Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Tony Harrison
Tony Harrison writes for the theatre, the opera house, television, the cinema, and of course, the printed page; but, first and foremost he's a poet. A person who decided years ago, that he would earn his living the hard way by writing poetry. His uncompromising approach to his work comes from a belief that it's possible to use a contemporary style, alliteration and rhyme to handle the ordinary themes of everyday life and the great themes of classical tragedy in an accessible way. Driving these beliefs is Harrison 's own background. His father was a baker. He is the archetypical Leeds working-class boy who was seized by the grammar school scholarship system and turned into a classically trained intellectual. Upward mobility? Yah. Meritocracy? If you want. Painful uprooting? Certainly, a theme that recurs in his work like a nagging tooth. And this tension, dichotomy, antithesis, haunts him and his work with highly productive results. His years teaching in Nigeria and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s found their way into his first major collection of poems, 'The Loiners ', a name for Leeds ' people. His first job at the National Theatre, was to make a verse translation for John Dexter's production of Molière's 'Misanthrope' It was modernised, updated, savagely funny. Further adaptations followed, including The Oresteia of Aeschylus, and then the celebrated version of the 'York Mysteries', which he reclaimed into their native Yorkshire tongue and vowels. God creating the world with a Yorkshire accent. Whoever heard of such a thing? Harrison is political and personal as a poet. Personal - sometimes daringly so, since much of his poetry is about the people that matter most to him - parents, wives, lovers, children. Political in his television films on subjects such as The Gulf War, Alzheimer's Disease, blasphemy, the fall of Communism. He's been called the Poet Laureate of the Left. As for the laureate-ship itself, he thinks it should not have continued to exist after Ted Hughes.
Tony Harrison sees all of this seemingly wide-ranging output as poetry. 'Poetry is all I write', he said. 'whether for books or readings; or for the National Theatre or for the Opera House and Concert Hall; or even for television. All these activities are part of the same quest for a public poetry. Though in that word 'public', I would never want to exclude inwardness.'
Well, what then is your definition, Tony Harrison, of public poetry,?
I think that the move for me towards public poetry came from some of the dilemmas I had when having left a working-class background and started learning Latin and Greek at grammar school, I wanted to write a poetry which did some kind of honour to what I was learning, but also would reach people like my parents, and use what I think of as a common language. And it seemed to me that the common language was used in the theatre. It has to be in the theatre, the common bond of the theatre, especially in Greek theatre where the audience and the actor were lit by the common light of the sun, that this was ideal conditions to create a common language. And, so that out of that need I think, I was moved into theatre, and in theatre I was able to find a language which I hope would address more than the kind of people I found read poetry and books.
But it's certainly not anything to do with filling an establishment position and writing special poems for special public national events.
Ah, no. I've written about public events. Certainly. I've written about the Gulf War for The Guardian. I went to Bosnia for The Guardian and wrote poems from the war there. So that... I 'm not against addressing difficult public issues or engaging in political controversy, even writing occasional poetry of invective and satire, which is another wing of poetry which one should occasionally resort to.
It must be quite, quite a relief, I would have thought, to let the feelings out in that sort of way.
It is, it is. It certainly is, and I, I've often done it. What I found I think, when I grew up, wanting to be a poet, seemed to me a poetry that restricted itself to a lyrical norm or an adventurous epic norm, as in the case of Pound, which had virtually lost the struggle with comprehensibility. So that, I, I wanted something that would have all the range of the poetry of the past, when, when poets, for example, from the Greeks through Shakespeare, through the Jacobeans, Molière, Racine, Brecht, Lorca, these were poets who, who wrote directly for the theatre. And engaged in, in the theatre.
Do you think it is very difficult, increasingly difficult, for the poet to be heard above the sheer noise and volume of sound and communication of the technological world?
Yeah. There's, there's too much of a noise about for that quiet act of concentration you need both to write and to read the poetry on the page, but you can gather people together in a special place, whether it's the National Theatre or the Barbican or a theatre anywhere.
It's hardly mass communication though, is it?
It's, it's hardly mass communication, and I think that I'm aware of that, that it's not mass communication; and I think that one of the things I've always tried to build in to the way I either take on a, a former classic, or do a play, or write a poem or make a film of my own, is to realise that somewhere there's a, a privilege of participation involved, and that there are people outside this privileged participation, who, if I'm not able to bring them into the theatre, I can make those who are participating in the privilege, aware that the theatre has glass walls so they see those who are not participating.
