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The Inky Digit of Defiance review – Tony Harrison turns 80


The arts are never far from politics in this collection of Harrison’s prose from the past half-century, edited by Edith Hall

Thirty years ago in Greece a friend drove the poet and dramatist Tony Harrison to a village called Askri. It was a dump. Nearby was a stinking “vast, untended, smouldering pile of rubbish and old lorry tyres”. In the village itself, a local Boeotian man made a gesture that clearly meant “Why the hell have you come?” They had come, Harrison explained, because Askri was the birthplace of the ancient Boeotian poet Hesiod. After further conversation, one of the locals said they should check out the Valley of the Muses.

To get there was hard going. Wearing sandals, the tourists were led up a steep track covered in thorns. Soon their feet were cut and bleeding, but they kept walking. Eventually they reached an overgrown amphitheatre. In this ancient “Mouseion” poetry festivals had been held in honour of the Muses. Standing right at the centre of this great circular theatre space, Harrison imagined what it would be like to read poetry there, and raised his eyes to where the very back row of the audience would have sat. As he did so, the poet’s hair stood on end. He realised that he was looking straight at Mount Helicon, the Muses’ sacred mountain, and that “the spectators on the ridge” would have been “none other than the Muses” themselves. For Harrison, this situation exemplified what poetry must do: have the courage to face up to the Muses directly, without apology or excuse.

Related: Tony Harrison: still open for business

No one interested in poetry and theatre can afford to ignore this book

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