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Why You Should Be Reading Tony Harrison’s Poetry

Who reads poetry nowadays? No doubt you’ll think of a stuffy academic sitting in a dreary room deciphering what, to most of us, is incomprehensible. Yet poetry doesn’t have to be like that. It can contain violent swearing, be aired on national television, and deal with social issues so controversially that it leads to public uproar. Just like Tony Harrison accomplished.

Article by Julia M.

All this, Tony Harrison has done. His poem ‘v.’ sparked huge debate in 1987 when Channel 4 aired a reading of it on television. It may contain swearing, but that’s not the point. ‘v.’ challenges the miners’ strike and the disillusioned working-class youths of the time. Such an inspiring prospect couldn’t be further from the ‘stuffy academic’ stereotype of reading and writing poetry.

So Who Is Tony harrison?

For those who haven’t come across Harrison before, the poet is a Leeds-born baker’s son. After winning a scholarship, Harrison was lucky enough to attend a local grammar school and then went on to Leeds University to study Classics.

He is a noted poet and playwright who won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 1982. He is most famous for ‘v.’ but also for ‘School of Eloquence’, a series of autobiographical sonnets. But why should we, the average readers who tend to stick to novels, dive into the funny and quirky world that is Tony Harrison’s poetry?

He’s Grounded

Remember that image of a stuffy academic? Well what really makes Harrison’s poetry accessible is his down-to-earth style. It’s true that if you wanted to, you could analyse Harrison’s poetry and discover hidden meanings. Yet even at face-value his poems give us food-for-thought.

Take ‘Them & [uz]’. Here we have two sonnets, side by side, which investigate Harrison moving further and further away from his working-class upbringing the more educated he becomes.

But you don’t need to know all that. To enjoy ‘Them & [uz]’, you simply need to imitate a northern accent: ‘mi ’art aches’. Harrison writes in his dialect, making for an entertaining read that is designed for the masses. Who ever thought that poetry, that mystical thing we’re all afraid of, could be written in a Leeds accent?

Autobiographical, Not Sentimental

You might have already guessed that there is a lot of Tony Harrison the man in the poetry. Yet his work doesn’t end up dripping in sentimentalism like Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ does. If you’re not in for all that faff, Tony Harrison is perfect for you.

In ‘Timer’ for example, the sonnet deals with the death of his mother. However, despite the awful subject matter, ‘Timer’ tugs at your heart strings only subconsciously. His poem is relatable, it gives us an insight into his life, but it isn’t soppy rubbish.

Experimentation And Innovation

Another common misconception when it comes to poetry is that it’s boring. Yet even for the uninitiated, Tony Harrison’s poetry is far from that. His interest in language leads to his poems almost speaking for themselves in that they so reflect real speech.

Part of this stems from Harrison’s diploma in linguistics, which shows his passion for the way that language works. At every turn Harrison surprises us with his word choices but also his experimentation with the poetic form. The School of Eloquence sequence may be written in sonnets, but most of us would only recognise a sonnet as a love poem of 14 lines. Instead, Harrison uses an expanded 16-line version of the form because 14 lines is simply not enough!

I can’t recommend Harrison enough. His work is not only inspiring and worth studying but he is also there to represent and speak to the masses. His poetry isn’t something to be afraid of; it’s something to be savoured.

Featured Image: kthread

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