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Changeling

Continuous: 50 Sonnets from “The School of Eloquence”

by Tony Harrison
Rex Collings (London), 64 pp., £3.95 (paper)

A young English critic, Blake Morrison, has written recently that Tony Harrison may well be “the first genuine working-class poet England has produced.”* There are poems in Continuous to support such a claim. In nearly all the Meredithian sixteen-line sonnets which make up this volume, the poet looks back to his working-class childhood and youth in Leeds, where he was born in 1937. Reading them, one has the impression, underlying all else, of a deepsworn vow, a passionate commitment to a family of which his father and mother, neighbors and former school-follows, are members bound by a love whose very substance consists of their being working class.

At the same time it is difficult—though not impossible—to think of him as their family poet. For if the subject of most of his poetry is their working-class lives; a secondary theme is that they are incapable of accepting either poet or poetry. These seem to be no part of their spiritual inheritance. Tony Harrison can only explain the accident of a poet’s having been born into his working-class family by an ironic theory of psychological compensation:

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.

Reading these mostly autobiographical poems, the reader is tempted to regard Harrison almost as a changeling, not out of some other social class but perhaps out of Shakespearean romance, sneaked into a cradle in some house in a back street of Leeds by some royal parent (poetry being royal) anxious to disembarrass herself or himself of an unwanted offspring. Remembering his schooldays at Leeds grammar school, he recalls

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

This brings memories of some school-teacher commenting:

Poetry’s the speech of kings.
   You’re one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!

Whoever said this to the schoolboy gets his comeuppance in the poem by the adult. There is a good deal here of such turning of the tables on those stuffy bureaucrats who speak RP (Received Pronunciation). In the same poem he retrospectively asserts the rightness of his Leeds accent in which at school he read the opening four words of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; “mi ‘art aches.” (Keats himself, I suppose, being cockney, might have pronounced this “mi ‘art ikes.”)

A contradiction that might occur today is that an English working-class poet should have an aristocratic style and vocabulary, perhaps even have claims to being the only genuine aristocrat of the language writing in English. After all, it is only we snobs who consider aristocracy the monopoly of a particular class. No one should be surprised at a working-class poet tracing his lineage back to forebears coming from the traditional village countryside, as here, in “Lines to my Grandfathers.”

Ploughed parallel as print the stony earth.
The straight stone walls defy the steep grey slopes.
The place’s rightness for my mother’s birth
exceeds the pilgrim grandson’s wildest hopes—

Whereas a young lord might hunt up his pedigree in Debrett’s Peerage, Tony Harrison finds the lineage of the working class in The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, in which the author shows how English villagers taken from the countryside and herded into the barrack-like slums of Northern English manufacturing towns during the industrial revolution retained many of the traditions of the rural culture from which they sprang.

If the punctuation in a line quoted above is omitted, it reads:

Poetry’s the speech of kings you’re one of those,

meaning that the poet is one of the kings of speech, an ambiguity of which I am sure Tony Harrison must be aware. Despite his insistence on dialect, slang, obscenities, and tags of abbreviations in his poetry, the tone is that of the aristocracy, of imagination and intellect. His predilection for royalty when it speaks royal language is shown in his version based on Racine’s Phèdre, transposed to the British Raj in India and written in alexandrines, called Phaedra Britannica, and in his translation of the Oresteia into alliterative Middle English metrics, which is being performed with great success at the National Theatre now. This language is stylized, sometimes as stiff as gold brocade, but magniloquent in the mouths of gods and royal leaders of Greek clans.

Continuous is both about the alienation of the poet from the working-class family and the love that unites them. These oppositions are reconciled on the level of the imagination in the poetry. It records the union of the family in language the family cannot recognize. This is wryly expressed in a childhood memory—“Illuminations”—about Blackpool’s Central Pier:

and some days ended up all holding hands
gripping the pier machine that gave you shocks.
The current would connect. We’d feel the buzz
ravel our loosening ties to one tense grip,
the family circle, one continuous US!
That was. the first year on my scholarship
and I’d be the one who’d made that circuit short.

(In Leeds dialect “us” would be pronounced “uz.”)

The poem, written after the death of both his parents, ends:

Two dead, but current still flows through us three
though the circle takes for ever to complete—
eternity, annihilation, me,
that small bright charge of life where they both meet.

They meet, though, after death and in the poetry on which his mother, reading his volume called Loiners, commented:

You weren’t brought up to write
   such mucky books!

