BOOK REVIEW / Mirrors against the petrifying stare of war: 'The Gaze of the Gorgon' - Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe, 5.95 pounds

Share
Related Topics
TONY HARRISON is probably best known for his determined use of four- letter words. His headline-making poem 'v' actually had the temerity to reprint the curses scrawled on gravestones by stunned and dejected Leeds United fans. It was a great poem. Hardly anyone since Philip Larkin had been able to cram general ideas about social antagonism (v. stands for versus), tender feelings for everyday concerns and candid confessional gestures into such a terrific abbreviated vocabulary. More than that, the poem was poured fluently into blank verse, English poetry's most aristocratic form. But for some reason there were still people precious enough to be enraged by the presence of those undeleted expletives.

Something of the same discomfort was provoked by Harrison's remarkable Gulf war poem, 'A Cold Coming', a work inspired by a striking photograph of a scorched Iraqi head, grey flesh hanging in strands from a half-exposed grimace behind the windscreen of a truck. Stoics unfazed by the sight of high explosives raining down on Baghdad shuddered to see what happened when the bombs landed, just as they had flinched at what lurked behind the traditional asterisks or dashes which signal 'foul' language.

These heckling responses are pretty soft-centred, but fame of any sort usually eludes poets, so perhaps it doesn't matter that in Harrison's case the distortion is so great and so unfair. At any rate, this new volume (which includes 'A Cold Coming') has won the poetry category of this year's Whitbread Prize, and is well worth backing in the bitter contest for the overall trophy in January.

If Harrison does win, it will be because the range of his public concerns is matched by a minute and learned attentiveness to his craft. Take the opening lines of 'A Cold Coming':

I saw the charred Iraqi lean

towards me from bomb-blasted screen'

A lesser poet might have replaced the ultra-rude word 'bomb' with 'the', to preserve the rum-ti-tum rhythm of the line. Not Harrison. He wants the bomb to shatter the couplet and leave a crater in the verse. The awkwardness of the diction is deliberate; it gives us a quick jab, and reminds us that we do not yet know what sort of 'screen' we are talking about: the windscreen of the army truck, or the TV screen in the lounge?

Part of the joke stems from Harrison's octosyllabics, a metre associated with comedy - Butler's Hudibras, Byron's Don Juan, or even Belloc's Cautionary Verses. The very jauntiness of the rhythm, the odd feeling of being caught in the middle of a merry ballad that has taken a wrong turn somewhere, sets up a powerful clash with the morbid intensity of the subject. The chief defect of Henry King was chewing little bits of string, as we know. But what are we to make of couplets such as these:

Don't look away] I know it's hard

to keep regarding one so charred

Excuse a skull half roast, half bone

for using such a scornful tone.

The same clap-your-hands rhythm dominates 'The Gaze of the Gorgon', the newest and most splendid poem in this book (it was screened on television a few weeks ago). It doesn't waste much time drawing distinctions:

Your average Frankfurt-am-Mainer

doesn't give a shit for Heine.

What follows is a verse drama describing, with Harrison's persistent and delicious mixture of high and low tones, the odyssey undertaken by the statue of the German poet Heinrich Heine - a neat idea: the Gorgon turns even poets into stone.

There are, I think, 3 reasons why

my statue's not so bloody high

1. I was subversive; 2.

(what's worse to some) I was a Jew

Once again there is this exciting quarrel between the seriousness of the concerns, the plainness of the language and the bantering joviality of the verse.

Certainly it is an essential part of Harrison's success that he writes public poetry. His muses are Greek - his Oresteia helped provoke something like a rebirth of classical drama - but his poetic models might equally well be Pope and Dryden. His taste is classical, pre-romantic: he seems not to have noticed that 'public poetry' has become almost a tautology. Not prepared to write lyrics about how he feels about the dawn, or how strangely the apple blossom drifts on the breeze, his subjects are war, social injustice and human indignity. It really is amazing that people should resent it so.

It is a long time since people conducted serious arguments in verse. But in Harrison's case the most trenchant social satire is enlivened and deepened by exotic classical allusions. Indeed, the idea that he is a mere angry spokesman for various causes is as demeaning as the notion that he's a foul-mouthed blasphemer. Often we are pushed towards a dictionary: this famous and brilliant plain-speaker is lavish with words such as 'fumaroles' and 'mephitic'; and 'The Gaze of the Gorgon', apart from the classic myth under the petrifying eyes of which the entire poem trembles, includes plenty of Heine's German. The anti-war poems form a sonnet sequence, for goodness sake. This, we must remember, is a poet who prefaces his work with lines from both Arthur Scargill and Seneca.

In a desolate moment in 'v', Harrison stares at the pile of beer cans by his mother's grave, and writes the line:

This pen's all I have of magic wand.

He didn't write 'This pen is', which would have let the line bounce along in its customary dance, because it would have corrupted the emphasis: 'This pen is all I have. . .' would have seemed figurative and vague. Harrison wanted to insist that it was this pen. As always, his interest was in the here and now. But the more he writes, the more likely he seems to last into the hereafter. Indeed, if Pope was right when he declared that every great poem creates the taste by which it should be judged, then we have to recognise that Tony Harrison's recent work is, well, just fucking marvellous.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments