Nationality: British. Born: Devonshire, 9 December 1942. Family: Married to Julia Watson; two sons and one daughter by a previous marriage, one daughter by present marriage. Career: Fiction critic, Times Literary Supplement, London, 1965–73, and poetry critic, Spectator, London, 1970–73; editorial director, Arrow Books, London, 1977–79. Since 1979 editor-in-chief and director, Andre Deutsch, London. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1967; Cheltenham Festival prize, 1968; Arts Council bursary, 1969, 1983; Faber memorial award, 1978; Society of Authors travel fellowship, 1989. Agent: Jonathan Clowes Agency, 22 Prince Albert Drive, London NWI 7ST, England. Address: Andre Deutsch, 105 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LJ, England.
Tonight's Lover. London, The Review, 1968.
A Violent Country. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.
Ashridge. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1970.
After Dark. London, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Truce. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1973.
Dreams of the Dead. London, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Mister Punch. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Playback, illustrated by Ralph Steadman. London, Greenpeace, 1987.
Selected Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Storybook Hero. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1992.
News from the Front. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993.
A Bird's Idea of Flight. London, Faber, 1998.
Gawain, A Libretto. London, Universal Edition, 1991.
From an Inland Sea. London, Viking Press, 1985.
Editor, New Poetry 7. London, Hutchinson, 1981.
Editor, with Mario Susko, Savremena Britanska Poezije. Sarajevo, Writers' Union, n.d.
Editor, with Ian Hamilton, Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, and Reflections on Ian Hamilton. Manaccan, Cornwall, Cargo, 1999.
Translator, The Sorrow of Sarajevo: Poems, by Goran Simic. Manaccan, Cornwall, Cargo, 1996.
Translator, Sprinting from the Graveyard, by Goran Simic. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.*
Critical Studies: By Shaun McCarthy, in Agenda (London), 31 (2), Summer 1993; by Martyn Crucefix, in Poetry Review, 85 (1), Spring 1995.* * *
Pain, frustration, madness, and death are enduring themes in David Harsent's poetry. In A Violent Country he writes with intensity and directness, often relying heavily on descriptive detail and perhaps showing greater concern with the projection of experience than with the perfection of poetic form. Both in this volume and in After Dark many of the poems gravitate to the confessional, focusing on personal experience either directly observed (as in "Going Back" or "The Visit" in A Violent Country) or recovered through backward glances at formative childhood events (as in "Old Photographs" or "Homecoming" in After Dark).
Often Harsent's subject is women, a clearly identifiable theme in his Selected Poems, and his vehicle of expression animal imagery. For Harsent, "All we know of love /is pain and the response to pain" ("Fishbowl" in Dreams of the Dead), and tenderness is balanced with the harshness, if compassion, of his madness and death poems, sometimes by vivid juxtaposition. "A girl, I dream you as /a kind of fable: Keats, /Orlando, Abelard," for example, is set against the actuality of "a rutting beast, /mad cells, /a cup of blood" ("The Love-Match" in A Violent Country).
In the later poems of After Dark personal experience becomes anchored in landscape and places, "Figures in a Landscape," for example, ending with
Too tired to sleep and knowing of no way
to quieten you, I've walked to this cold bench.
Above the fields
mountains of purple cloud lumber through drizzle.
Between your open window and this place
the land is dark and wringing wet.
The images in the poem sequences of Dreams of the Dead are linked in a similar way, with personal experience placed in a larger perspective and events in themselves becoming less important.
The first Punch poems come in Dreams of the Dead, consolidating Harsent's move from the personal, idiosyncratic point of view to the universality of all human experience. The interest is in primitive, irrational, internalized images. Punch himself "feels so old, something primordial …" ("Punch and Judy"), and Mister Punch introduces him as Trickster, a spirit of disorder undermining and disrupting order and reality yet reinstating a sense of proportion. From poem to poem Punch progresses from his traditional dissipation, violence, and cunning ("He could taste blood /at the back of his throat"—"Punch in the Ancient World") to contemplation of "his sickness and sin" ("Punch the Anchorite") to penitence and pleas of "Virgin intercede" ("Punch at His Devotions").
Selected Poems places the archetypes Mister Punch and The Woman, as in "Windhound," for example, side by side, the real issues perhaps centering on a search for male identity in relation to The Woman. Punch tries to reconcile puer aeternus aspects of the Trickster archetype—indulging in fantasies, living out experiences for their own sake, and engaging in casual, promiscuous relationships—with aspects of the senex such as the wisdom born of experience, the exercise of judgment, and a respect for tradition. And he does so without undermining the energy, enthusiasm, and innovative skill of the puer aeternus or, indeed, of Harsent himself and his poetry. Certainly in "Punch at His Devotions" he justifies himself to the Virgin in a novel way:
Loved One, Flawless Mirror,
Tamer of Unicorns, Dove,
Star of the Sea, I enter
A plea of diminished laughter.
Harsent's style remains essentially unchanged, but his vision has enlarged considerably.