What breaks the family connection is his art. In “Book Ends” he records his mother’s comment on the fact that at home, father and son would sit on either side of the fireplace with its burning coals without having a word to say to each other:

You’re like book ends, the pair of
   you, she’d say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit,
   sleep, stare…

After his mother’s death, in lodgings with his father where there is only a gas fire, they still sit in the same silence together:

The “scholar” me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

A night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we’re alike!

You’re life’s all shattered into smithereens.

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, book.

In these elegiac poems the poet mourns his own childhood and the deaths of his parents and friends and relations. There are a lot of deaths in this book. Images of fire go back to childhood memories of the war and are connected with the father stoking ovens, and with the burning of bodies in crematoria. There is also apostolic fire, associated I think with the gift of tongues bestowed upon the Apostles, tongues which the poet translates. Flames are everywhere. There is no use in maintaining that this is not a discomfiting imagination. It dwells on grotesqueries such as that the poet’s father who stoked ovens is now thrust like dough into the oven of the crematorium.

When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie‘.
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there’s no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.

A certain literalness of imagination here may be where Tony Harrison is nearest to being a working-class artist. Pictorially in the identification of burning flesh with burning soul—of burning cataracts with heavenly vision—it has a kind of naïveté which is primitive like that of an ex-voto painting of someone’s death by fire done by a peasant and put on the altar of an Italian village church. There is something here of the imagination that was at times gawky and powerful in Keats, with whom Tony Harrison perhaps expresses affinity in his poem about sharing an exotic fruit (the kumquat) with Keats. This is printed separately as a pamphlet, A Kumquat for John Keats. Yeats drew attention to this side of Keats—the literalness of his sensuous vision—in lines of great insight which might almost apply to Tony Harrison’s sensuous vision of his childhood.

I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,
For certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied,
And made—being poor, ailing and ignorant,
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
The coarse-bred son of a livery- stable keeper
Luxuriant song.

But the Leeds of Tony Harrison’s childhood belongs to a vanished age, alienated from its own recent past by social and cultural change, the pulling down of houses, the immigration of Pakistanis, Hindus, Jamaicans, greatly resented by the poet’s working-class friends and relations, though welcomed by the poet. After the death of his uncle the printer and stammerer, the house is sold.

The landlord’s glad to sell. The neighbourhood,
he fears, being mostly black, ‘s now on the skids.
The gate my father made from bread-tray wood
groans at the high jinks of Jamaican kids.

Bless this house’s new black owners, and don’t curse
that reggae booms through rooms where you made hush
for me to study in (though I wrote verse!)
and wouldn’t let my sister use the flush!

But if this book is largely elegiac it also celebrates the fact that the poet rises phoenix-like from all these ashes of war, change, and crematoria, and does so with a brash self-confidence. There is quite a lot of cock-crowing. The poet climbs to heaven on a Jacob’s ladder of lexicons, leaving the language of his childhood as something put, like modern idioms in the prose of Henry James, in inverted commas, or, more often, italics:

L & S dead Latin, L & S dead Greek,
one the now dead lexicographer gave me,
Ivan Poldauf, his English-Czech slovnik;
Harrap’s French 2 vols, a Swahili,
Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Anagó,
Hausa, Yoruba, both R.C. Abra ham’s

but not the tongue that once I used to know
but can’t bone up on now, and that’s mi mam’s.

It is wonderful to wax lyrical about dictionaries. One of his most moving poems here is in praise of John Murray, editor of the great Oxford English Dictionary, who conscripted scholars and writers to hunt out rare words for him and give examples in literature of usages. The poem ends with a line, of magnificent enthusiasm:

Fling our doors wide! all, all, not
   one, but all!

Tony Harrison acquired languages partly by spending four years in West Africa and one in Prague, after which he became Northern Arts Fellow in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At the end Continuous records triumphs, the pride of the prophet not recognized in his own country sending back news of his successes abroad. He can triumph over his dead mother much loved, who nevertheless wished his books banned:

Ay! I might have said, and put her
   in her box
dressed in that long gown she
   bought to wear,
not to be outclassed by those posh
   frocks,
at her son’s next New York
   première!

He can be learnedly and almost insultingly graceless especially in his use of apostrophes:

His bodiless head that’s poking out’s
like patriarchal Cissy-bleeding-ro’s.

He scores against all comers by the mastery with which he puts the sixteenline-sonnet to his uses, breaking down the sequential pattern of quatrains, isolating single lines so that they stand alone almost like one-line poems, while yet remaining part of the whole pattern, and again and again writing extremely effective last lines in which all the meanings of the separate sections of a sonnet come together with force.

Here is the second of two poems named “Long Distance”—

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of dis-
   belief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

  1. *

    Blake Morrison, “Labouring,” London Review of Books, April 1–14, 1982.

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