Tony Harrison #

Tony Harrison is an English poet from Leeds, a singular and unique voice whose existence somehow remained unknown to me until relatively recently. I’ve lately been working hard to rectify this error, reading Harrison’s poems voraciously1 and being inspired, moved and delighted by almost all of them. If you haven’t met the man’s words before, maybe read a couple of the poems below before continuing.

  • Marked with D
  • Long Distance I, II
  • Turns
  • Initial Illumination

There’s something about Harrison’s meter that gets me I think. It flows off the tongue in such a specific way, and his style and the feel of his poems is very specific to him. I’ve never read poems like these before, where the image is writ large so parsimoniously, which are so clever with wordplay and rhyme, including in dialect and accent.

His poems are crystal-clear representations of how he feels about things, about memories and scenes from his life, and about people he loves or who mean something to him. For me, accomplishing this in poetry, which I would say is the most succinct and formal way of expressing oneself, is a true act of genius in art.

I’ve always really liked poems, even the ones I was forced to read in high school. I think it’s because I’ve always found it easiest to express myself in writing, and have a great understanding of why others do it, and great respect for those who do it well. I was recently visiting where I grew up (more on this in the next post), and spent a while fishing through things I wrote when I was a kid. It’s really powerful to find these snapshots of who you used to be. The amber of the written word has preserved you, who you were in the past. Of course none of my angsty ramblings or weird childish fantasy fiction comes close to being described as poetry. But it doesn’t matter: it’s written down, and writing things down is the first step towards getting them out of your mind and creating a written snapshot of an idea, or a scene, or a feeling.

To do it well takes a lifetime of devotion I think, which it goes without saying is the key part I am personally missing. It certainly seems from reading Harrison that poetry and a devotion to the word has formed the backbone of his life. You can see it by the range of experiences, memories and set pieces of his life which feature in his work: his childhood in Leeds, his formative years growing up in a working class family while devoting himself to the creative arts, his parents and friends. His father in particular looms large in his poems, at once a fearful and a pathetic figure, a symbol both of the world he left behind for a better one, of of the world he never fit into in the first place.

And that’s when poems take on a life of their own. When I read Harrison I see the glimpse of his life that he is so graciously encapsulating for me, but I also see glimpses of my own, thanks to my human tendency for comparison and analogy. In the moment of reading and experiencing the poem, it feels like the poet is telling me something about myself, and about my life, something I wasn’t able to see for myself.

  1. A nice surprise: I bought myself his collected works, and when the delivery came and my wife saw it, she laughed and told me she’d ordered me exactly the same book for my birthday. I gave the second copy to an old friend. ↩︎