four horsemen at some point or other). It was no surprise to find him translating the Anglo-Saxon fragment "The Ruin". Visions of an uncomprehending posterity have figured in his work from the very beginning.

Other tensions derived from the particular governing subject of each unified collection. Reading had ceased to produce individually titled poems, and had begun to work at book length; each volume was a distinctive project, worked through, using different metres as a composer uses motifs, and employing a grimly playful self-consciousness. There were plots and subplots, forming chains of association across each book, and across his entire output, allowing for perspectives to be altered, qualified, unsettled. These books formed an extraordinary, even exemplary, corpus. Had Reading fulfilled his promise of silence a decade ago, his work would have looked eerily as if it had been plotted perfectly from Water and Waste to his faux-posthumous Last Poems (1994), and this latest Collected would not exist.

Reading's work over the past decade or so - since, arguably, Evagatory - has relied less on those unifying topics, returning to individually titled poems, and far more heavily on echoes and repetitions of his earlier work. This third Collected volume contains poems called "Reiterative" and "Repetitious". And a lot of the material is indeed reiterative and repetitious; the same events or observations served up in slightly varying cadence or language. One becomes numbed to the doom-mongering, the hypochondria, the stoic refusal of all consolation except those offered by alcohol, bird-watching and, sometimes, sex. The poet who would least like to be called "garrulous", and of whom one self-written obituary simply read "taciturnity/ his virtue", has undeniably begun to bang on a bit. Several of these lines merely state baldly (and not for the first time) that verse is pointless, inadequate, transient, vain: and all, of course, may now be found perfectly preserved on the 22-DVDs, where they will evoke frisson after frisson of déjà vu in their future listeners.

This said, the volume also displays several of Reading's great strengths. Marfan, his account of a year in small-town Texas, was once more a volume properly unified by a distinct topic (or topos); it is abundant, packed with characters, wildlife, myth, politics, history, art. Given fresh material, Reading's humour returned to the fore, in all its variety - dark, scathing, genial, witty, scabrous, self-deprecating. Although the other recent volumes had never been unintelligent, they felt tired, as if the poet had been treading water. Marfan showed what Reading's temperament could produce when given a stimulus.

As did many of the poems in Faunal, with its clear-eyed appreciations of birds and animals. Although the handling of these subjects offered no surprises (empirical description, an ostentatious refusal to moralise or intellectualise, an elegiac overtone), the execution was as assured as ever, and, for all the poems' morbidity, grief and eschatology, there was also much beauty and even a rare (if carefully disowned) moment of spiritual affirmation. In both books, Reading had raised his eyes from the writing desk and the literature of the past (including his own), and delivered his unflinching reports of the real.

The new Collected ends with some previously unpublished material, including a poem called "Civil" (previously broadcast on radio) and a final collection titled with the proofreading symbol for "delete". This gesture recalls his volume Stet (1986) and the humorous title [untitled] (2002); and its epigraph - "The marginal mark for Delete?! - / this time he is pushing his luck!" - inadvertently comes across as self-delighted.

These final pages might instead also have been titled "Repetitive" or "Reiterative", given their cheerful reprise of familiar materials with only small twists: perhaps one should applaud an eco-conscious poet for so obviously championing recycling. The last page is simply the word "I", crossed out in red, with a delete mark next to it, also in red ink, as if done by hand. One doesn't believe it, of course. It would be nice, though, if Reading could yet find other ways of surprising us: on the evidence of this volume, the jury is still out.

· Robert Potts is co-editor of Poetry Review





A Martian Sends A Postcard Home

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings

and some are treasured for their markings -

they cause the eyes to melt

or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but

sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight

and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish

like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.

It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside -

a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film

to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist

or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,

that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it

to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up

deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer

openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.

They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt

and everyone's pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,

they hide in pairs

and read about themselves -

in colour, with their eyelids shut.


In The Kalahari Desert

The sun rose like a tarnished
looking-glass to catch the sun

and flash His hot message
at the missionaries below-

Isabella and the Rev. Roger Price,
and the Helmores with a broken axle

left, two days behind, at Fever Ponds.
The wilderness was full of home:

a glinting beetle on its back
struggled like an orchestra

with Beethoven. The Hallé,
Isabella thought and hummed.

Makololo, their Zulu guide,
puzzled out the Bible, replacing

words he didn't know with
Spikenard, alabaster, Leviticus,

Manchester and Manchester.
His head reminded Mrs. Price

of her old pomander stuck with cloves,
forgotten in some pungent tallboy.

