Class tensions

Permanently Bard: Selected Poetry by Tony Harrison Bloodaxe, pounds 7.9 5

Some of Tony Harrison's defining qualities as a poet are already apparent in the first poem in this book, "Thomas Campey and the Copernican System", which fashions a cultural icon out of an old Leeds book dealer. This poem succeeds so well because Harrison maintains a tension between the poem's formal structure and the various vocabularies which he deploys - sometimes elevated and Miltonic, sometimes a more casual Leeds demotic which grounds the poem in the fact that Thomas Campey has given himself a bad back by heaving all these old editions of Spengler and Gibbon about, transforming himself into a caryatid of British culture. It is the pupils from Leeds Grammar School - such as the classics scholar Harrison himself - who have benefited by the books, not Campey. Harrison moves with seeming ease among a great range of styles, formal structures and vocabularies. What could be more different, for example, than the polished couplets of his translation of Moliere's The Misanthrope and the highly personal sonnets in which he tries to bring about some kind of posthumous emotional reconciliation with his inarticulate parents?

This new edition of his selected poems is a disappointment, however. Being an "educational edition" for schools, the book has as much burdensome textual apparatus as poetry. And there is an unattractive element of hero- worship about Carol Rutter's introduction: "In the image I am focusing on, however, the workbook is in the background. My close-up is on the hands. This poet, my image wants to say, is a manual labourer. He is a word-wright. He is of the working-class. The material he works in is words. His work-books, the works literally of his hands, are to the poet what his baker-father's loaves are." Do we need all this misty-eyed guff, this heroicising of a job well done? It is not unusual for a poet to write with his hands. It is not exceptional to use words.

In spite of the fact that the selection from Harrison's published poetry is generally good and representative of the range of his preoccupations - through his early struggles into eloquence to the marvellous "A Kumquat for John Keats" and other longer poems. It is all excellent - but there is not enough of it.

The book does one thing, however, that the earlier Selected failed to do - it takes in extracts from the public poetry written for the stage: "Agammemnon", "Medea", "Square Rounds", "Trackers of Oxyrhyncus", and even a page or two from the "Poetry or Bust", a dramatic rendering of the life of the Airedale poet John Nicholson.

Michael Glover

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