It was a beautifully modulated and timed joke; for the real controversy had been about the reading on Channel 4 of his poem v, which Mary Whitehouse objected to - without having read it, naturally - because it quoted the words "fuck" and "cunt" (hence that cheeky "swearing, if I may be permitted") which were sprayed on the gravestones of Harrison's parents; words whose very existence, even now, as I write, my word-processing programme questions. (Readers of the Independent were judged grown-up enough to read them without dashes or asterisks, as the paper printed Harrison's poem in full shortly before it was broadcast.)
You may remember the controversy; and, in one of those paradoxes which hindsight has shown to be an unexpected fleur du mal, a blossoming of beauty from ordure, the very poet whom Mary Whitehouse and her stooges sought to drive from the nation's consciousness became - well, let us say about five times more famous than he had been before.
History doesn't always repeat itself as farce, but it has now, for Harrison's latest poetic effort - or rather, his latest work which has broken from poetry's little-visited ghetto by accompanying a film - has once again attracted controversy. Only this time it's a rather bathetic controversy: his film, which is a recasting of the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and in so doing liberated mankind from the cave, is said to - can you believe this? - endorse cigarettes. A Sunday newspaper tried to whip up a storm with its opening paragraph: "Tony Harrison, widely tipped to succeed Ted Hughes as poet laureate, has been condemned for using pounds 500,000 of Lottery money to make a film that defends cigarette smoking."
To address and stub out the smoking business: Prometheus hid a glowing ember in a fennel stalk and inhaled, which is not too far from the idea of a cigarette; unsurprisingly, Harrison tried the same fennel experiment as part of his research, and found that it worked. Indeed, Greek fishermen still use the same technique. But the "widely tipped to succeed Ted Hughes" deserves a bit of attention. For Harrison is one of the best poets in the country - some would say the best - and wouldn't it be nice to have someone in the post who is not only good but accessible too? (And, say others, someone for whom "socialism" is not a dirty word?)
"I'm not interested," Harrison says. "The pressure to be a public poet is there from the events around you ... I've always had the wish, the need and the obsession to become a public poet. I've written on public matters, but I don't understand how anyone could tout me as a possible poet laureate when I wrote a poem on the abdication of King Charles III, or about the sex life of the Royals ... anybody who knew my work would know I'm not a contender." The laureateship, as far as he's concerned, is like being "mistress of the Queen's pompoms". The matter was, anyway, effectively settled by "Laureate's block", a poem he wrote a few weeks ago ("I didn't want to just say, `No, I'm not interested'; I wanted to do it as a poem"):
I'd sooner be a free man with no butts,
free not to have to puff some prince's wedding,
free to say up yours to Tony Blair,
to write an ode on Charles I's beheading
and regret the restoration of his heir,
(I'd hoped last week that would-be royal hacks
that self-promoting sycophantic flock
would whet their talents on the headsman's axe
but it seems like a bad case of laureate's block -
30th January 1649
though it's hard to use the date for self-promotion
the anniversary's gone by with not a line
from toadies like Di-deifying Motion.)
Even an ardent royalist should concede that it is a rather stylish way of pulling yourself out of the running.
"I think that as you get older you want to be freer rather than more bound. I'm not somebody who likes to acquire honours or anything like that, I want to be free of them. Otherwise you end up like Marley's ghost, with this chain on your ankle. I think the great thing about the imagination as you get older is it gets freer - if you let it. The temptation is not to let it be freer, the temptations are to worry, and want all those sops to insecurity..."
Ah, freedom. This is Harrison's big theme, or is in Prometheus - as it would be if your hero had been chained to a rock for 30,000 years as a punishment for giving humanity the ambiguous blessing of fire. ("Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be," as William Empson once wrote.) In Prometheus, Harrison makes explicit the link between fire and freedom and socialism: the first severing of the chains between people and gods, and people and masters. It is an extraordinarily ambitious project; and that the film involved driving a 30ft-tall golden statue of Prometheus through northern and eastern Europe belies the somewhat cowed ambitions of contemporary poetry.
"People were crossing themselves, people fell off their bicycles, you got people sounding their horns furiously and waving, saying, `Don't go that way, there's a bridge!' There were crowds wanting to touch his cock for luck. One girl in London jumped on to the truck and took all her clothes off to have her photo taken between the legs of Prometheus."
And were the Europeans more cultured than us?
"They knew much more than they would here. The kids knew who Prometheus was."
And this is another of Harrison's great themes: that the President of the Classical Association of Great Britain came from a working-class, uneducated background. An early scene in Harrison's Prometheus could have been an early scene in Harrison's life: a boy, boning up on the legend for school, has his book thrown on the fire by his father, who has just lost his job down the pit. His poem "Bringing Up" tells how his mother would have thrown one of his first collections, The Loiners, on to the fire if it had not been a library book: "But I still see you weeping, your hurt looks:/ You weren't brought up to write such mucky books!" (Incidentally, an anthology of Harrison poems which mentioned fire, whether in terms of bombs, book-burning, or cremation, would constitute a significant proportion of his output.)
