Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work No 48 Tony Harrison
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Born in 1937 in Leeds, formidably and passionately educated in classics, with wonderful metrical, formal and rhyming skills (his version of the York Mystery Plays brilliantly evoked the poetic quality of the world before the King James Bible or the iambic pentameter hit the English language) and profoundly political. Dedicated to making serious poetry and ideas as popular as possible, he brings all language into poetry - from Greek to Yorkshire dialect, inarticulate grunts, rhyming couplets and puns; he invented the poem-film, and began the renaissance of translated verse-drama (especially Greek plays). What with film, TV, opera, theatre, lyric, satire, elegy, political polemic, love poetry, and poetry of ideas, he has the most diverse command of genre of all poets writing in English today. Many collections, two-volume dramatic works, film scripts (see the recent Prometheus) and a Selected.

He leads into his startling scenario (mum's ring, after the incinerator) via a universal observation (gold survives) and an ambiguous you in the second line. To make you ashes could mean "make ashes for you (or anyone)". Only in the fourth line, your wedding ring, do we realise how personal that first you was. The first two lines are a universal comment; the second two (an envelope contains) are uniquely particular. Only once in your life do you get an official envelope with your mother's post-cremation wedding ring in it. This quatrain sets up a contrast between the universal, whose regulations contain human lives (standard urn, coarse official buff) - and the particular, the attached individual who survives (wouldn't burn) as gold, image of richest value in our life. From the impersonal (standard, official) the poem moves to attachment, embodied in the first line of the last stanza (paradoxically isolated from the rest of its verse, to highlight it) where the ring that wouldn't burn meets the poet's warm palm. Now the balance between particular and universal, so crucial to all effective poetry (especially tragedy, Harrison's prime reference-point), becomes the sift of the title-image, that timer. Which, on the universal side, evokes ancient poetic images like sands of time (in Burns's "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose", "I shall love thee still, while the sands of life shall run"), the circle of eternity (see dad's hope in the second verse) or wheel of fortune. But on the personal side, we have the little boy who doesn't know the word (that thing) but is allowed (let me) to time eggs: image of maternity, of where he's come from (see womb), image of beginnings and rebirth. Aptly, for a poem about a ring, this is "ring- composition". In its ideas and connections, the end goes back to the beginning. But instead of "ashes to ashes" we have gold to eggs, making this elegy a poem of survival, warmth, strength, and valued relationship.

Between the universalising stanzas are two very particular ones. Dad told me (like the last line's let me) set up another contrast: between the poet as son, who is told and allowed to do things, and the poet controlling the poem. Who subtly questions dad's idea that "eternity" comes "later", signs for clothing, phones the clerk; whose deceptively simple handling of the rhyming quatrain gets internal rhymes on the stressed syllable of following lines (eternity/surety, down/ on, palm/arms); who splits a quatrain in half to mark the gap between the particular son and the clerk (representing impersonalising universal figures - death, officialdom); and who, with dignity and tenderness, gets his mother's cardy, apron, pants, bra, dress into a classical rhyming pentameter with flawless syncopation (pants, bra, dress are all monosyllables, you have to slow down and stress them), using a loyally intimate family name for her cardigan.

But cardy is also political. Harrison's poem "Them and (uz)" began in Greek letters, with tragedy's ubiquitous lament, "aiai". It splashed square brackets about - which signify, in transliterations of ancient texts, words that have "fallen out". It flayed critics (especially a teacher who mocked Harrison at school for the way he spoke Keats) who make "uz", and non-received pronunciation, "fall out" of literary awareness. It ferociously claimed for all dialects and accents the right to make poetry ("So right, yer buggers, then! We'll occupy/your lousy leasehold Poetry.") But it also crossly pointed out that "My first mention in the Times/automatically made Tony Anthony!" As Tony has stayed Tony throughout his fame, so cardy here stays cardy in the teeth of official envelopes and numbered corpses. As gold survives the fire, so the value of the personal, of memory and relationship, survives all impersonalising treatment - from either officialdom, or the classicising, universalising literary consciousness to which Harrison self- dividedly, and devotedly, belongs.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Timer' is taken from Selected Poems (Penguin)


Gold survives the fire that's hot enough

to make you ashes in a standard urn.

An envelope of coarse official buff

contains your wedding ring that wouldn't burn.

Dad told me I'd to tell them at St James's

that the ring should go in the incinerator.

That "eternity" inscribed with both their names is

his surety they'd be together, "later".

I signed for the parcelled clothing as the son,

the cardy, apron, pants, bra, dress -

The clerk phoned down: 6-8-8-3-1?

Has she still her ring on? (slight pause) Yes!

It's on my warm palm now, your burnished ring!

I feel your ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs,

sift through its circle slowly, like that thing

you used to let me watch to time the eggs.