Three decades on, Tony Harrison's angry but exquisite poetry still has the power to chill
Had you been listening to Radio 4 one evening a few weeks ago, you would have been transported back to the mid-80s, as you heard Tony Harrison reading, in full, his most famous poem, "v". What has dated from it? I suppose, or hope, there is less racial tension in Leeds now, and that gravestones aren't quite so routinely defiled (for one thing, LUFC's fans are now acclimatised to enraging despair). But there are lines in it that still chill: when the skinhead whom Harrison is sparring with notes how the gravestones he's spraypainting with obscenities all refer to the jobs the dead once had, he says "When dole-wallahs fuck off to the void / what'll t'mason carve up for their jobs? / The cunts who lieth 'ere wor unemployed?"
That hasn't changed, not really: and "call-centre worker" isn't something you'd want on your gravestone either, as my own experience has taught me. In "Divisions", a kind of throat-clearing rehearsal for "v", published in the collection The School of Eloquence in 1981, he sees the same tattooed "dole-wallah's and says "but most I hope for jobs for all of you" – it took less than four years for that hope to disappear.
The joke, both grim and fruitful, is, of course, that Harrison writes in exquisitely metred rhyme, in verse that has obviously had a great deal of care taken over it to make it look artless. That's a pun Harrison relishes: he worries whether his fluency is heartless – say it in a Yorkshire accent – and he has, for most of his career, been agonising over the gap between his parents', and his people's, education and his own. He is always wondering aloud whether he is disgracing the memory of his parents by doing what he does for a living, and by "always" I mean not only in his poetry but in interviews.
This could in itself become something of a bore, an act of perverse self-aggrandisement, like one of Monty Python's Yorkshiremen, but Harrison's eloquence is itself so master-craftsmanlike that all objections are blown away. Look at the final couplet of "Self-Justification", the poem that precedes "Divisions". Recalling the jeers of the boys who thought liking poetry made him a cissy – and also recalling his stammerer Uncle Joe, who could set type faster than he spoke, he writes (and this has to be transcribed exactly, not with a slash for a line-ending):
aggression, struggle, loss, blank printer's ems
by which all eloquence gets justified.
That is more than just clever (printers' jargon: "justified"=line-endings aligned): that is technique, articulacy and inarticulacy coming together all at once. The gaps in the second line may also as well be the catches in the throat as you read it.
Harrison finally became properly famous, or as properly famous as a poet can be, in 1987, when the Daily Mail, on hearing that the poem was to be broadcast on Channel 4 (which, younger readers ought to know, was once an innovative and interesting TV channel), went batshit because of its bad language. The irony they missed is that their own response to Harrison's verse is one that Harrison had clearly anticipated ever since he started publishing. The paper tried to reignite the controversy when Radio 4 broadcast it again this year (after 11 pm). Thankfully, we're more grown up now; or perhaps we care less. How many, I wonder, came to know and love Harrison's work because of that paper?
Anyway, you have to have this collection on your shelves. Of living poets, only Geoffrey Hill, in my opinion, surpasses him. Harrison's Collected Poems comes in at 474 pages; this is 200 fewer. A Collected Works, on the other hand, would run to many volumes, and none of his stage or film verse is included here. Nor is an index, either of poems or first lines, which seems a trifle shabby. The cover is nice, though: it's a tree, with fruit on it. Harrison likes writing about fruit, although I'm not sure about his coinage "fruitility", in the poem of that name.