“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [As] into RP
‘We say [As] not [uz] TW. “ That shut my trap.
Of course it didn’t; for which we all give thanks.
Sunday afternoon in The Leeds Library….the oldest subscription library in the UK, celebrating its 250th birthday in the most fitting way I can think of. A reading with the poetry legend from Beeston. The scholarship boy who took a long slow-burning revenge on his patronising old English teacher at Leeds Grammar School by writing two Meredithean sonnets. Them and [uz]. A rallying cry for all of us, that remind the world that [uz] can be loving as well as funny. Erudite, sophisticated and articulate, too. I set that alongside another of his lines in National trust
the tongueless man gets his land took.
Tony Harrison read with his trademark relish for the heft and texture of words; it was a Leeds event and he celebrated with lots of his poems about his mum and dad, from The school of eloquence..which are rooted in his personal history and theirs, but which speak for everyone exploited or conflicted by the class appropriations of language, literacy and education. It was joyous.
Tony Harrison. He’s the reason that I ever thought I might write poems (if not poetry). This comes with stories. In 1971 I moved to Newcastle to be a lecturer in a College of Education. When I took my children to school of a morning, there were very few men doing the same, and one of them was a striking figure..lean and handsome in an RAF greatcoat, very Dostoevskian. Eventually, I asked our Julie (5 yrs old) ‘who’s that bloke?’. ‘That’s Max Harrison’s daddy.’ ‘What’s he do, then?’ ”He doesn’t do anything. he’s a poet.’ I’ve dined out on that story, but the point is that though contemporary poetry meant absolutely nothing to me, then, I mentioned this to a colleague, who invited Harrison to come and read to our 3rd Year B.Ed English students, and so it was that I went to my first ever poetry reading.
Only about 8 students turned up that evening, so we used the staff common room, sitting in a circle of comfortable chairs, and Harrison (trademark greatcoat and all) sat on a sofa, and read. He read along with his trademark lengthy introductions to many poems. He read with a compelling intensity, flattened Leeds vowels, and exact consonants. He read from ‘Loiners’ ...(the collection that his mother had thrown on the fire and then snatched back, realising it was a library book); he read Thomas Campey and the Copernican system..the poem about the crippled bookseller in Leeds Kirkgate Market from whom a young Harrison would buy all sorts of esoteric (to me) stuff: Mommsen, Spengler, Gibbon. He read The nuptial torches and the hairs on my neck prickled as he made the flames of the auto da fe crackle in a hushed staffroom. Above all he read National Trust, which then was still a handwritten draft in his notebook, and he told the backstory of the Edale gentry lowering a prisoner from the local lock up down the shaft of a cave to find out how deep it was. It was only later I learned the craft of it, this immaculate blend of demotic English, linguistics and scholarship, and the elegance of its complex rhyme scheme..this 16 line sonnet that became another Harrison trademark. And I have never ever forgotten the last lines:
mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr / (Cornish) ‘the tongueless man gets his land took’
What Tony Harrison did that night was a revelation. Poetry could be angry, political; it could give back a voice to the tongueless, it could be passionate, it could use rhyme and structure and scholarship as a natural part of its rhetoric. It could be funny and sexy. So I was hooked. I still am. I’ve been to readings of his in big auditoria…I’ve even introduced him at one…I’ve seen him on film and on television. But nothing ever comes close to that first reading, the one that made me want to write crafted poems about, say, the struggle of 19th C industrial workers, or about a suffragette (like the one about Emily Wilding Davidson) and ultimately, because of Them and uz about MY parents, MY childhood.
My signed copy of The school of eloquence is arguably my most treasured possession (family not included). So. Thank you Tony Harrison for a Sunday afternoon and for 50 years of poetry that’s unafraid of of rhetorical passion, craftsmanship, and bursting with humanity. We’ve never needed you more.