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Tears in a tent: rediscovering Tony Harrison's poetry


He's one of our best-loved political poets, and now that I've had a taste of his personal writing I'm desperate for more

Forget about Paul Weller or Simple Minds, Elbow or Laura Marling. A gruff Yorkshireman in his 70s held a packed tent rapt at Latitude on Saturday afternoon, despite the discordant clashes of various bands from outside. And when he finished, Tony Harrison was even chased off stage by an ardent fan. That's rock'n'roll for you.

I know of Harrison, of course: who doesn't – he's one of our best and most-loved writers, winner of armloads of prizes, and perhaps the only poet to have his poems make the front page of the Guardian. But I realised, listening to him from a damp floor in Southwold, Suffolk, that the only poetry of his I've really read is the political writing, the war poems – important and moving, obviously, but it was his personal writing that made me wipe away surreptitious tears.

Harrison started out with his war writing, talking about his return to Sarajevo, where he found a man in the market "making pens out of shell cases … like swords made into plough shares". He went on to write with one of these pens the poem Cornet and Cartridge, reflecting on his time in Sarajevo for the Guardian; he read from it, and from Initial Illumination, his own voice adding weight to his condemnation of the shift from the "Farne cormorants with catches in their beaks" who "shower fishscale confetti on the shining sea", to the image of the Gulf sea cormorant struggling in oil: "Is it open-armed at all that victory V/ that insular initial intertwined/ with slack-necked cormorants from black lacquered sea … with the fire-hailing cock and all those crowing/ who don't yet smell the dunghill at their claws?"

It's a powerful image anyway, but hearing the contempt of "dunghill" and "slack-necked" spat from Harrison's lips was disturbingly visceral, as was his reading of The Cycles of Donji Vakuf, and the child with "all his gladness gutted". "I see people tossing aside the culture sections, but everyone reads the news: poetry belongs there," he told us.

The poems he chose to share about the deaths of his parents, though, were what made me cry. And I didn't expect that, not surrounded by smelly festivalgoers, in a wet field. Book Ends, with the sadness of "she not here to tell us we're alike", Long Distance II, with its heartbreaking evocation of how his father couldn't accept his mother's death and "kept her slippers warming by the gas/ put hot water bottles her side of the bed/ and still went to renew her transport pass". And – this is what knocked me sideways – the slow, quiet ending to the poem: "I believe life ends with death, and that is all/ You haven't both gone shopping; just the same/ in my new black leather phone book there's your name/ and the disconnected number I still call."

And Marked with D, with his father's "cataracts ablaze with Heaven", and Timer: "I feel your ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs/ sift through its circle slowly, like that thing/ you used to let me watch to time the eggs."

Best of all, though, was his reading from The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, a play I didn't know but which I am now desperate to see and to read.

"Wherever in the world there is torture and pain the powerful are playing the Marsyas refrain. In every dark dungeon where blood has flowed the lyre accompanies the Marsyas Ode. Wherever the racked and the anguished cry there's always a lyre-player standing by. Some virtuoso of Apollo's ur-violin plays for the skinners as they skin."

So I'm off to get a copy of that now, and am keen to lay my hands on more Harrison, too. Looking at his bibliography, though, I feel a little overwhelmed: any thoughts as to where would be a good place to start? And any other favourite poems to point me towards?

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