Sunday, 8 July 2012

Saying [uz]

I didn't mean to go to London. I'd thought about Tony Harrison's poetry reading. I saw it advertised and considered buying a ticket. Then I realise it was on the evening of a day when I was working and that I'd have to rush to London after work and get home again the same evening. I thought about how tired I'd be, and how much the train tickets would cost. Plainly it wasn't sensible.

I blame Twitter for what happened next. I just glanced at my Twitterfeed – I don't have time to read every tweet of every person I follow – and saw a quiz question from the Poetry Society, offering tickets to Tony Harrison's reading as a prize. I knew the answer. I didn't stop to think but tweeted back to them – and won the prize. A journey to London still didn't seem sensible but, after a little dithering, I began to realise it was inevitable. I wanted to go.

I first became aware of Tony Harrison as a playwright and translator. I was still at school when I saw his translation of The Misanthrope – into heroic couplets, I think – at the Old Vic. It was clear and witty. It was more than a translation; instead of its original setting in the time of Louis XIV, Moliere's play was transposed to the Paris of Charles de Gaulle. And despite the outstanding acting of Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg, what struck me most was the pulse and neatness of the verse.

Harrison's poetry took longer to reach me. My reading has always been a chancy affair. Then I chose books following from the advice of others, because a couple of lines quoted in a review startled me into a response, or because of an encounter in a library or bookshop. I found Tony Harrison's collection Continuous in a second-hand shop and, in a quick glance through the poems, realised that there was something in the voice that interested me. It took me a while to read more but, as I did, I recognized not only the complexity and the wordplay. This was a poet who was saying something important – and something that mattered to me.

Harrison's work is grounded in his two experiences I share: a sense – emphasised by certain teachers at his schools – that he could never fit into the cultural life of his country because he was born into the working class, and a yearning to acquire knowledge and articulate it. These experiences are part of what fuels his sequence from the School of Eloquence but they are amplified by his awareness that in gaining the education he desired he lost the close communication with his parents that he knew in childhood.

I'm not sure how much that was caused by education. Children often do find a separation from their parents and education may be merely a convenient way to name it. However when a child begins to move in cultural circles which are peopled mainly by those who seem rich and self-confident, the child's apparent confidence among such people can add to the parents' sense of awkwardness, even as they enjoy their child's success. When that is allied, as so much is in Britain, to a rigid class system, the high class barriers – which really do exist – are bound to underline and intensify the separation of child and parent.

Harrison's reading at the Purcell Room began with some of his public poems, which characteristically move from a small personal perception: in one poem the starting point is fish-scales scattered as cormorants fly with gasping fish in the sky above Lindisfarne Castle. From this sight, glimpsed through a train window, the poem moves to consider history, war, politics and the tragedies of past and present life.

The length, scope and formal exactness of his public poems - often published on the news pages of a newspaper - makes them unusual. When Harrison said that his chief influence and model for these works was the messenger's speech in Greek tragedy, I suddenly understood what he was doing much more clearly. The messenger, who arrives towards the end of the play to explain what has happened, is not a major actor in events. He is someone who is on the edge of the action, who is not in himself particularly important but whose role is to tell what he has seen as he saw it. It's a good position for a political poet since it is neither powerful nor directly preachy. It is based in the “I” of personal experience.

I was glad that Harrison's reading included some sonnets from the School of Eloquence sequence. They are what is known as “Meredithian sonnets” and have sixteen lines instead of the usual fourteen. This allows for a more sustained conclusion or reversal than is possible in the fourteen lines of the Shakespearean sonnet. The poems were interspersed with illuminating anecdotes. Before reading “Classics Society,” Harrison explained that, as a schoolboy, he was instructed to translate all Greek and Latin into a high-flown language. This led to some absurdities. Translating a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus, Harrison had a character who was the Roman equivalent of a policeman saying “Move along there.” The schoolmaster crossed this through and substituted the more elevated command: “Vacate the thoroughfare.”

Harrison also recalled overhearing a woman in the audience for The Misanthrope say (and I paraphrase from memory for I was listening too intently to take notes): “What a command of the English language, my dear – even though he comes from Sheffield” This led Harrison to address the question of his own articulacy. He added to the little poem “Heredity” the recollection of his father's deep shyness.

