Nationality: British. Born: Leeds, Yorkshire, 30 April 1937. Education: Cross Flatts County Primary, Leeds, 1942–48; Leeds Grammar School, 1948–55; University of Leeds, 1955–60, B.A. in classics 1958, postgraduate diploma in linguistics. Family: Married 1) Rosemarie Crossfield in 1962, one daughter and one son; 2) Teresa Stratas in 1984. Career: Schoolmaster, Dewsbury, Yorkshire, 1960–62; lecturer in English, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Northern Nigeria, 1962–66, and Charles University, Prague, 1966–67; editor, with Jon Silkin and Ken Smith, Stand, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1968–69; resident dramatist, National Theatre, London, 1977–79. U.K.-U.S. Bi-Centennial Fellow, New York, 1979–80. President, Classical Association of Great Britain, 1987–88. Awards: Northern Arts fellowship, 1967, 1976; Cholmondeley award, 1969; Unesco fellowship, 1969; Faber memorial award, 1972; Gregynog fellowship, 1973; U.S. Bicentennial fellowship, 1979; European Poetry translation prize, 1983; Whitbread prize for poetry, 1993, for The Gaze of the Gorgon; William Heinemann prize, 1996, for Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984. Agent: Gordon Dickerson, 2, Crescent Grove, London SW4 7AM, England.
Earthworks. Leeds, Northern House, 1964.
Newcastle Is Peru. Newcastle upon Tyne, Eagle Press, 1969.
The Loiners. London, London Magazine Editions, 1970.
Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 4, with others, edited by Jeremy Robson. London, Corgi, 1971.
Ten Poems from the School of Eloquence. London, Rex Collings, 1976.
From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems. London, Rex Collings, 1978.
Looking Up, with Phillip Sharpe. West Malvern, Worcestershire, Migrant Press, 1979.
Continuous: 50 Sonnets from the School of Eloquence. London, Rex Collings, 1981.
A Kumquat for John Keats. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1981.
U.S. Martial. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1981.
Selected Poems. London, Viking Press, 1984.
The Fire-Gap: A Poem with Two Tails. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1985.
V. (single poem). Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1985; with press articles, 1989.
Anno 42. N.p., Michael C. Caine, 1987.
Ten Sonnets from the School of Eloquence. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1987.
V. and Other Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 1989.
A Cold Coming (Gulf War poems). Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1991.
Laureate's Block and Other Occasional Poems. London, Penguin, 2000.
Aikin Mata, with James Simmons, adaptation of Lysistrata by Aristophanes (produced Zaria, Nigeria, 1965). Ibadan, Oxford University Press, 1965.
The Misanthrope, adaptation of a play by Moléire (produced London, 1973; Washington, D.C., and New York, 197). London, Rex Collings, 1973; New York, Third Press, 1975.
Phaedra Britannica, adaptation of a play by Racine (produced London, 1975; New York, 1988). London, Rex Collings, 1975.
Bow Down, music by Harrison Birtwistle (produced London, 1977). London, Rex Collings, 1977.
The Passion, from the York Mystery Plays (produced London, 1977). London, Rex Collings, 1977.
The Bartered Bride, adaptation of an opera by Sabina, music by Smetana (produced New York, 1978). New York, Schirmer, 1978; in Dramatic Verse, 1985.
The Oresteia, music by Harrison Birtwistle, adaptation of the plays by Aeschylus (produced London, 1981). London, Rex Collings, 1981.
Yan Tan Tethera, music by Harrison Birtwistle (produced London, 1983).
The Big H, music by Dominic Muldowney (televised, 1984). Included in Dramatic Verse, 1985.
Dramatic Verse 1973–1985 (includes The Misanthrope, The Bartered Bride, Phaedra Britannica, Bow Down, Medea: A Sex-War Opera, The Big H). Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1985; as Theatre Works 1973–1985, London, Penguin, 1986.
The Mysteries, adaptation of the Medieval Mystery Plays (produced London, 1985). London, Faber, 1985.
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus: The Delphi Text 1988, adaptation of a play by Sophocles (produced Delphi, 1988; London, 1990). London, Faber, 1990.
The Common Chorus. London, Faber, 1992.
Square Rounds (produced London, 1992). London, Faber, 1992.
Poetry or Bust (produced Saltaire, Salt Estates, 1993). London, Faber, 1996.
The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems (television play). London, Faber, 1995.
The Prince's Play, adaptation of a play by Victor Hugo (produced London, 1996). London, Faber, 1996.
Prometheus (screenplay). London, Faber, 1998.
Screenplay: Prometheus, 1998.
Television Plays: The Big H, music by Dominic Muldowney, 1984; Loving Memory series, 1987; The Blasphemers' Banquet, 1989; The Gaze of the Gorgon, 1992; Black Daisies for the Bride, 1993; A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan, 1994; The Shadow of Hiroshima, 1995.
Translator, Poems, by Palladas. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1975.*
Bibliography: Tony Harrison: A Bibliography 1957–1987 by John R. Kaiser, London, Mansell, 1989.
Manuscript Collections: University of Newcastle upon Tyne; Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society.
