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Tony Harrison: still open for business

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‘I hate being called a poet/dramatist/translator/director. Poet covers it all for me.’ Stephen Moss celebrates the work of Harrison, winner of the 2015 David Cohen prize

This week Tony Harrison was awarded the David Cohen prize, a sort of literary lifetime achievement Oscar that goes only to the most gilded writers – Naipaul, Pinter, Lessing, Mantel and so on. He is very much still writing, and has a long, lyrical poem in a recent issue of the London Review of Books called “Polygons”, which chimes with the consideration of a life’s work prompted by the prize. “It’s a poem,” says Harrison, “reflective of creativity and mortality.”

It was inspired by a visit to his beloved Delphi: the decay he found there and the discovery in a Greek newspaper that his friend Seamus Heaney, with whom he’d spent time in Dephi, had died. The poem ends with Harrison back at home in Newcastle, recalling a reading, long ago, with Heaney and Ted Hughes. That he is the only one left saddens him, but the tone is defiant. He gathers figs from his garden – “I’ll freeze some for summer pudding in winter.” There is light amid the darkness, and poetry to ease the pain. “Always when cooking I go on composing. / I cook. I compose. I remember, lamenting.”

You litter poems with too much learning when you're younger

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