Saturday, 19 May 2007

The Borders: Tony Harrison at 70, 'Sacred' & 'A Poet in the Family'

The members of my sect shall so excel in knowledge and insight that they will confound everyone with the light of their truth, and by dint of their arguments and signs.[1]
As he ruefully observed more than once, few humans have disclosed their feelings, their ambitions and wicked wishes, with such sublime disregard for their reputation. He reported and closely analysed some of his most revealing dreams; he recorded some embarrassing memories of his early years.
       Peter Gay.  Freud: A Life for Our Time.  (1988). 
Simon Armitage wrote (in his article in celebration of Tony Harrison's sixtieth birthday) that he first saw him on TV reciting poems about his parents, in a pub full of men all holding tumblers of beer and all crying – It took him years to find out who the poet was. Similarly I first saw him on TV reciting some poems from the same sequence ('Them & [uz]'). I became a fan there and then and recognised in him the true poet, rediscovering him years later after I had joined the Poetry Library.

Tony Harrison's did lots of recitals in his seventieth birthday year. I've read everything he has published and have all his books; I can even recite his poetry by heart. He attended every performance of his play Hecuba in 2005, sitting behind other avid theatre-goers. He also gave a series of excellent interviews in the newspapers. Some of which I quote from here:
The heart beats iambically; the form keeps the connection to the heartbeat. For me, this fluidity of rhyme in the head is like water that keeps the clay malleable till it's ready.  
       The Muses know my telephone number.  
              I thought I might slow down, but part of me has no interest in what I've done approaching 70, only what I'm doing now or tomorrow. The older you get, the more sensual experience nourishes the poetry. I used to have depressive cycles, but instead of being afraid, I say: 'Come in and talk to me.' I've realised darkness and light are inter-dependant, just as death is an enhancer of life.
Harrison expresses this most brilliantly in his film/poem Cheating the Void:
Oblivion is darkness, Memory light.
They're locked in eternal struggle. Which
of the two forces finally shows its might
when death's doors are thrown open by a switch?
And goes on to answer that question in the film/poem itself. In the interview I quoted from above he says:
The stillness of poetry is like a vigil with a candle. Poetry is not a popular art, it doesn't change anything.  But it reminds us there are ways of contemplating destructive forces in a secular, meditative way which it's important to keep alive. That's what keeps me going.                  
            There are risks of sentimentality. But my meter starts ticking in the presence ofdumbness and inarticulacy.  There's
                      There's always that voice ’What’s the point, who the hell wants a poem?' I have to outstrip that dark, negative force to write anything. 
          Maya Jaggi.  'Beats of the heart'.  The Guardian, 31 May 2007. 
Tragedy, of course, is one of the great forms of the human spirit, greater than religion, for example. 
                      Michael Glover.  'Not to be read quietly'.  Independent on Sunday, 1 April 2007.

'And if you haven't got any religion, and I don't than art, for me, is the deepest expression of it all'.  As he once said - '(I'd like to be the poet my father reads!)':
I think ease of communication is one thing but the perfection of communication.  Working for weeks on a 10-line poem is something else. 
             Chris Bond.  'Poetry in motion with Tony Harrison'.  Yorkshire Post, 28 March 2007.
On 15 March he gave a recital at the School of English at Leeds University. He was late! First there was a screening of his film/poem Black Daisies for the Bride. One visitor wrote that it 'Taught us a hell of a lot more than merely the crunch'.  That the film/poem was 'Beautiful, but harrowing. His poems about war, his parents and 'Littererchewer' reminded me about how good he really is: aggressive, with wit that doesn't take away from neither gravity or humanity. Though I did leave feeling assaulted and dazed for several hours after, it was quite intense. Nevertheless he rocks bells and looks good for 70 to boot!' Among other poems he recited 'Heredity', 'Them & [uz] II' and 'On Not Being Milton'. He certainly does look good for 70 and I hope he continues to write for many years to come. He is doubtless among the greatest poets writing in English today.

He answered questions from the audience on 5 April 2007 following an exclusive screening of his film/poem The Shadow of Hiroshima at the BFI.

On 27 April Harrison recited his poems in a function entirely devoted to him called 'Pause for Poetry' at the Cambridge Wordfest. He recited 'Long Distance II' among other poems. Unfortunately all the tickets had already sold out when I tried to book. After the recital a lady from the audience approached him to ask if his film/poems were available on DVD, not the case most unfortunately (due to that common bane of poets, the lack of funds) - He replied that all his films are unavailable to the public.

Brighton Festival, 10 May 2007.  © Matthew Andrews.

I decided to go to the British Library and buy the double CD of Auden recordings recently released for the first time, a fitting tribute in the centenary year of his birth.  The bus passed The Lucas Arms on the Gray’s Inn Road – Now all renovated and newly done up: I think this was the pub I used to pass as a child with grandfather or dad.  There used to be an old man selling newspapers outside it who I was dead scared of because he was always so dreadfully drunk.

At the British Library bookshop I came across Cakes & Ale by Judy Spours.  A book I saw there last time but tried like mad to recall the title of and get hold of without any luck There is also another book I've been after for a few years now about the Victorian obsession with the occult and spiritualism, a review came out in The Times and I saw it once but haven't been able to find anywhere since.

I saw the brilliant 'Sacred' exhibition of religious texts and objects from the family of religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam stressing the fact that all 3 are basically from the same root/route-source and believe in different versions of the same stories.  They have on display that Kiswa, one of the cloths placed upon the Kaaba annually – Embroidered with real gold, also one of the original Suhuf e Uthman: the official edition of The Holy Quran compiled and published for the first time under Uthman (the third Caliph succeeding the Prophet Muhammad ). 

I also saw the exhibition of Blake's notebook and 'A Poet in the Family' from the recently acquired Coleridge Archive – Including the first edition of Sibylline Leaves and other books and papers and one of Coleridge's many notebooks.  Truly a great treasure of knowledge that the British Library has done well to invest in, a rare thing for a British institute to do for a British author! Afterwards I went to Oxford Street for a coffee.  I saw an 'Ex Royal Marines' homeless beggar sitting in a doorway in Argyle Avenue.

[1] Ahmad, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam. Tajjaliyat e Ilahiya [Divine Manifestations].  (1906: Ziaul Islam, 1922.  Ruhani Khazain: xx.  409.  English: Islam International Publications Ltd, 2006).  36.