Tony Harrison – the Yorkshire poet with an ear for the heartbeat of language

Influential figure: Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison at his parents graves in Holbeck cemetery at Beeston Hill, which inspired his famous poem V.
Influential figure: Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison at his parents graves in Holbeck cemetery at Beeston Hill, which inspired his famous poem V.
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Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison celebrates his 80th birthday this month and is returning to Yorkshire for a special reading to mark the occasion. Yvette Huddleston talked to him.

It’s hard to believe now that a poem could cause so much bother. Yet thirty years ago Tony Harrison’s V was at the centre of a media storm.

The Leeds-born poet’s seminal work, about the desecration of his parents’ graves in Holbeck cemetery by football hooligans who had scrawled offensive graffiti on the headstones, was broadcast as part of a Richard Eyre film on Channel 4 in 1987.

A visceral, robust and angry piece, written during the miners’ strike, V lamented divisions in society as well as opposing forces within individuals.

It also employed a number of uncompromisingly Anglo-Saxon expletives which caused outrage in some quarters.

Tabloid newspapers, the broadcasting campaigner Mary Whitehouse and a group of Conservative MPs who attempted to prevent it being broadcast all labelled it “obscene”. There was even a debate in Parliament.

These days it is studied in schools. It is just one highlight in an extraordinarily rich and varied literary career. Poet, playwright, adapter, director, translator and filmmaker, Harrison, who is now based in Newcastle, is a man of many talents.

At the end of this month he turns 80 and he will be celebrating with a special reading back home in Yorkshire at Salts Mill. The milestone of a significant birthday might prompt some to reflect on the past and take stock but Harrison is not one for looking back.

“That is for other people to do. There is a lot going on – there is a big event at the British Academy,” he says, slightly downplaying what is actually a prestigious two-day conference taking place in London next week entitled New Light on Tony Harrison which aims to ‘illuminate previously neglected aspects of the works of one of Britain’s greatest living poets’.

It will include contributions from literary academics from all over the world as well as featuring the insights of fellow Yorkshire poet-playwrights Simon Armitage and Blake Morrison, upon whom Harrison has doubtless been a huge influence.

“I don’t like going over my past work,” he says. “I’d rather forget about it once it’s done. I prefer to think of every stage of my life as creative, I’d rather be doing something new.”

True to his word this Sunday evening, Radio Three will be broadcasting the world premiere of his new verse drama Iphigenia in Crimea, based on the Euripides play.

As a classicist, Harrison has often found inspiration in Ancient Greek works. His latest play is set in Sebastopol in 1854 during the Crimean War and tells the story of a classics-loving army lieutenant who persuades a company of British soldiers to stage an all-male production of Iphigenia in Tauris. “I found out that there were concert parties during the Crimean War and I went on a recce to the Crimea,” he says.

“It was great to go and explore.” He visited the most northerly Ancient Greek theatre, discovered in 1954, situated near Sebastopol and not far from the temple of Artemis where Iphigenia was priestess.

Harrison’s original idea was to stage the piece in the theatre itself but “for various reasons”, not least Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, that proved impossible.

“It is one of what I call my ‘kamikaze’ projects,” he says, laughing. “But I would have loved to have done the play in that ancient space...”

He is also currently working on a new poem which, he says, “has got longer than I thought it would be”, inspired by his stay in Killingbeck Hospital in East Leeds when he had scarlet fever as a young child in 1944 towards the end of the war. “I was there over Christmas,” he says.

“I remember that they used to put lists in the newspaper to let the mothers know when they should come and fetch you.”

And in May he has a new book out. The Inky Digit of Defiance, Selected Prose 1966-2016 is a selection of Harrison’s provocative prose of the last fifty years, covering several decades’ worth of thought on art and politics, creativity and mortality.

“What I like to do is to write poems, which involves a lot of sitting alone staring at the wall, and then do a project which is collaborative, working in the theatre or filming. I like to balance those, but it’s getting harder to do that,” he says.

“I wish I could go out and about filming or rehearsing with actors. What I really need now is a project like that. I have done enough sitting alone.”

He talks about a recent disappointment – a proposed television film about the Scarborough-born poet Edith Sitwell and her response to the First World War, her home town was the first in Britain to be shelled by the German navy in 1914 that he couldn’t get off the ground.

But he is not despondent, far from it. “One of the great things about getting older – and there are a lot of hard things – is that there is this wonderful stillness and a joy you can get out of everyday things. Poetry thrives on that feeling.”

He is looking forward to the reading at Salts Mill, it is a place that holds special memories for him and he knows the Silver family, who run the mill, well.

“I knew that for my birthday I wanted to do a reading in Yorkshire and the mill has been a really important part of my artistic life. There are some wonderful associations.”

There was the production of his 1990 play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus in the old wool sorting shed and his comic verse biography Poetry or Bust about the so-called Airedale Bard John Nicholson was performed at the Mill in 1993 and 2003.

Although he has a long list of achievements across a wide range of projects – stage plays, poems, films, journalism – Harrison has said in the past that he is happier being referred to simply as a poet because it covers everything he does.

“It is all poetry,” he says. And it is all unapologetically political. People are always saying ‘he spoils his poems sometimes by including political issues,” he says. “Well, life is not just about flowers and trees.”

He laughs good-naturedly and refers to Brecht’s famous comment that ‘you can’t write poems about trees when the woods are full of policemen.’

In the 1990s he tackled some complex issues head on, writing Iraq war and Bosnian war poems for the Guardian. “Politics is part of everything,” he says. “And everything can be voiced in poetry.”

He is interested in the recent resurgence in poetry, and particularly in the spoken word. “It’s good to see,” he says.

“There is a complexity that belongs to the page, but mainly I like poems that have a direct relationship to the ear. The great thing about poetry in English is the beat, an iambic pentameter sounds like a heartbeat.

“It is the metrical rhythm of spoken English that I like.

“That is why I like to listen to conversations on trains – although not so much now, people used to talk more on trains now they are all looking at screens.

“Iambic pentameters are physical and they come from the heart. It’s not about the head and the intellect it is about the body and the beat.”

Tony Harrison’s new verse drama Iphigenia in Crimea is on Radio Three at 9pm on April 23.

Harrison will be celebrating his 80th birthday with a special reading at Salt’s Mill on April 30 at 7pm, tickets, £10, on 01274 531163; his new book The Inky Digit of Defiance, published by Faber and Faber, is out on May 4.

A life in verse

Tony Harrison was born in Leeds in 1937. He attended Leeds Grammar School and the University of Leeds where he studied Classics and Linguistics.

His first full-length poetry collection The Loiners appeared in 1970.

His plays include Fram (2008), The Bartered Bride (1978), as well as adaptations of Moliere and Greek tragedies. His 1998 film Prometheus linked the Greek myth with the mining industry in Yorkshire and the concentration camps of the Second World War. The Channel 4 screening in 1987 of his poem V won a Royal Television Society Award.

He won the European Prize for Literature in 2010 and the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2015.