Let's, let's go back to, to the beginning. Were you an only child?
No, I have a sister.
And you got on well with your parents, I mean clearly from everything that you have written about them?
Very well [hardly audible]. [overtalking] Until I started publishing poetry.
Yes. You also had two uncles; one who stammered, and one who was dumb.
One was deaf and dumb and one was... had the most terrible stammer I think I ever encountered.
What effect do you think that had on you and your wish to be as articulate as you could be?
These things only become clear in retrospect. I was aware of a hunger for articulation. And I think in retrospect, it came from not only the fact that I had an uncle who was deaf and dumb and one who stammered but a father who was reticent, shy, unable to express himself. And that the idea of articulation, expression, became for me absolutely vital to existence. I wrote a poem called Heredity, because everybody used to ask me, used to say, and my mother even used to say to me, 'Well, I don't know where it comes from, our Tony. There's been no artist in our family.' And hearing someone when I first did The Misanthrope at the National Theatre, at the interval, but it would... I sensed it was going really well, I heard a woman say [mocks upper-class accent] 'He has such a command over language, but they say he comes from Sheffield .' It, it's actually Leeds , but you get the, you get the idea. [Laughs] But I, so I wrote this poem about hereditary which goes to answer both my mother and people like this condescending woman. And it goes, '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.' So, as much... their presence as much as the books I devoured and the languages I learnt were important presences.
And then you became the grammar school boy on the scholarship, and education and learning, and that really created a terrible tormented gap between you and your father in particular, didn't it, that he assumed, rightly in some ways, that you were going to grow away from them; you were going to become somebody completely different? You weren't going to be 'our Tony' as they knew you.
What happens is that there's an inability to share what you're learning, I think, which is for me hugely frustrating, and I think that my work gets a certain energy from retrospectively trying to interpret the one, like the ancient theatre, to people like my parents; it's still going on, and the last film I did, 'Prometheus', is taking an ancient dramatic theme and dropping it into the Yorkshire of my childhood and seeing... seeing how the two get on. But it did create a division. I was hungering for all forms of articulation. I was lapping up Latin and Greek and French and also beginning to write poetry.
You see, I wonder whether the tension between you and your, your family over education is a very English thing. And I mean English, and I'll tell you why. I heard an interview with John Hume, the great Northern Ireland politician. And he, like you, came from a very ordinary background, and he got scholarships, and the interviewer said to him, 'Wasn't all that a problem with your parents?' He simply... John Hume didn't understand the question. He said, 'They wanted me to get on. That's the only way that a working-class boy could get on.' And that seems to me to be instinctive to the Irish and the Welsh and the Scots probably. Do you think it is a particularly English thing?
It is, I think it is English. I think that they did want me to get on, but they wanted me to get on so far. I think my mother particularly, I think, was more ambitious for me than my father. She would make the effort to bridge whatever the gap was and try to understand what I was grappling with at school. But I think they didn't want me to go that far. Maybe they wanted me to be a teacher in the local school. Something of that kind...
Something that people would recognise.
...could recognise as getting on better than they had, but still in the same area.
Yeah. Sort of still in the same emotional and intellectual planet. [overtalking]
Yes sure. Sure.
But then it's not as if at school you found that everybody said, 'Tony, come on in. You're now part of us, a different intellectual world.' I know you've many times told the story about the teacher who rejected your accent. Some won't have heard it, so just tell it to me, would you?
Well, I... it's again a source of... the sort of retrospective aggro I built in to the reclamation of 'the Mysteries'. The reason is that an English teacher that I had at Leeds grammar school, would always, as soon as I opened my mouth to read a poem would stop me because I had a thick urban Leeds accent. I'd say 'Me 'eart aches in a drowsy numbness'. 'Please, stop.' And I had no, none of the, you know, none of the knowledge then to know that Keats was a Cockney, that Wordsworth was often considered incomprehensible when it came to London, because he had a Cumbrian accent. I hadn't got that information. I didn't know then that it was all... the idea of received pronunciation was simply based on the speech of the southern public schools, that culture had been dubbed into that voice. Even things like 'The Mystery Plays.' I saw 'The Mystery Plays' in the 50s in York ; and they're written in an earlier medieval form of the accent I ended up speaking. And God was terribly posh, and Jesus was terribly posh, and only the comic parts were allowed to be Yorkshire . And they...even then I was irritated by that, so that I remember when I talked to Bill Bryden at the National, I thought, 'Now is my chance to reclaim Northern classics for the voice they were written.'
