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

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.