I sing the body bruised

Tony Harrison's poems and plays - eloquent and ennobling - are among the most distinctive we have. Michael Kustow celebrates him at 60
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Tony Harrison will spend his 60th birthday next Wednesday, and much of his 61st year, making his first feature film. It will not be a naturalistic movie, but the myth of Prometheus at the fag-end of the industrial age, a modern Odyssey stretching from Harrison's native Yorkshire through wounded central Europe to Greece. The first contemporary British movie largely written in rhymed couplets, it will be delivered, not in the received pronunciation of poetry-readings, but in the gritty, tender, ironic Yorkshire accents that Harrison has made his own.

Five weeks before shooting, he is still reshaping the screenplay as he scrutinises thousands of photographs he has taken of the locations, pumping out muscular couplets to get the best from the actors. He leaves his desk, in a book-crammed terrace house in Newcastle, where a bust of Milton and a Dante plaque overlook him, to clamber inside cooling-towers and film the demolition of coal-mines. He visits statue-makers, auditions teenagers, confers with his composer. This is not the received image of an exquisite sensibility honing cadences in his silent study, but one snapshot of a poet lifting poetry off the page and into the world by all means possible.

There are many such snapshots of Harrison the multifarious poet. Through newspapers and television, his poems have reached millions, deciphering headline horrors and history through a poet's imagination: eight television "film-poems" about Hiroshima, Alzheimer's disease, blasphemy, post-Communism, racism, cemeteries; and poems about Bosnia and the Gulf war that made newspaper front pages.

For the National Theatre, as well as his ruthlessly renewed versions of Moliere, Racine, Aeschylus, the Mystery Plays and Victor Hugo, he has written and directed two utterly original plays. In Trackers, taking off from fragments of a Sophoclean satyr play, he filled the stage with wildly phallic, irresistibly comic, clog-dancing creatures, and then, to a Dionysiac beat, destabilised high art in a world of violence and torture, homelessness and pain. In Square Rounds, an even more startling theatre-piece, he used a cross-cast company of women to play the male inventors of poison gas and machine-guns, and made conjurors and quick-change artists exemplify the transformations of science for good or ill. In these plays, unlike anything else in recent British drama, Harrison relishes the playfulness and alchemy of theatre before our very eyes - and then yokes them to matters of real substance.

No other 20th-century poet has so deeply and determinedly dug poetry out of its still genteel ghetto of slim volumes and little mags with arcane disputes, and brought it to a large audience. Reconnecting poetry with theatre - not by offering up the occasional verse play, like TS Eliot, but by becoming a theatre-maker himself - puts him in the company of the Greek dramatists, the medieval mystery plays, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Moliere and Racine, Lorca and Brecht. Becoming a poet/film-maker links him with Pasolini and Cocteau - though their movies are for art houses, while Harrison's films, with support from the BBC and Channel 4 such as no leading poet abroad has enjoyed, have the immmediacy and urgency of good television.

At the heart of all this versatility is the poetry itself. Its distinctive Marvell-like poise and its Miltonic density and strength have many roots. One of the deepest is his defiant, defining loyalty to his Yorkshire voice:

"So right, yer buggers, then! We'll occupy your lousy leasehold Poetry.

I chewed up Littererchewer and spat the bones

into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,

dropped the initials I'd been harried as

and used my name and own voice: uz, uz, uz,

ended sentences with by, with, from,

and spoke the language that I spoke at home."

("Them and uz")

The piety and complex loyalties of the long sequence of sonnet-like poems about his family get most readers by the throat. These poems add up to a documentary account - the working-class war baby from Leeds, the scholarship boy devouring books, growing away from his roots yet held close by them, and refusing to cut loose. Parallel with the personal voice of his family poetry, the other territory he has staked out is public poetry, or personal poetry yoked to public matters. Ten years ago at Channel 4, I commissioned the television version of the best-known of his poems in this mode, v., whose four-letter words, courtesy of the Daily Mail and the usual roll-call of outraged complainers, made him overnight the best-known living poet in Britain.

Poet of Britain would be closer to the mark. v. is a seismic depth-charge in post-war British poetry, and a pivot in Harrison's work. It's the most graphic example of the tug-of-war in him between allegiance to the diction of poetry and to the four-letter rage and dark sarcasm of the scorned and excluded. With visceral force and naked rage, v. imagines the football hooligans who have desecrated his parents' grave in Leeds. Harrison takes on their fury, and in a decisive act, splits himself in two, as our country and culture are split. He becomes the aggressor skinhead as well as the aggressed poet and son.

To those who work with him, Harrison is a vivid physical and emotional presence. The actress Sian Thomas met him at the first read-through of his version of Moliere's The Misanthrope at the National Theatre: "I remember this short but very powerful person. Sitting behind him, I got a very strong feeling of warmth and depth from him. It was like those old stones that you get in Greece, ancient stones that have been sitting in the sun all day. His voice is a poet's voice, not an actor's voice, it goes beyond expression. Rich and bleak and brave, it contains many opposites."

What all his collaborators and friends know about Tony Harrison is that he has huge highs and pole-axing lows. "That wave-pattern is deeply familiar," says Sir Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre. "Of passionate identification with a project, focusing everything in the present tense, and then when it's over it's deeply depressing.

"But there's such elation, working with him. I remember the first night party for The Prince's Play, and we decided we had to have champagne, and of course it had to be Veuve Cliquot, because he'd had a wonderful rhyme for it. So we got countless bottles of it, and Tony said to me with a wry smile, 'Ah well, I'll have drunk all my royalties away this evening' - and it was quite possibly true. There's something magnificent about his desire to live in the present tense. But there's a cost to that."

In his periodic descents into a personal darkness, Harrison stares steadily into the void. His knowledge of this darkness has enabled him to confront the world's agony, taking on the voice of a charred Iraqi soldier in A Cold Coming, or using every tentacle of his art to reach into the once- active spirit of Alzheimer's disease sufferers in his film-poem Black Daisies for the Bride. Gazing just as unwavering outside as he does within, he weighs the world's crimes - Hiroshima and nuclear weapons (his Greenham Common version of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, commissioned by the National, remains unperformed), poison-gas, torture, all the panoply of modern war.

Harrison might look askance at being co-opted into "Englishness". He is too aware of the struggle of languages, and of the inarticulacy and the wounds of his family, the people he comes from, a hurt that can lead to a different kind of achievement than mainstream, received-pronunciation English. In the end, there's a class awareness, a class anger from this descendant of denied and excluded ancestors, which distinguishes his poetry from most of what's written now, even by poets with similar origins.

In the First World War, Wilfred Owen famously wrote that his subject was war and the pity of war, and that the poetry was in the pity. At the end of this century, Harrison might say that his poetry doesn't come in spite of the damage and blemishes, but because of them. His eloquence stays truthful by not excluding the stuttering mouths and bruised lives. And he seems to be saying that improvement in the political word can come only by taking on board the darkness of napalm, torture, firestorms, fall- out - and seeing it as inseparable from the soap-box visions of the future, which we much prefer to talk about.

Michael Kustow's portrait of Tony Harrison at 60 is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday at 5.45pm. 'v'. and other poems read by Tony Harrison are available on a Faber Penguin audiobook published tomorrow, pounds 8.99.