So the teacher... just to round off on this; the teacher particularly hated the way you said 'uz.'
That's right, 'uz, uz, uz.' Yeah. It's in a poem of mine called 'Them And Uz.' It's not 'uz, uz, it's 'us', 'us.' And of course 'uz' is the pronoun of solidarity, of family feeling, of inclusivity, and umm....
But this has been useful for you, hasn't it. I mean, it's been like the grit in the oyster, hasn't it. I mean, you don't worry it away at it in a sort of neurotic way, or does it really hurt when you think of the times when he used to say, 'You mustn't speak like that....' [overtalking]
No, I, you know, I've got over all that, but it did, I think it, it gave me a, a kind of creative aggro, which is in the poem. I think part of the poem says, 'Right, you buggers, then, we'll occupy this lousy [unclear] old poetry.' And it gave me the energy to say I'm going to do poetry as well as I can, so well that you're going to have to look at it, but it's going to be in my own voice, and you're never going to be able to dub it into this pseudo-cultural voice that everybody thought poetry should be read in, and that everybody felt Shakespeare should be played in, and it still lingers in English theatre...
And did you feel when your first book of poems was printed, 'The Loiners', did you think that you were being true to yourself, that that was expressing both your experience and your background and the tone of voice that you've just described, that it was doing that as truly as you could?
I think from this distance it looks a little bit like showing off to me, much of it, a lot of it is showing off, showing that I could manage the forms with my hands tied behind my back. And also I not only took on classical forms, I also wrote about politics and sex. Certainly sex was never discussed at home, and it's one of those subjects in which was in an enormous pall of silence.
So your mother thought that the book was just rather mucky?
Dirty, yes, it was mucky. She... I have a line in a poem which quotes her, 'You weren't brought up to write such mucky books.', she says. And I wasn't brought up to write such mucky books, but I went on to write them. Interestingly, I mean, in that poem, that line is that that line is also, if you scan it properly and not like academics tend to scan poetry, is, iambic pentameter, and you find iambic pentameter on the lips of people the whole time. And I love listening on trains to people speaking unconsciously in the metre that's natural to English speech.
But you just accepted with regret and with sorrow that you'd upset your parents, but there was no way that this could affect what you were going to write and how you were going to write poetry.
No. It didn't. It wasn't like DH Lawrence giving his first book to his mother and being proud of her having it in her hands and so on. I didn't actually give my parents a copy of 'The Loiners' because I knew they would be offended by it, but someone, a cousin, found it in the library and said, 'Look what I've found in the library.
Did they do so innocently or did those do so, as it were maliciously?
No, no. Not maliciously. No, no, no, no. Not maliciously. Out of innocent interest, I think.
But that lead to your commission to translate, or to render, Molière's Misanthrope.
Yes whatever I put myself to the apprenticeship and discipline of learning classical metres, rhyming couplets and quatrains and so on, attracted the attention of John Dexter when he was looking for a poet to translate Molière.
Is translation quite the word? I mean, it's a completely new version, apart from the fact that it's updated. I mean, not only is it updated, but you render it completely afresh.
I do, but it's... in some ways you look for another context in order to look more clearly at the original and make its tensions clearer. In this case, I spent many months simply getting the right tension between absolutely acceptable colloquial language in a very strict classical metrical form. And that I did, and I was very careful to keep all my imagery within the boundaries of 1666, when the play was first written. But when I gave my first draft to John Dexter and Laurence Olivier, they were both first of all impressed by the colloquial energies. It sounded very modern. And John Dexter said, 'I think we should do it in modern dress. I'll ask Christian Dior to design it.' And I said, 'Well...Wait a minute. If you do that, you are going to maroon these...' because, French... English needs to concretise more than French. I was looking for... I concretised the images, but they were still historical. I said 'I have to rethink the language'. So I took it away, and because the occasion of the production was the tercentenary of the death of Molière, I suddenly had the idea of taking a three-hundred-year circle and putting it in 1966.
So you did two versions of it?
Oh, I mean, there were more.