The dogs drank under the wagon
with a far away clip-clopping sound,

and Roger spat into the fire,
leaned back and watched his phlegm

like a Welsh rarebit
bubbling on the brands. . .

When Baby died, they sewed her
in a scrap of carpet and prayed,

with milk still darkening
Isabella's grubby button-through.

Makololo was sick next day
and still the Helmores didn't come.

The outspanned oxen moved away
at night in search of water,

were caught and goaded on
to Matabele water-hole--

nothing but a dark stain on the sand.
Makololo drank vinegar and died.

Back they turned for Fever Ponds
and found the Helmores on the way. . .

Until they got within a hundred yards,
the vultures bobbed and trampolined

around the bodies, then swirled
a mile above their heads

like scalded tea leaves.
The Prices buried everything--

all the tattered clothes and flesh,
Mrs. Helmore's bright chains of hair,

were wrapped in bits of calico
then given to the sliding sand.

'In the beginning was the Word'--
Roger read from Helmore's Bible

found open at
St. John.
Isabella moved her lips,

'The Word was
Shhh, shhh, the shovel said. Shhh. .




Poet and critic Craig Raine was born on 3 December 1944 in Bishop Auckland, England, and read English at Exeter College, Oxford.

He lectured at
Exeter College (1971-2), Lincoln College, Oxford, (1974-5), and Christ Church, Oxford, (1976-9), and was books editor for New Review (1977-8), editor of Quarto (1979-80), and poetry editor at the New Statesman (1981). Reviews and articles from this period are collected in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet (1990). He became poetry editor at the London publishers Faber and Faber in 1981, and became a fellow of New College, Oxford, in 1991. He gained a Cholmondeley Award in 1983 and the Sunday Times Writer of the Year Award in 1998. He is founder and editor of the literary magazine Areté.

His poetry collections include the acclaimed The Onion, Memory (1978), A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), A Free Translation (1981), Rich (1984) and History: The Home Movie (1994), an epic poem that celebrates the history of his own family and that of his wife. His libretto The Electrification of the
Soviet Union (1986) is based on The Last Summer, a novella by Boris Pasternak. Collected Poems 1978-1999 was published in 1999.

A new long poem A la recherche du temps perdu, an elegy to a former lover, and a collection of his reviews and essays, entitled In Defence of T. S. Eliot, were both published in 2000. Craig Raine lives in


The Onion, Memory   Oxford University Press, 1978

A Journey to Greece   Sycamore Press, 1979

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home   Oxford University Press, 1979

A Free Translation   Salamander, 1981

Rich   Faber and Faber, 1984

The Electrification of the Soviet Union   Faber and Faber, 1986

A Choice of Kipling's Prose   (editor)   Faber and Faber, 1987

1953: A Version of Racine's Andromaque   Faber and Faber, 1990

Haydn and the Valve Trumpet   Faber and Faber, 1990

Rudyard Kipling: Selected Poems   (editor)   Penguin, 1992

History: The Home Movie   Penguin, 1994

Change   Prospero Poets, 1995

Clay: Whereabouts Unknown   Penguin, 1996

New Writing 7   (co-editor)   Vintage, 1998

Collected Poems 1978-1999   Picador, 1999

A la recherche du temps perdu   Picador, 2000

In Defence of T. S. Eliot   Picador, 2000

 Prizes and awards

1977   The Cheltenham Prize   'Flying to Belfast'

1979   New Statesman Prudence Farmer Award   A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

1983   Cholmondeley Award

1998   Sunday Times Writer of the Year Award


Critical Perspective

Craig Raine burst on the scene fully formed as a poet, critic, and literary activist in 1978. He has been likened to Pound for assuming a ringmaster role for the poets of his generation. He would prefer to be compared to Eliot, whose job he had for ten years at Faber and whose critical rigour Raine consciously strives to emulate.

Raine's style is based on simile and an interest in visual detail. He has a painter's eye and, indeed, has written much on art for the magazine Modern Painters. His style was labelled Martian after the poem 'A Martian Send a Postcard Home' from his second book of the same name (1979) but the style was there, fully formed in the first book, The Onion, Memory (1978). The Martian style was seen in portrait poems such as 'The Ice Cream Man', 'The Gardener', and 'The Grocer' ('His cheesewire is a sun dial selling by the hour'), but a poem such as 'Insurance, Real Estate, & Powders Pharmaceutical' displays a novelistic gift for scene setting:

'Hank (with hepatitis) checks his eyeballs (topaz) in a spoon,
Eases down a (saffron) inch of milky cuff,
And dreams (Take a TRAIN - Vacation SOON!)'

