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Three cheers for Tony Harrison

Ken Loach is Britain’s most important film director but, when not being castigated by the mainstream media, he is relegated to relative obscurity. Tony Harrison is Britain’s greatest living poet and he too is frequently sidelined in discussions and projects where he should be centre stage.


Tony Harrison

Sean Sheehan


There is a pattern here and the reason behind it is not hard to discern. In their art forms, Harrison and Loach articulate their socialist convictions and radical politics. This is unforgiveable for those on the right and much of the press, working assiduously on their behalf, has tended to ignore these two artists or attack them with a degree of venom.

Only grudging acknowledgement is made to Ken Loach winning the Palme d’Or on two occasions, an unprecedented achievement, and the fact that Tony Harrison writes poetry immeasurably superior to anything written over the last forty years is rarely given public voice.

The publication of “The inky defiance: selected prose 1966-2016” helps explain why this is so and it is a wonderful book for readers familiar or unfamiliar with Harrison’s wide body of work.

He described in his poem Them & [uz] how when at school an English teacher wouldn’t allow him to read Keats aloud because of his Leeds accent.

Much of his writing, he says, ‘has been a long, slow-burning revenge on the teacher’ but there is also much that ignites other fields of understanding.

Harrison is heir to Nietzsche’s insight that ancient Greek tragedy allows us to gaze into life’s horror without being turned to stone by what we see. Nietzsche’s dictum that the highest art says yes to life is endorsed by Harrison who writes of ‘going forward with the Greeks, not back to them, able to look openly and honestly at the mess we’ve made of the world’.

More than once he draws attention to the way Greek drama was acted out in  bright sunshine, spectators able to see one another and ‘not segregated by armrests and darkness into individual pockets of anxiety and troubled thought’. The theatrical experience, which was a communal activity for the Greeks, has become privatized in more senses than one.

One of the writers he admires is John Milton, famous as the author of “Paradise lost” but less so as the ardent polemicist who spoke out for the republican cause in the English Civil War of the 17th century. Milton could also write in a personal vein, as in his Latin poem ‘Ad Patrem’ (‘To My Father’) where he expresses his thanks and filial obligation.

Milton  offers his poem to his father as an act of personal fidelity and what Harrison admires is his ability to combine the personal with the political: ‘I think how Milton’s sonnets range from the directly outward to the tenderly inward, and how the public address of the one makes a clearing for the shared privacy of the other’.

This is precisely what Harrison himself does as a poet and playwright.

“The inky defiance: selected prose 1966-2016”, by Tony Harrison, is published by Faber & Faber.

(Photos: Provided by the Publisher)

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