Not many poets could mention muses without provoking a behind-the-hand giggle, but Harrison is on easy terms with them. He has become famous for a style that is both erudite and everyday. His film-poem about statues of the German poet Heinrich Heine, for instance, contained the following sharp quip:
Your average Frankfurt-am-Mainer
Doesn't give a shit for Heine.
This is the typical Harrison voice: learned and down to earth. He loves puns. The title of his Gulf War poem, "A Cold Coming", was a nice dusky figure of speech, but also a blunt statement: the poem dealt with the frozen sperm of American soldiers. He is preoccupied with contemporary events: he wrote a poem about a flea market in Kazakhstan, where he found old gas masks:
The Kazakhstan these masks come from
was the test site for the Soviet bomb.
And he wrote a play about the Greenham women, which was also a version of the Lysistrata by Aristophanes. However modern his concerns, he leans hard for inspiration on the ancient Greeks. In particular he loves the tragic vision, which he finds thoroughly tuned to the modern world. "Tragedy seems to me the most level look at life," he says. "And the history of the 20th century, I mean, when you look at it you think, well, I don't really want to struggle on. Greek drama was a style invented to deal with worst things, and we've had a century of worst things."
To some it might seem an odd mixture, Leeds boy-cum-Sophoclean bard, but this is precisely what makes his poetry so formidable - and readable. He's a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshireman whose work is rooted in the landscape and culture of northern England. The whole point of his stunning cycle of Mysteries at the National Theatre was that they used northern actors. "I hated the idea that God had to be John Gielgud," he remembers. "I hate the anglicanisation of culture, the idea that culture is genteel. It's not genteel. And anyway, these were York-Wakefield mysteries. They had to have northern voices - short vowels, strong alliterative consonants. You only have to listen to understand that."
But he has also travelled widely (he taught for years in Nigeria and Prague) and is an eager classicist: his version of the Oresteia at the National reminded a new generation of the power and vigour of Greek tragedy. His new project is a verse drama called The Labourers of Heracles, which will be based on fragments of a barely known Greek dramatist and will be performed at the 1997 Theatre Olympics in Delphi. He is researching the subject in depth: he has been reading histories of concrete, and was thrilled to notice that one of Greece's biggest cement companies is called Heracles. They are lending him some cement mixers for the labourers to fill with rubble as they excavate - and destroy - an ancient statue.
The contrasts continue. He is dedicated to the idea that poetry is not a private therapeutic matter but a public art, a place for grand arguments and epic deeds (and misdeeds). But he hardly seeks out the limelight. "I hate everything about writing except doing it," he says. And he is a noted effer and blinder in verse. The poems brim with intimate human gestures, but these are always silhouetted against great events and causes. His subject is war, and the pitilessness of war, but his work feels at once ancient and modern, as muscular as sculpture and as quick as a video. It is quite in character that he should have brought poetry to television.
"Yes, I wanted to do things with television," he says. "Because television is one of the spectres at the feast. I mean, you see these images and they make me, and I think most people, they make you lose your appetite for life. But actually I like those correspondents: 'Here I am in Tuzla. Here I am in Sarajevo.' They're like Greek heralds. But you see these terrible things, and you have people sitting down to eat while they watch, and if that's the case, you either become callous or you lose your appetite. I wanted to find a way of making people go on watching."
The thing that will make us want to go on watching is, he believes, poetry. One of his major ambitions, indeed, is to take poetry "where it is not wanted" - out of the garret of lyrical despair and into the public arena. All of his film poems are gathered in a new book, The Shadow of Hiroshima, whose title work is a poetic tribute to the 50th birthday of the bomb. It will be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow night.
Poetry and film usually seem like oil and water. To most poets, film is too realistic, too sensational and fast, too - how shall we say? - unsubtle. To most film directors, on the other hand, poetry is namby-pamby - a self-indulgent way for sensitive souls to stroke their troubled hearts by wittering on about tear-stained pillows, sleepless nights and autumn leaves drifting o'er my dreams. Harrison's film poems show that it is possible to fuse the two. The Shadow of Hiroshima is a remarkable work. Hiroshima's war memorial contains a human shadow sealed into stone, the fossilised echo of a man vaporised by the flash. In Harrison's film, the shadow comes alive for a day ("one day's parole for Shadow San") and accompanies the poet on a guided tour. They see an artist painting an anniversary watercolour, dipping his brush in the river that carried away the corpses of old friends. They watch pigeon trainers preparing their birds for a symbolic fly-past, and visit a pinball arcade. They gaze at young lovers re-creating, in the shadow of the ruined A-bomb dome, a tender scene of the sort obliterated in an instant 50 years before.
The poem is composed in short lines that in most contexts would seem jaunty:
Here, they stop to watch a baseball game.
Tomorrow they may pause in play
to watch the peace doves pass that way.
Shadow San stood, head on one side, listening, and then he cried:
"You'd need a stadium five times higher to seat all those who died by fire.
Where you see baseball I can hear all those thousands who can't cheer. Listen, can't you hear the choir of those who perished in the fire."