The personal poems in this book effectively fuse the metaphysical conceits to human emotions;

'I noticed with a shock
The year was old
And light got bruised by
4 o'clock.'

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home was published hot on the heels of The Onion, Memory in 1979. The Martian technique is here in full flood, and proves brilliant at natural description: a hot summer's day:

'We inhale the grass

And listen with our eyes
To the long, slow raga of summer'

Rich (1984) is a transitional book. There is an autobiographical prose piece, intended to do for Raine what '91
Revere Street' did for Robert Lowell. 'Translation' is a theme, some poems being versions - of Tsvetaeva, Rimbaud, the Anglo-Saxon, others being translations only in the sense of the Martian rendering of a scene, as in 'A Free Translation', in which dinner at home is transmuted into something oriental:

'It is time to eat
The rack of pork
Which curves and sizzles

Like a permanent wave
By Hokusai'

From this point on, Raine, hitherto a minimalist, allowed himself a larger canvas. History: The Home Movie (1994) is a 300 page novel in verse, telling the story of his family and the Pasternaks, into which he married, in episodes which illuminate the history of the twentieth century.

This magnum opus was followed by a short collection, Clay: Whereabouts Unknown (1996), mostly elegiac, celebrating 'Friends...those difficult, lost masterpieces'. A longer elegy is the book length A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (2000) which chronicles a love affair. Critics are uncertain as to whether the minimalist ever succeeded in breaking out of the minimalist mode. His poetry is sometimes characterised as 'glittering beads on a string'. Certainly in the best poems, they glitter.

© Peter Forbes


Author statement

'What the poet does is as ordinary and mysterious as digesting. I question. I break life down. I impose chaos on order. For instance, we think we know how food is ingested, digested, divided into energy and excrement. The neat theory, however, is one thing; control of the process is another; consciousness of the process yet another. Are we aware of protein in the stomach being acted on by pepsin, the appropriate enzyme? Digestion, thinking and breathing are all functions we perform without knowing how we perform them. The body is a dark continent. The mind is another. So I can say very little about what I do. I accept nothing as read. I attack the pretence that we know how things work, whether they happen to be the action of saliva or sexual love from adolescence to old age.

This is John Donne on prayer, but prayer as a dissipation rather than single-minded devotion: 'a memory of yesterdays pleasures, a feare of to morrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer.' This sermon was preached in December 1626 and is still a valid prescription for the art I like - art which pays attention, which remembers, which records, which prefers what is actually true to what is merely ideal, which imposes chaos on order.'

Raine, Raine, go away

Craig Raine was
England's answer to T. S. Eliot. Well, he thought he was
Michael Hofman
Sunday December 3, 2000  The Observer

Collected Poems 1978-1999
Craig Raine

In Defence of T. S. Eliot
Craig Raine

Twenty years ago, there was no getting around Craig Raine - if you were a poet. He was prolific and visible. He formed potent alliances with other Oxford poets like James Fenton and Andrew Motion, and with novelist friends like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. His brainchild, the 'Martian' poem, known otherwise as the school of metaphor or defamiliarisation, was the only label going in a featureless English landscape demoralised by the blatant superiority of the poets of Northern Ireland: Heaney, Mahon, Longley, Paulin, Muldoon. In dingy, depressed, anxious Grub Street, Raine seemed like a flash of Madison Avenue: brash, ambitious, can-do. In 1981, he took over as poetry editor at Faber and Faber, where he stayed for 10 years. I was one of his first signings.

I can't say I read him in those days. There was no point. In the critical imagination, his fingerprints were all over 'his' Faber poets, and if you had any choice in the matter, it seemed miserable to be influenced by your editor , of all people. After suffering at first from his abrasiveness, I came to dote on him every bit as much as other poets of the time; he was a roof and a shield, a wonderful corner man and seemingly always on top form. Much the least part of him, I thought, was the poetry, which was small, mannered and barely comprehensible. In small doses, I could just about stand it, and so his most satisfactory publication, for me, was a pamphlet of six poems called A Free Translation , where the natural lightness of his effects was not crushed by architecture or intention.

