Tony Harrison (born 30 April 1937) is an English poet, translator and playwright. He was born in Leeds, the son of a baker, and educated at Leeds Grammar School and at Leeds University. He is one of Britain’s foremost verse writers and many of his works have been performed at the Royal National Theatre. In his first full-length book of poetry, The Loiners (1970), Harrison explored his relationship with the eponymous citizens of the working-class community of Leeds. Yet, reflecting Harrison’s own experiences of teaching in Nigeria (the Zeg-Zeg poems below are set there) and working in Prague, the book ranges widely in location and topic, from childhood encounters with sex in Leeds to tales of love in Eastern Europe. His second full-length collection appeared in 1978. From “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems was a more explicit exploration of class issues than The Loiners had been, provoking critical controversy but also gaining critical plaudits.
Harrison’s most famous poem, and his first foray into television, is V (1985), written during the miners’ strike of 1984–85, and describing a trip to see his parents’ grave in a local cemetery in Leeds, ‘now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti’. The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse, etc. Proposals to screen a televised filmed version of V drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its “torrents of obscene language” and “streams of four-letter filth” would have on the nation’s youth.He is also renowned for his versions of classic poetic dramatic works and noted for his outspoken political views. He translated his first Greek play 50 years ago, and has since adapted ancient dramas for the National Theatre.
His most recent collection of poetry is Under the Clock (2005), and his Collected Poems, and Collected Film Poetry, were published in 2007. His latest book is Fram (2008), a work for theatre premiered at the National Theatre in 2007. He has picked up a number of prizes over the years, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and the William Heinemann Prize. In 2015, he was honoured with the David Cohen Prize in recognition for his body of work.
ZEG-ZEG – BRIEF POEMS BY TONY HARRISON
Tony Harrison travelled widely in his early years as a poet, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe and was open to various influences. The influence of Arthur Rimbaud and Rimbaud’s poetic identity as a white ‘nègre’ can be best found in, for example, from the Zeg-Zeg Postcards, a sequence of mainly parodic and sometimes pornographic short poems about the sexual exploits of a homosexual English professor and poet in colonial Africa. ‘Zeg Zeg’ was the name in the Middle Ages for the region now known as Zaria, the Nigerian state where Harrison lived in the 1960s. The poem works best as a complete sequence but the extracts below indicate some of the humour available. Harrison gradually developed his own distinctive voice. The brief poem Heredity gestures at its source.
Tony Harrison has a degree in classics and, as well as translating classic verse plays, he has also translated classic brief poems. I sometimes work with ancient originals written at times when poetry had the range and ambition to net everything, but if I go to them for courage to take on the
breadth and complexity of the world, my upbringing among so-called ‘inarticulate’ people has given me a passion for language that communicates directly and immediately. I first came across a selection of Martial’s verse in English when, many years ago, for the modest sum of one pound, I purchased a copy of Tony Harrison’s pamphlet of poems called US Martial, which was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1981. (See image on right.) Living in New York at the time, Harrison deftly translated some of the epigrams into a jazzy American idiom. As well as translating from the Latin, he has also translated from the ancient Greek. Palladas: Poems, first published in 1975, introduced this pagan poet, with his Swiftian sensibility (saeva indignatio) to a contemporary audience. His selection, most of which are, unfortunately, too long to be tweeted, skilfully recreates the bitter wit which he describes as ‘the authentic snarl of a man trapped physically in poverty and persecution, and metaphysically in a deep sense of the futile’. As he writes in his preface, ‘Palladas…is generally regarded as the last poet of Paganism, and it is in this role that I have sought to present a consistent dramatic personality…His are the last hopeless blasts of the old Hellenistic world, giving way reluctantly, but without much resistance, before the cataclysm of Christianity.”
Brief Poems by Tony Harrison
from The Zeg-Zeg Postcards
Africa – London – Africa –
to get it away.
Knowing my sense of ceremonial
my native tailor
buttons on my flies.
I bought three Players tins
of groundnuts with green mould
just to touch your hands
counting the coppers into mine.
Je suis le ténébreux … le veuf ...
always the soixante and never the neuf.
The shower streams over him
and the water turns instantly
to cool Coca-Cola.
I’d like to
Let me be the Gambia
in your Senegal.
How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry-
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.
A flop is when the star’s first-night bouquets
outlast the show itself by several days.
from U. S. Martial
You serve me plonk, and you drink reservé.
My taste-buds back away from mine’s bouquet.
Add one and one together and make TWO:
that boy’s sore ass + your cock killing you.
She doesn’t feel 3
parts in Comedy
4’s more and merrier!
She hopes the spear-carrier
comes on too.
XVI The Joys of Separation
She wants more and more and more new men in her.
He finally finishes Anna Karenina.
Some of these poems, together with the original Latin are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.
from Palladas, Poems
Life’s a performance. Either join in
lightheartedly, or thole the pain.
Born naked. Buried naked. So why fuss?
All life leads to that first nakedness.
Born crying, and after crying, die.
It seems the life of man’s just one long cry.
Pitiful and weak and full of tears,
Man shows his face on earth and disappears.
Agony comes from brooding about death.
Once dead, a man’s spared all that pain.
Weeping for the dead’s a waste of breath –
they’re lucky, they can’t die again.
God’s philosophical and so can wait
for the blasphemer and the reprobate –
He calmly chalks their crimes upon His slate.
God rot the guts and the guts’ indulgences.
It’s their fault that sobriety lets go.
Death feeds us up, keeps an eye on our weight
and herds us like pigs through the abattoir gate.
Shun the rich, they’re shameless sods
strutting about like little gods,
loathing poverty, the soul
of temperance and self-control.
Just look at them, the shameless well-to-do
and stop feeling sorry you’re without a sou.
Poor devil that I am, being so attacked
by wrath in fiction, wrath in fact.
Victim of wrath in literature and life:
1. The Iliad 2. the wife!
A grammarian’s daughter had a man
then bore a child m. f. & n.
The ignorant man does well to shut his trap
and hide his opinions like a dose of clap.
Menander’s right, and thought’s most fertile soil
‘serendipity, not midnight oil.
Where’s the public good in what you write,
raking it in from all that shameless shite,
hawking iambics like so much Betterbrite.
Thanks for the haggis. Could you really spare
such a huge bladder so full of air?
but can be nice
to be precise
When he comes up to the bedroom
and switches on the light,
the poor man with the ugly wife
stares out into the night.
A drink to drown my sorrows and restart
the circulation to my frozen heart!
Some of these poems, together with the original Greek are available on the Brief Poems Palladas post.
This page was posted April 30th, 2017 on the occasion of Tony Harrison’s eightieth birthday.