Critical Studies: Essays on Tony Harrison edited by Neil Astley, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990; Orpheus with His Lute: Poetry & the Renewal of Life by Elizabeth Henry, Bristol, Bristol Classical Press, 1992; Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage by Marianne McDonald, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992; A Theatre Workbook by Cathy Courtney, London, Art Books International, 1993; "Home-Made Englands: History and Nostalgia in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison" by David Gervais, in In Black and Gold: Continguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C.C. Barfoot, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1994; "Repetition and Parallelism in Tony Harrison's Poetry" by Hans Osterwalder, in Repetition, edited by Andreas Fischer, Tubingen, Narr, 1994; "Tony Harrison and the Poetry of Leeds" by Raymond Hargreaves, in Poetry in the British Isles: Non-Metropolitan Perspectives, edited by Hans-Werner Ludwig and Lothar Fietz, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1995; "The Poet and the Geldshark: War and the Theatre of Tony Harrison" by Carol Chillington-Rutter, in Acts of War: The Representation of Military Conflict on the British Stage and Television since 1945, edited by Tony Howard and John Stokes, Hants, England, Scolar, 1996; "Poetic Subjects: Tony Harrison and Peter Reading" by Neil Roberts, in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997; Tony Harrison: Loiner edited by Sandie Byrne, Oxford, England, Clarendon, 1997, and H, v. and O: The Poetry of Tony Harrison by Byrne, Manchester, England, Manchester University Press, 1998.* * *
Tony Harrison is very much his own man in contemporary British poetry, having little in common with any recognizable school or movement. This detachment is reflected in the fact that he has usually been published by small or out-of-the-way presses. It is reflected more integrally, however, in his subject matter, which has consistently had to do with the tensions and pressures of having been born into the northern English working class but then having been educated away from that life by a university degree in classics, the most deeply traditional and conservative of all English liberal educations. The desire to speak in poetry for those who have had no voice in literature for themselves informs a great deal of Harrison's work. He goes to sources in the history of Europe for exemplary instances of power and political and religious oppression, as in his terrifying poem on the Inquisition, "The Nuptial Torches," a monologue by Queen Isabella. He derives a kind of aesthetic, and certainly a rationale, from the way such things are central in his conception of his own family:
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.
As these lines suggest, Harrison's material necessarily makes him profoundly self-conscious about his own role as a poet. He is, in fact, more public in his writing than many poets, having worked on translations and versions for the National Theatre—notably his highly controversial version of the Oresteia—and on librettos for international opera companies. The cosmopolitan glamour of the life such work gives him, when it features in poems juxtaposed with poems on his origins, has occasionally, I think, an element of the overinsistent. The tone in which he tells us, for instance, about receiving a gift of guavas—a fruit shaped like the female pudendum—from Jane Fonda is altogether uncertain and distasteful.
In general, however, Harrison is a highly intelligent poet, very much in control of his effects. His forms are highly ingenious, and the most telling ironies in his work derive from form itself. His iambics, his couplets, his octosyllabics—when combined with Harrison's demotic and colloquial—subvert the aristocratic and bourgeois traditions that fostered them. His sixteen-line Meredithian sonnet sequence The School of Eloquence makes this plain enough. In "Turns," for instance, we read that
I thought it made me look more "working class"
(as if a bit of chequered cloth could bridge that gap!)
I did a turn in it before the glass.
My mother said: It suits you, your dad's cap.
(She preferred me to wear suits and part my hair:
You're every bit as good as that lot are!)
All the pension crew came out to stare.
Dad was sprawled beside the postbox (still VR),
his cap turned inside up beside his head,
smudged H A H in purple Indian ink
and Brylcreem slicks displayed so folk might think
he wanted charity for dropping dead.
He never begged. For nowt! Death's reticence
Crowns his life's, and me, I'm opening my trap
to busk the class that broke him for the pence
that splash like brackish tears into our cap.
The plangency here, as in many poems in the sequence, runs the severe risk of mawkishness. Christopher Reid has suggested that the mawkishness may be deliberate, that it is a sort of awkwardness of emotion to parallel the undoubted awkwardnesses of rhythm and metaphor in the sequence—both dedicated to revising the middle-class reader's notions of the poetically acceptable. This may be true. There is certainly the sense that the poem has earned its plangencies, and the familiar tenderness is close to class despair, admitting that anything subversive in Harrison must do battle with every poet's complicity, in some ways, with the owners of the language he uses. There remains, however, the awkward fact, an awkwardness presumably not intended, that not all of these poems are at all as effective on a second reading as they are on the first; there sometimes can seem an element of the factitious or the histrionic in them.
Perhaps the best of Harrison will, in the end, turn out to be the work in which he achieves a greater measure of release for his wit and humor, his sensuousness, and his delighted eroticism, such as, for instance, the long poem in couplets A Kumquat for John Keats. Despite my own reservations about the procedures of some poems in The School of Eloquence, there is no doubt that Harrison is one of the most important and challenging poets writing in English. He is one of the few whose every new poem can be awaited with real expectation.