Ezra Pound said that the lyric age is between 17 and 22. It doesn't mean that whatever you write after that is doomed, but that the original impulse - something of which persists - is bound up with states particular to that age: innocence and defencelessness, a foisting of your own personal chaos and personal order upon the world, an experimental raising of your voice in the void, and seeing what sound it makes, if any. Craig Raine's poetry never seemed to partake of that: I can't imagine him green. It's not a biographical point, although when his first two books came out in quick succession, he was already in his mid-thirties. But it reinforces my feeling that his writing has always been something else, and came from nowhere else: it's a knack, a recipe, a theology, a box of tricks, a mutually supportive alibi.

The proposition is that things are not as they seem. One example from millions: 'Without thinking, the giant/ puts a kettle on the octopus'; 'octopus' instead of gas hob, and 'giant' because we are in 'the great indoors'. As an expression of exuberance and gamesomeness, this kind of visual sidestepping is all very well from time to time, but as an habitual recourse I find it showy, disruptive, flippant, while as a load-bearing feature of a style and an outlook, it is completely worthless. In particular, the long poem, History: the Home Movie , that takes up half the 600 pages of these Collected Poems , strikes me as quite dreadful: a litany of insignificant and overspecified detail, sexual activity and laboured italics in between the now routine similes. It shows, if nothing else did, what a reductive and soulless commentary this type of writing is, and how repeatedly drawn to machinery and gourmandise and deformity.

However disguised, the simile recurs and recurs in Raine. It is as predictable and irritating as a commercial break; it is, literally, 'a message from our sponsor'. As an occasional corrective, it may have had something to be said in its favour; now, I find it just as limited and shopworn as the clichés of feeling and perception that Raine set out to overthrow. It is like being given nothing but fresh air to breathe, or a book peopled only by affectless killers, like Camus's Meursault, to whom Raine makes several obeisances. The surprise is not so much that Martianism - basically, a movement of one, as Jeeves is 'a stately procession of one' - failed to take off, but that Raine has found nothing better to do. Certainly, he makes me think longingly and reverently of Zbigniew Herbert, who writes of his Mr Cogito: 'He adored tautologies/ explanations/ idem per idem .'

Raine's criticism, in the second of these gargantuan volumes, serves his poetry much more than most poets' criticism does, but, in its favour, you don't have to subscribe to the greatness of the poetry to enjoy and profit from at least some of the reviews and talks (rather grandly left unspecified) collected here. His writing is always vigorous, always clear, and the quotations are always just so. In particular, he shows an enviable grasp of certain prose classics - Joyce, Dickens, Lawrence - knowing them inside out. Apart from the piece on Emily Dickinson, which flags badly, the articles are well-steered and paced. That said, it takes a certain sustained perversity to read 'In Defence of T.S. Eliot' without being reminded of the poems of the critic; that certainly seems to be the intention.

The short, vivid, arresting details and turns of phrase Raine loves to pick out - Lawrence's 'green dog-kennel', Primo Levi's 'uselessly excellent performance' (said of chewing-gum) or Joyce's version of the sound made by a cat, 'mkgnao' - are all momentary, contextless, brilliant impositions. It is easy to imagine they were all written by Raine; literature comes to seem like a huge, shattered mirror in whose shards he sees his own reflection.

Further, this collection is just as much a genealogy as the two-page genealogy in History: the Home Movie , with Eliot, Joyce and Dickens the forefathers, (the fearfully overrated) Updike the uncle, Nicholson Baker and Elizabeth Bishop the cousins; and, on the distaff side, the Russians Pasternak, Chekhov, Bulgakov and Nabokov.

As in the poetry, there is a certain levelling tendency at work in the criticism. On the basis of references to Shakespeare and the Bible, Frost is called a modernist and Kipling is compared to Pound. (To a vision where everything is something else anyway, the singularity and quiddity of a writer is liable to disappear.) For all the Russians in it, it is almost wholly English in its sympathies and has little feeling for other literatures: a piece ostensibly devoted to translation ends up by crowing that 'fuck' and 'stop' are pretty universally understood. There is a school prize-day atmosphere overhanging the whole thing, pomposity and cleverness in smelly socks: 'indisputably poetry of a high order'; 'well worth the Nobel Prize'; 'an honourable proxime accessit '.

I can't end without mentioning a repellent and inept attack on Joseph Brodsky for being, of all things, a careerist (which Raine, from Oxford, his Akademgorod, must know a thing or two about), and in his ringingly nonsensical conclusion, 'a nervous, world-class mediocrity'. He ought to feel ashamed of himself, though there's not much chance of that.

