Harrison was born into a working-class district of Leeds and was educated at a local primary school where he won a scholarship to the prestigious Leeds Grammar School. After reading classics at Leeds University, he embarked on postgraduate research into translations of the Aeneid, but abandoned academic life in order to devote himself to poetry. He has lived and worked in Africa, Prague, Cuba, the U.S., and Greece, but has made Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England his base for many years. Early poems appeared in student magazines such as Poetry and Audience, and were later taken by periodicals such as London Magazine and Stand. His first pamphlet-length publication (as “Tony W. Harrison”) was Earthworks (1964), which was followed by a pamphlet publication of his long poem Newcastle Is Peru (1969), but his first book proper was The Loiners (i.e., residents of Leeds), published in 1970, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1972. Subsequent poetry collections include From “The School of Eloquence”; (1978), Continuous (1981), v. (1985; rev. ed., 1989), A Cold Coming (1991), The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992), which won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1992, and Laureate’s Block (2000). The poetry takes many forms: more conventional lyrical, elegiac and narrative poems; humorous and scurrilous pieces; journalistic poems written in response to current events, and published in newspapers; verse plays, original and adapted; verse-films for television; verse scripts for cinematic films; but the verse is always integrated with the images; never subordinate to or merely descriptive of them.
A number of Harrison’s plays and adaptations have been performed at the London National Theatre as well as in particular spaces for which they were written, such as Salt’s Mill, Saltire, in Yorkshire, and the theater in Delphi, Greece. The theater work includes The Oresteia (perf. 1981; pub. 1985), which won the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1982, The Mysteries (1985), The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus (perf. 1988; pub. 1990), Square Rounds (1992), A Common Chorus (1992), Poetry or Bust (1993), The Kaisers of Carnuntum (perf. 1995; pub. 1996), The Labourers of Herakles (perf. 1995; pub. 1996), and The Prince’s Play (1996). The poem-films for television and cinema include The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989), v. (1989), winner of the Royal Television Society Award, Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), winner of the 1994 Prix Italia, A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan (1994), The Shadow of Hiroshima (1995), and Prometheus, which Harrison directed (1999). He has worked with a number of leading producers and directors, including George Cukor, Peter Hall, and Richard Eyre.
Harrison lists among his poetic influences his “household gods” of John MILTON and John KEATS, but also cites music hall artists Max Miller and “Professor” Leon Cortez. Embracing both “high” and “low” culture, and insisting that neither should be the exclusive province of any sector of society, Harrison combines in his work elements from classical literature and myth, canonical poetry of many cultures, and popular song and jokes. The language he employs to convey this eclectic mix is highly flexible, incorporating dialectal and standard English, non-English languages, profanity, and specialized registers. A master of form, he uses strict metrical and rhyme-schemes, but breaks up his forms on the page and includes typographical devices (i.e., italic and bold type, Gothic script, small caps) in order to represent the division and fragmentation which are important themes in his work.
The poems abound in ambiguities, inconsistencies, and paradoxes, as does Harrison’s public persona. By English standards he is a popular poet (one of the very few to make a living from poetry), yet his writing is not populist. Though he often seems to be writing from the margins and pushing at boundaries, many of his forms and themes are rooted in the traditions of English poetry. He is the subject of study in colleges and schools, and of much critical, but (relatively) little academic attention. He seems to typify modern urban man, yet produced some of his most admired poetry while living in rural Florida. He is cosmopolitan and wide-ranging, yet inalienably Yorkshire. He has been president of the Classical Association, a champion of high culture, but depicts education as a process of rote-learning, ritual humiliation, and cultural kidnap. His language is usually accessible and often demotic, but many of his references and allusions are erudite or obscure. Notoriously pessimistic and skeptical, he writes love poetry of calm security. He demands a radical voice for poetry, but imagines peace and unity achieved through personal relations.
Bibliography Byrne, S., H, v., & O: The Poetry of T. H. (1998); Byrne, S., ed., T. H. (1997); Kelleher, J., T. H. (1996); Rowland, A., T. H. and the Holocaust (2001); Spencer, L., The Poetry of T. H. (1994)
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