How you became a poet's a mystery! / Where did you get your talent from? / I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry - / one was a stammerer, the other dumb.- 'Heredity', Tony Harrison
About Tony Harrison
Tony Harrison is Britain’s principal film and theatre poet and has famously said “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.” He was born in Leeds in 1937, won a scholarship to Leeds grammar and read Classics at Leeds University. Harrison’s first two collections of poems The Loiners (1970) and From the School of Eloquence (1978), explore the gulf between his own class background and his education and the powerlessness of the inarticulate – in ‘National Trust’ “the tongueless man gets his land took” In an interview for the Guardian he said “I wanted to write the poetry that people like my parents might respond to.” His work demands to be read aloud, and for him rhyme and rhythm, particularly the iamb are inspired by English speech patterns and “keep[s] the connection to the heartbeat”.
Tony Harrison’s success stems from the fact that he is a classicist from the working class; a scholar seeking a mass audience. His most controversial narrative poem ‘v’, prompted by vandals desecrating his parents’ gravestones during the miner’s strike, achieved front page headlines, was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1987 and won a Royal Television Society Award. Since then, he has continued with his quest to make poetry a public art through the mediums of television and film. Among his film/poems, ‘The Shadow of Hiroshima’ (1995) was screened on Channel 4, the published text won the Heinemann Award and ‘Black Daisies’ won the Prix Italia.
In 1995, he was commissioned by The Guardian to visit Bosnia and write poems about the war. Although “doubtful, in these dark days what poems can do” (‘Initial Illumination’), Harrison once again gives a voice to the inarticulate though poetry, in what he describes as the most ceremonial form of speech. ‘A Cold Coming’ speaks up for the burned corpse of an Iraqi soldier in metrical rhyming couplets – a form that seems to keep hold of sense in such troubled times. In 2007 he was awarded the Wilfred Owen poetry award.
Hearing Tony Harrison’s own voice on this recording, the cadences and rhythms, his poems come alive in the performing of them – bringing them out from the silence of the page. He describes using meter as “like being on a trapeze but having a wire to catch you if you fall”, and it feels here as if the listener is being taken on such a journey.
This recording was made on the 19th March 2007 at the Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.
Poems by Tony Harrison
Featured in the Archive
Books by Tony Harrison
Under the Clock
Selected Poems Penguin
Collected Film Poetry
Faber & Faber, 2007
The Inky Digit of Defiance: Tony Harrison: Selected Poems
Plays 5(Contents: 'The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus')
Plays 4 (Translator; contents: 'The Oresteaia')
Plays 2 (Contents: 'The Prince's Play'; 'The Misanthrope)
Plays 1 (Contents: 'The Nativity'; 'The Passion')
Laureate's Block and Other Occasional Poems
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, The LoinersPrize website
European Poetry Translation Prize, The OresteiaPrize website
The Royal Television Society Award, VPrize website
Whitbread Poetry Award, The Gaze of the GorgonPrize website
Prix Italia (Italy), Black Daisies for the Bride (film)Prize website
Heinemann Award, The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems
Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award
Wilfred Owen Poetry Award