Dismembering Kitty

Robert Potts cringes at Craig Raine's bathetic elegy, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu
Saturday July 15, 2000 The Guardian

A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: A Poem
Craig Raine  

It takes a formidable arrogance to publish a book of only 40 pages under the title A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, but Craig Raine has always displayed the necessary qualities for such a task. This slim volume, an elegy for a lover, Kitty Mrosovsky, who died of Aids, comes readily adorned with dust-jacket quotes suggesting that Raine can now be ranked alongside Auden, Berryman, Browning and Conrad.

Ian McEwan (himself, surely, mentioned in the text: "our mutual friends/ the Martins, Julians and Ians") provides one of them. Raine's poem cites Conrad's statement that the author should aim to "make you hear, to make you feel...// above all, to make you see". McEwan says that Raine has done this. So does Raine. And certainly, in what Talk magazine considers "one of the great long poems written in English this century", we do indeed see something; even if it is only that "all publishing was corrupt and nasty/ and I should know". The poem was, in fact, first published in Talk and republished in Arete, a magazine edited by... Craig Raine.

All this puff and fluff, though, is merely a welcome distraction from the work itself. Raine, grieving for his lover, and a little worried that she might have left him something more viral than memories, proceeds to reconstruct her in poetry. It's a traditional approach, and his chosen form (uneven and off-rhymed couplets) is not exactly innovative.

Raine has apparently remarked that his poem "remakes what the elegy might be in English". We can be charitable here, and assume that he is joking. There has been no shortage of elegy in contemporary poetry - Thom Gunn's The Man With Night Sweats and Paul Muldoon's "Incantata" stand out in recent years - and though the blurb-writers think reconstructing lost love is a novel manoeuvre, it is not.

Love and grief are obsessive states; writing is, inevitably, a therapeutic process for dealing with loss. The big question is always why the private process should be made public; traditionally, the answer has been that love and grief are such common states that readers will be able to match the poet's consolations with their own. Most poets now address these issues within their writing (Peter Reading: "others' bereavements don't marvel readers... and it's pathetic and mad to address yourself to the dead"; Stephen Romer: "Am I changed or not, if I tell this tale?"). Raine does at one point ask "What has all this to do with anyone else?/ Why all these intimate details?", but the question is rhetorical at best; there is no serious attempt to grapple with it thereafter.

Instead, after an itemisation, throughout the poem, of her body hair (20 chin hairs, nine around the nipples), breasts (large ones, "melons"), eyes (green), legs (shaven; "sleek and sexual as stripped twigs", which surely means not sexual at all), cheekbones ("high"), hair ("dark, brown, fine") and "bush" ("black, smoking"- smoking?), he concludes: "And now I have re-membered you." But poetically, he has precisely dismembered her in a series of synechdoches, the efficient and reductive trope of pornography.

What have been reconstructed are Raine's extremely mixed feelings about a woman whose work he seems not to have liked, whose musical ear was dodgy, who "fucked everyone", whose "cunt" and "arsehole" receive more attention in his poem than her face and who was - a breathtaking accusation from Raine - "a literary snob".

The rest of the poem comprises Raine's memories of the affair - times, places, restaurants, even his own witticisms ("you laughed at my joke", he recalls happily) - rendered in couplets which are occasionally vivid or clever, but more often descend into banality or bathos ("I can't accept you're dead./ You're still here, in my head"; "Had been taught Sidney (not Wyatt)/ by 'the writer, Antonia Byatt' ").

Half-rhymed irregular couplets can be a remarkably effective vehicle for combining narrative and reflection: Stephen Romer's Idols, about the process of grief and writing after a love affair, is a truly fine example of this, while its allusions to art and literature are worked into the architecture of the volume rather than merely furnishing it. Raine, a writer who first gained attention with the overtly contrived metaphors of A Martian Sends A Postcard Home, is surprisingly flat in this poem, which periodically seems to aspire to prose.

"Details that make the reader cringe /will make the reader see,/ see the self you showed to me", Raine writes. But it is not the details that make the reader cringe, so much as the execution. Poor Kitty Mrosovsky, hectored post mortem by a self-regarding Raine, unable to answer back; poor readers, witnessing this, lectured at obliquely. In his descriptions of what seems to have been, by and large, some less than excellent intercourse, he says "You taught me sex/ was conversation and not a speech". This, one suspects, is a lesson the implications of which Raine has not quite mastered yet.