This made me return with renewed understanding to Harrison's concern to speak for the working class now and in history. The idea of someone speaking on behalf of a class makes me uneasy. I think that the problem is not so much that the working class are silent but that they are often unheard. The problem lies with the powerful who may mock but rarely listen.

But I share is Harrison's anger – an anger which plainly lives on. I have heard recordings of Harrison reading his paired sonnets “Them and [uz]” but I have never heard such anger in them. Harrison takes the teacher's contempt for him and his Leeds accent, expressed in the lines “You're one of those/ Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose” and turns it back against the teacher, using his knowledge to insist that poetry does not come only in Received Pronunciation. The voices of poets of the past have, as Harrison says, been “dubbed” into RP as a foreign language film is dubbed into English – and much is lost in the translation.

I can't give details of all Harrison said or all that he read. I was moved – as he was – by the poems grieving at his parents' deaths. There was also a more hopeful poem – though against a dark backdrop – which Harrison had addressed to his grandson Alfie. On this occasion he read it for the first time at a reading with his grandson in the audience. But one of the final poems came from a play – Harrison's adaptation of Sophocles' Trackers of Oxyrhyncus, which exists only in fragments of papyrus. I have neither seen nor read the play but when I heard the speech I wondered how I could have missed it.

 Harrison's introduction explained that the play had made allusions to the cardboard city that grew up beneath Waterloo Bridge and in other sheltered spaces on the South Bank in the 1980s. It was where the homeless lived and established a community. I remember walking past on occasions; it was not a dangerous place. In the end they were moved on, their homes were dismantled and the area was cleansed. I don't know where the people went.

But the fate of cardboard city and its people was beyond the scope or Harrison's reading. Instead he offered a speech in voice of the satyr Silenus, brother of Marsyas, who was flayed alive on the command of Apollo for daring to learn to play the flute. The satyrs – half man, half goat – are allowed to be comical and inexpert but the Olympian gods will not permit them to be are capable of art and culture. In the speech Apollo stands by, playing the lute as Marsyas is tortured to death. At the end of the speech Silenus resolves to conform and know his place – to take the safe option.

It's a while since Harrison has given public readings. He claims that he was prompted to resume by the discovery that newspapers are updating his obituaries ready for use. But judging from this reading, he's still unwilling to take the safe option. His anger persists and he still uses his poetry as a weapon to attack cruelty and injustice. And the rhythms still sing and the words play on.

 My very brief visit to London brought another joy.  For the first time in more than thirty-five years I encountered the English teacher who taught and encouraged me in my last year and a half at school.  She was also at the reading.  She was an excellent teacher who shared her love of literature and I owe her a very great deal.  Thank you, Miss Hann.


Rehan Qayoom said...

I'm a great Harrison fan as well and have been for many years ever since I first saw him on the off late one night on TV in one of those programs for schools. Since then I have read everything by and about him and actually got the chance to meet him yesterday. I had already bought my ticket but just like yourself, won another 2 (of course I knew the answer to the question right away): the first time I've ever won anything apart from a consolatory prize for not having won anything about 20 years ago! So, after asking about 36 friends, most of which replied excusing themselves for weddings, engagements and birthday parties one of them agreed to come and join me in what turned out to be a really fantastic night.

Kathz said...

Unlike you, I didn't get the chance to stay and meet him as I thought I'd better take the precaution of heading to the station and making sure I caught my train home (the last of the day to my station). But it was indeed a wonderful reading - and thanks for your comment.

sonia said...

Very interesting post. At University a fellow student and flat mate told me how suprised she was that I was studying English Lit as my spoken English was so poor.

Kathz said...

Sonia, it sounds perhaps the poor fellow student could appreciate only one dialect of English, which she must have found limiting. The richness of English - which enhances the experience of literature - is partly drawn from the multiple voices and dialects. If there were only RP, the language would be so much narrower - but the enforcers of RP just don't realise that and their lives (though not their bank balances) are impoverished as a result. And that's my rant of the morning. Thanks for stopping by my blog and posting a comment.