"I was the recipient of a classical education which was very Tory in its aspect, and yet the classics were falsely genteelised. That's why I revived the idea of the satyr play [as in his Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, which, if I recall correctly, ended up with the actors strolling about with two-foot lingams strapped to their waists], because you always have `the holy idea of tragedy' - without knowing that the greatest writer of satyr plays was Aeschylus, who's always regarded as this deep religious tragedian. I'm filling in the hole of that spirit which was ruined by later religion."
Not that he has much time for earlier religion either, if Prometheus is anything to go by. His Hermes, who, as in Sophocles's Prometheus Bound, is Zeus's mouthpiece, is a silver-suited fop who, like his master, despises mankind. As the play reminds us, until Prometheus gave us fire, Zeus was about to destroy us all and try again. And, boy, does Harrison hate Zeus.
"Zeus encompasses all tendencies to despotism, whether in religious monotheism or in political orthodoxy and absolutism. I think it's the tendency to want to create gods and monotheistic absolutes and absolute certainties that is the continual temptation in human thought - that's the great danger. Every time we create a god, we diminish humanity." And the temptation is still there. The film picks up on numerous hangovers from Greek myths which still pop up in unlikely places: a restaurant in Romania named after Hercules, the numerous images of Prometheus in Dresden's restored opera house, a Czech soft drink called "Zeus".
"I've always been obsessed with Dresden, that a place destroyed by fire has all these Promethean images. For me, that's why Zeus had it destroyed: there was too much Prometheus worship about." Those who have other, more conventional explanations for Dresden's destruction might raise an eyebrow at Harrison's; but it is at one with his vision. When I suggest that there aren't that many reminders of Zeus around these days, he says, in a tone of bitterness that almost suggests a personal grievance: "There's plenty of Zeus stuff. There's always Zeus stuff around." As he has Hermes say in Prometheus: "Every `human rights abuse' had its proud origin in Zeus, who deemed that Man was only fit for dumping dead in a mass pit."
It must, I suggest, be dispiriting to be both a committed democrat, someone who continually digs away at the question of the ownership of culture, yet the possessor of this essentially mandarin frame of reference.
"Out of that dilemma I make my work, it fuels my work. I'm passionate about learning languages and cultures. As a kid I wanted to know everything, read everything. I realise I can't now, but I'm a passionate consumer of books and literature." (He speaks "five or six" languages, not counting the dead ones. And one hesitates to use the word "dead" in this context around Harrison, who quotes freely from them in both his speech and his work.)
"I was always picked on by my teachers for my English. There's that poem in all the anthologies about not being allowed to read Keats, `Them & [uz]', not having the ammunition then to know Keats was a cockney, that Wordsworth was unintelligible when he came to London ... and not having that equipment to fight back, what it did was make me into a poet, and there's a lot of retrospective aggro in a lot of stuff I've done."
The other extraordinary thing about Harrison is that he is a poet who makes a living purely from his poetry. He doesn't teach it in a university, or write criticism - unless it's in verse. And in this he gives the lie to the fear that poetry is dying out.
"I'll go on doing it. You've always got to believe. I think people need it rather than want it. I find, for example, reading aloud the poems I wrote about my mother or my father's death, you have - especially men - sometimes sobbing, weeping; and I think that I took that as very surprising at first, and then I realised that we don't have any other traditional consolations for mortality - they've gone. People don't support religions any more, and for me art has always been the deepest, the most human of responses to our life, and I think that people can find a need for poetry if they're introduced to it. Poetry can disappear into itself. I'm not very fond of that, the world of the little magazines and so on ... you know, with more people writing than reading it.
"I have a great big bust of Milton in my house that I found in a warehouse; he's got my press card from Bosnia round his neck, and a pair of Polish steelworker's glasses, and I've got images of Dante everywhere. There's something about communing with them, they belonged to a world where poetry has the ambition to include everything we knew about life and the world. It's lost a lot of that ambition. And for 2,000 years poetry was the theatre too, which is why I've written so much for it. I like to draw my energies from that kind of ambition for poetry."
It is a great feat, to talk like this without sounding precious or conceited. It perhaps comes from his decision to write poetry in a form which his parents would have recognised as poetry; the language is demotic but the form is rigorously classical. "I think Auden drew attention to it: that rhyme is an instrument of discovery. Rather than a constraint."
Meanwhile, his bust of Milton, defender of man's liberties, ambivalent describer of our fall from Paradise, champion of free speech, looms over him, the Polish steel-worker's goggles on his face, a press card from Bosnia round his neck; as if, in the mixture of work, history, contemporaneity and art, it represented everything that Harrison stands for. "If I'm watching the telly, I always have this man, this great source of inspiration looking at me saying, `Get on with it, you wanker, you're wasting time.'"
`Prometheus' opens in London and in selected cities across the country on FridayReuse content