Harrison forward: Andrew Brown meets Tony Harrison, whose poetry goes straight to the heart and to the mind

TONY HARRISON's poetry really is fucking marvellous, as a reviewer on these pages recently observed. The vigour and range of the language is coupled with arguments that have the same kind of powerful discipline as the metres. An immersion in the selected poems, in the week before meeting him, was such a wonderful experience that I was delighted when he got up for a while in the middle of our interview. It meant I could dive back into the paperback on the

table between us.

He was in Bristol, making a television film about senility. This is an undertaking characteristic of his range of poetic ambition: 'to find a way of looking at terrible things without blinking.' Watching the prolonged death of a relative from Alzheimers, he had discovered that the last language to go was rhyme. What the demented say often has a beat and a ring to it, even if no meaning.

So he has been filming in hospitals and nursing homes, trying to find the shreds of meaning left in their language and bring them out. He came from the cutting room, where, he said, his head had been filled with the image of a senile woman talking animated gibberish, full- face on the screen.

'I've never liked saying poet dash playwright, or poet dash that. It's poet: that includes everything. I have almost constantly being trying to find some of the range and ambition and public dimension of dramatic poetry from the Greeks through Shakespeare and the Jacobeans, Moliere, Racine, Goethe; Yeats, Brecht. Almost all poets not only wrote for the theatre but also worked as directors or actors . . . I'm sure if they were alive today, they would also have worked in television.'

He was delighted that when the Independent and the Guardian published two controversial long poems (v. and A Cold Coming), they did so on news pages, where they would be read by people who had no interest in the arts pages.

In Tony Harrison are united two apparently contradictory impulses: a rigorous formalism in the verse, and a fierce democracy in the ambition. His poetry is all the more valuable for not being in the least bit precious. The sensibility is very different, but there is something of Rochester in his directness, and the sense that at any moment the mannered poem may kick the table over.

I told him that I thought he more closely resembled the 17th century poets than their successors. In Pope, for example, the argument is safely contained in the mechanism of the poem. There is no chance that a violent thought could shatter the clockwork, whereas the endings of Harrison's poems can flip open all that has gone before.

'One of the important things about familiar form and metricality is that it draws attention to the physical nature of language: the spell-binding nature of it, and the ceremony of articulation,' he said. His hands moved round the candle between us, caging it as he looked for words. 'I only know how to search darkness: 'Life has a skin of death that keeps its zest' ,' he added, quoting his own poem A Kumquat for John Keats.

'I really find it very difficult to talk about what I've done and what I'm doing. You have to understand that when I try to find answers to things my immediate instinct is to reach for the poem, not for discursive dialogue.

'In so much as there is a confidence now it's to do with finding a more prophetic voice. But I still have to accommodate voices that say: 'Eh, what the fuck's the use of this?': the non-reader over my shoulder.'

He gave a quick direct glance to see if I had caught the allusion. In some people, such a check would have been competitive, but his struck me as more checking to see whether he had my range. The skinhead in v, he says, is also inside him. For that reason, the dialogue inside the poem engages audiences who do not usually have much use for poetry.

'v. has reached quite interesting groups of people. It has been done by amateur theatre groups. I don't have illusions about how many people you can reach, but I do go on trying. There are many forms of discouragement of poetry but it is uniquely placed to go directly into the heart and into the mind.'

One of the ways in which his poetry reaches out to people is by keeping outside the follies of Eng Lit. His version of the northern Mystery Plays was designed, he says, to take them out of the Abbey grounds and back into the market-place. 'A lot of my activity in the theatre, and even in writing poems, was a kind of retrospective aggro on the English teacher who wouldn't allow me to read poetry aloud.'

This incident is commemorated in his poem Them and Us. 'My feeling about playing verse is that it should be in the voice that you grew up with, not in the voice you learn in drama school.

'At one time, when I was forming myself, these things were things I had to combat. I had to struggle with them in order to find my own voice. Now they concern me less, perhaps, than they did, because some of my preoccupations are different. But I still have that attitude to art and culture.'

I asked whether he had not to some degree reversed the original slight, so that someone with my accent could not read his poems as they were meant to be read. No, he said: 'A poem, once it's written, is meant to be read with the inner voice of the person who reads it.'

But the Mystery plays, he said, were written for a Northern voice, and that was how he had restored and reclaimed them. 'God in my version speaks the same language as the people he is talking to.' The parts were taken by local artisans. Occasionally, in order to show they were God, they dropped into Latin, but even then they did so in dialect.

I asked whether, as he rewrote the passion story, he believed in it. 'I'm not a believer,' he said. 'But I believed in the drama. I believe more in the power of drama than in the power of religion. I'm interested in all ways in which human beings try to redeem the idea of mortality, temporality, and the alternatives. But that wasn't what drew me to the plays. No. What drew me to the plays was an energy.'

If not a Christian, had he ever been a Marxist? 'I don't think I was ever one. I read all that stuff. I learnt from all that stuff, but I've never been any ist of any kind . . . except an artist.' He is that all right. On Tuesday, with a bit of luck, he might receive the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Gaze of the Gorgon. But whether he wins or not, he will no doubt continue to look at life, on our behalf, without blinking.

(Photograph omitted)