I regard Tony Harrison as the greatest English poet of the last fifty years.
In a country where - as a wise man once put it - the word 'poetry' can disperse a crowd faster than a fire-hose, his direct style speaks far more clearly to far more people than the usual proponents of verse. His vocabulary is strong - to the discomfiture of the genteel critic - but this is allied to a firm commitment to the formal measures of English prosody. Not for him the exigencies of so-called 'free verse', which enables the author to shove words in any old how (and it usually shows); he insists on full metre and rhyme as the structure within which he builds his words and images. This is not a constraint; it is an essential discipline within which the necessity of every word having to pay for its place leads to a greater precision and concision in the composition. And - as English-speaking people tend far more than they realise to actually speak in those rhythms (he cites the case of the woman he overheard on a train, saying, "He works for British Gypsum outside Leek" - a perfect pentameter), his works have a directness of communication which the vers libre crowd can seldom match.
As someone who wrote masses of poetry - or, rather, verse - between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two (most of it, as one would expect, irredeemably shite), I have the highest respect for his adherence to the formal structures, and am in awe of the unabashed earthiness of his writing.
I'd had some lines and couplets floating around the intracranial vacuum for some years which could - I considered - be brought together to form a poem in his honour. When I discovered recently that Harrison was approaching his eightieth birthday, I thought I might try to pull them together. This is what I've been trying to do for the last few weeks.
It is - as you will see below - only a partial success, even in its own terms. I had originally mapped out five sonnets, but an inability to fully populate two of them plus the approaching deadline for the whole thing to be relevant has forced my hand, and I have completed only three. I append them below as an insufficient tribute to a great poet:
Three Sonnets (For Tony Harrison At 80, 30 April 2017)
So, how could you have ever been a poet?
(The question is as loaded as it looks)
For poets come - if only you would know it -
From dusty parlours lined with musty books,
Or pushy parents with ambition burning
For favoured, pampered offspring; or at least an
Atmosphere of quiet, hidden learning.
But you? A baker's lad from bloody Beeston?
Yet your tongue-tied kin became your inspiration,
To speak where they were dumb; to lend your voice
To what they felt; to give articulation
To what they'd say, if only they'd the choice.
And so, in earthy words and phrases gritty,
You brought your fire, your keen intelligence
To bear upon their lives; mixed scorn with pity
In your ever-open School of Eloquence.
That eloquence proves troubling to some,
Who think that words like 'fuck' and 'cunt' and 'cum'
Should have no place in poetry or verse,
(They lead to mass delinquency - or worse!),
And would rather that 'hoi polloi' (*) get their thrills
From Empire's bloody wars...or daffodils,
Not wishing to consider that the Greek
Of ancient times could far more strongly speak
To northern men and women as they crawled
'Cross cobbles, or past concrete crudely scrawled
With messages of hate and alienation -
The constant marks of schism in the nation -
Which can't be soothed by (amongst other things)
Paeans to lords and admirals and kings,
The very ones who cause the dark despair
Which lies mephitically on northern air.
'Oresteia', 'Lysistrata', 'Trackers',
You seized the timeless stories of the plays
And - grabbing the Ancients by the neck and knackers -
Impelled them to speak truth to our days.
You took the Mystery Plays of Wakefield, York,
And rescued them from RP's precious norms
Which denied the way the people in them talk,
Returning them to vibrant, truer forms.
You always speak your truth, and speak it plainly,
With honesty and power for all to see
That, in metres measured and in stanzas gainly,
Your lxxx. counts for more than v.
Through all your work, you've shown you can't be bought
And, from integrity, no honours sought.
You would not take their oily palm; and yet,
You'll always be the Loiners' laureate.
© Nigel Stapley, 2017
Note: the rhythm in the fifth line of the second sonnet doesn't limp. The correct emphasis for the Greek phrase therein is, "hoi polloi", rather than the stress most often heard in English. The rhythm is, therefore, maintained.