Two pamphlets from the poet who made me think so much about the art form before I really knew that I wanted anything to do with it. I have Paul Weller and Jim Morrison to thank for an early interest in words, self-expression through words, but they wrote songs, words to go with music, Harrison wrote words to exist on their own, words that had to fend for themselves, no props, no crutches, no searing guitar riffs, no leather pants and shirt-less photos to help them get noticed. Just beautiful, playful, ugly, disgraceful, truth-telling words. And he comes from Leeds and he writes of Leeds, ten miles from where I grew up. This, to me, was (and remains) revolutionary.
I first came to Harrison through the celebrated “V”, as did so many, and through the television broadcast of his Oresteian Trilogy, which I remember watching as a teenager on a small old black and white portable in my bedroom. It was summer and I could lie on the long narrow windowsill of my room, which caught the late evening sun and I stayed there three nights straight, captivated: this was utterly something else. The nearest reference I had at the time to this Delphi-staged wonder, was the poetic borrowings of The Doors with their Crystal Ships and Moonlight Drives and of course the Oedipal drama of The End (a song that has its own Wikipedia page!), except Harrison is from Beeston, not Venice Beach.
Newcastle is Peru dates from 1969, a reading at Newcastle University: the pamphlet contains a brief author-penned introduction, described as a transcript of the introduction to that reading at Newcastle. In this introduction, Harrison tells us that the line from John Cleveland, “Correct your maps: Newcastle is Peru” summed up for him something ‘he was trying to do in his poetry’, before introducing some of the themes of the 21-stanzas. The poem is essentially a map of his journey from adolescence to adulthood; from Hunslet Feast to Newcastle, via Prague and the growing up he did along the way.
Polygons, published in 2017, is a collection of poems previously published singly, in a variety of places, although mostly in The London Review of Books. I had in the past, briefly flicked at it without really finding much to hold my attention, but now, with time in abundance, I settled in and I soaked. That these poems were not apparently conceived as a collection does lend a certain disjointedness to the pamphlet, it rises and falls away again, but there are individual moments of joy, of reading someone so ingrained in his craft that anything less than whole-hearted admiration is unavoidable.
The pamphlet opens with the four line Diary, which demonstrates Harrison’s flat wit and brevity, perfectly:
I’ve always been aware that one day I’ll die / but I felt my real mortality begin / when this year, for the first time, I’ve filled in / the ‘in case of emergency please notify’:
The subsequent poems are soaked in Greek sun (and wine) and filled with Harrison’s trade mark Classical cast: drawing on minor deities, heroes, battles and battle sites. Some poems fling these characters, with some rage, into the (then) contemporary scenes of Bosnia (where he accompanied British forces for a while), with no attempt to disguise his contempt for the players at the time; from Remembering Rhamnous:
…now our despised PM’s once more gung-ho / I remember Rhamnous glad if cartoons show / the new Prez’s well-lubed petrol pump / gushing up Blair’s crouching poodle rump…
There are a couple of poems that are warm, tender and might be described as minor ‘holiday love poems’, but how often do we read love poems that celebrate the “dark freckle marks / my grandpa called his ‘grave-spots’…” on the ageing poet’s, ageing lover’s thigh.
It is the title poem, that is truly the poem to celebrate here. When I first read it, it seemed maudlin, to wallow in itself, but on re-reading and slowing down in my reading, I think I see a much more considered melancholy at work: it is about the loss of words over time (and in this it has echoes of Black Daisies for the Bride, Harrison’s difficult poem / film about his mother’s Alzheimer’s and her declining days in the High Royds Hospital), the loss over time of the physical presence of words, the loss of arch manipulators of words (Byron, Hughes and Heaney) And of course, the loss of words is the end point of any writer’s career and perhaps life. Harrison is doing a lot of thinking about his own mortality here, hoping that his survivors can sneak a way in to the stadium to scatter his ashes, “...say, ten years from now / if I manage to last another decade.”
Harrison begins with a contemplation of the great blocks that make up the wall beneath Apollo’s temple, in Delphi, where “Unspaced Greek capitals cross all the cracks / keeping blocks bonded with alphabet tack-stitch” and before long we’re at the column “where each year I’ve been / to run my pen finger over Byron’s graffito…“, but each year it “gets harder to find and decipher / illegible nearly from decades of neglect…” To remedy this, to make the letters glisten again, however briefly, our guide pours water from the Castalian spring over the face of the column.
The Castalian spring is where Harrison tells us he fills his water bottles when out in Delphi and according to legend and Dodwell, “one draught can convert its drinkers to poets.” It is also where pilgrims came to consult the Delphic Oracle. Clearly a place for refreshment both physiological and literary, in more than just Harrison’s eyes.
He takes inspiration from the epitaph of the Greek writer, Kazantzakis, with “I hope for nothing: I fear nothing: I am free” stitched into Harrison’s black t-shirt, of which he has at least five and when he hangs them “up to dry / on the rack I hang washing on over the stove / all of them folded so the ‘I am free’ shows.”
He picks up on Byron’s Darkness and plays it alongside Prometheus and his theft of fire from the gods – yet more illumination. Before, when walking through the town, he spots a headline announcing the death of ‘SEIMOUS XINI’ and immediately reminisces on a dinner shared with the poet, in this town, several years back where each had gifted the other a manuscript of some of their Greek translations – poets literally sharing their words. And he thinks on about Heaney and Ted Hughes, “Both those I’ve read with have been in this kitchen” (at Harrison’s house). And back in that kitchen, “Always when cooking I go on composing / I cook. I compose. I remember lamenting, / I’m cooking a rabbit like I’ve eaten in Delphi.”
This, the final poem in the pamphlet, reiterates the primacy of words to the life of Tony Harrison, they have been and remain, his sustenance. He is in Greece, among his peers. And there is sun and there is wine. And everywhere he looks, he sees stories.