Harrison always makes sparks fly by rubbing opposites together: harrowing subjects are given a fierce twist by the pitter-patter comic associations of the metre, sacrilege is given a wicked gleam by mock-heroic rhymes. It is as if a Belloc ditty had taken a wrong turn up a dark alley. The tactic worked well in "A Cold Coming", that chilling monologue inspired by a grisly Gulf War photograph of a scorched Iraqi soldier, a picture many newspapers thought too deadly explicit to publish. There the clap- your-hands rhythm was so out of place it was perfect. But Harrison has great faith in strict, time-honoured forms. He once described himself, with brilliant false modesty, as the Yorkshire poet who came to read the metre; and he refers to rhyme as his "life-support system". It is an unfashionable position. Many modern poets think that a dislocated structure is the only truthful way to represent the fragmented nature of modern life, but Harrison has no time for this. "I love that thing Stravinsky says," he declares. "Show me the boundaries and I will fill them." The whole point of poetry, he insists, is that it should address the hardest things in life, and the most powerful weapon it brings to the fray is its own form.
"The whole idea of the Greek tragic vision," he says, "is to keep looking, and keep singing. But you have to use a spellbinding language. The ear will surrender even at those times when the eye wants to close, when the eye doesn't want to watch. I love the heralds in Greek plays. It's the best part. They come on and say, 'Oh, something has happened that nobody could ever speak about' - and then they speak about it. That's where drama begins, with what you can't speak about. But to do that you have to change gear. You have to find a way of talking that is not everyday. It has to be a squaring up. It has to bring something undefeated, something braver than the situation it is describing. Most of the situations in Greek drama are not addressable in the stylistic resources that are available - or at any rate prestigious - in modern television, theatre and cinema."
Giving voices to people who can't speak - whether they be Alzheimer's patients, dead poets, statues or shadows - is Harrison's favourite method. But the only surprising thing about this insistence on the importance of poetry in drama is that anyone should be surprised. After all, there are not many great dramatists who were not poets. "The great tradition," Harrison says, like someone warming to a familiar theme, "is all poets. Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, the Jacobeans, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, Schiller, Goethe, Voltaire, Lorca, Yeats... And it's not just a question of poetry - it's metricality. People don't realise what its power is. We've got hooked on realism, and I hate realism. The Romans liked it. They knew you couldn't simulate death or sex, so if they wanted to burn Heracles they'd actually get someone, some condemned criminal, and bring them on and burn them. It was snuff theatre, and it's corrupting, revolting.
"But now you have actors who are trained in realistic, psychological drama. It's to train them for television and films. And I've got nothing against it - I mean there are some wonderful moments - you think of Stanislavsky and the method and Brando. But I've had some terrible collisions with actors trained in that way, because it's not right for theatre. Theatre has to be theatrical. It has to draw attention to itself, like poetry. Those heralds who come on and say, 'Something has happened that no one can speak about', well, they go on and speak about it. A modern actor couldn't do that, he'd be weeping and suffering and throwing himself about on the floor. I like those documentaries where people talk about being imprisoned by the Japanese or whatever, and they don't fall about, they just tell it. They don't re-create it. Maybe that's why I like statues in my work - you can make them do things actors won't do. In the piece I've just finished, the man playing Orpheus wasn't an actor at all. He was a lion-tamer. And he was wonderful."
Inside the house are photographs of the lion-tamer. He was playing Orpheus in a piece Harrison wrote for a one-off performance in Austria. "That's another thing I love about the Greeks," he says. "They worked a whole year for one performance, and that was that." The room is full of mementoes: the gold fan from The Shadow of Hiroshima, a Geiger counter from A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan. The pictures show a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a bear. "Nice, isn't it?" says Harrison, imagining the stage direction. "Enter, pushed by a bear. We also had lions under the seats. Some people left because the lions were reaching up. It was fantastic. In fact it might be the best thing I've ever done. And I don't usually think that."
It must have been quite something. But for those who missed it, well, tough. "That was it," says Harrison. "There won't be another performance." Fans will have to settle instead for The Shadow of Hiroshima tomorrow night. It is the fruit of a lifelong obsession. Harrison has a clear memory of the day when Hiroshima exploded in a single unholy blast. "I was eight," he says. "And I remember the bonfires. The blaze was so big that the telephone wires burnt down. Fire cracked the windows and blistered the paint on people's houses. The next morning there was this big, black circle on the cobbles. I helped clear away the ashes, and something made me connect this fire of celebration with the fire of destruction. I learnt then that the way you celebrate is also the way you create devastation and annihilation. It was an important lesson. The spectre at the feast arrived with the celebration of victory, and made me realise how hollow the idea of victory is."
The film has a different emphasis: to show us how hollow the idea of peace is:
Where peace doves are the birds of prey
are never very far away.
It's compelling stuff, and not only because your TV is, more than likely, Japanese.
'The Shadow of Hiroshima and other Film Poems' by Tony Harrison, Faber, pounds 8.99
'Permanently Bard, Selected Poems of Tony Harrison', Bloodaxe, pounds 7.99Reuse content