I do, I do millions of versions of everything I do. The notebooks are enormously fat. And... one of the mediations was that in 'Le Canard Enchaines ', the satirical newspaper of France , they always used to depict De Gaulle as 'Le Roi' after Louis XIV. And they talked about the court and, and so on. So I thought, 'Ah, that's a way of looking at the piece, and also the imminence of the events of 1968 was a way of measuring the political engagement and sincerity of Alceste. So the whole thing then took life from that.
It does have fantastic energy. I'm, I know you don't like reading lines that you've written for other people, but because it's so vivid, would you mind just reading really either of those speeches that you've got there, just to give an idea?
The reason I like to read my poetry in my own voice, and I often... I rarely like actors reading my own poetry, but it's a liberation to write for other voices. That's one of the reasons that takes me into theatre, because I don't have to be obsessed with my own preoccupations. But this is a bit of Celimene using her destructive wit on hangers-on at the court. And one of the counts says 'He and Belise are on good terms, I hear. 'Poor silly creature' says Celimene, 'Poor silly creature, and so dull. My dear, I suffer martyrdoms when she comes around. Getting conversations off the ground with hers like slavery; one sweats and strains for subjects. Honestly, one racks one's brains, but she's so unforthcoming, so half-dead, chat plummets to silence like a lump of lead. 'A little warmer?' 'Turned out nice again?' 'Chilly, don't you think?' 'It looks like rain?' Gambits to break the ice with anyone, but not Belise. One sentence and she's done.' It's bad enough her visiting at all, but dragged out half the day, intolerable. Look at the clock, yawn, play the busy host, she no more budges than a wooden post.'
Yep. Yes, Yes. You mentioned all the notebooks. Let's talk about how you work. Are you a regular disciplined worker when you write?
Hugely disciplined. My whole existence is hugely disciplined in that way. All my life I always spend a lot of time every day working. I don't always write anything, but I'm working around finding the occasion when the writing becomes possible. Sometimes I have very lean periods. I have periods of darkness, of depression, almost, when I can't create, but I can prepare for when it lifts and the creative mood comes back, or the finishing... I begin things, I begin things constantly in notebooks, and then I often have periods, sometimes lasting months, which are kind of manic finishing periods. And sometimes these are dictated by the fact I've got a deadline. But it's very good for me to spend time alone writing and then go into the life of the theatre and write often quickly, and this has changed since I worked with other directors, and then, now that I direct my own pieces, that... in the first occasions, I used to have to....when you get in a rehearsal situation and a scene doesn't work, and, you know, it's not the actors and the director can't see a way round, it that I say, 'Uhm, well, maybe I should rewrite this... and I think, if he says this...' and I would go away [overtalking] I would go away...I don't mind to throw away anything...I think that you, you haven't to mind.
You can't be precious about it?
You can't have a holy text in theatre until it's there. Until it's there. And getting there, it goes to the rehearsal. I would have to withdraw, go to my special room that I used to have, and write, type it out, bring it back, copy it, bring it back on paper. But if I'm directing myself, I just learned to say... when we get to the situation, I say, 'Oh, say, ladidadidaladidala.....' And somebody else writes it down. And this is wonderfully liberating for people who are, you know, inward and grudging with their creativity.
But when you're writing poems, as it were, free-standing poems, how does the idea for that come to you? Do you sit down and say, 'It's time I write some poems.' Clearly not as crude as that, but presumably for a poem and the idea for a poem must force itself to your attention, mustn't it?
It does. It, it's, sometimes in a phrase or an image. I always have a notebook with me and I still work in notebooks rather than on a computer, although I use that to update text when I work in the theatre. I still work with pen, and then I type, then I correct on the typescript and I stick it in, and I stick in another one on top of it, and, and so on. It's a very layered thing, which comes out of often months of putting down phrases which I'm sure will lead somewhere, but I'm not sure where, and actually to find out what the context of that phrase is, is the poem, is finding the poem.
The phrase will find a home somewhere..?
It will find a home somewhere. But I don't know often with my notebooks nowadays whether it is going to be a poem, a short poem, a series of poems, a play, or a film. But they all begin in the same way, in the same notebooks. And there are pictures, and there are little drawings, and there are collages, and there are visual stimuli as well...[overtalking]
So they are image-driven and word-driven, and also feeling-driven, but....
Oh, sure, sure. Absolutely feeling-driven.
Do you always check what they sound like? I mean, given how powerfully your, your poems lift off the page - it's as if you need to check when you've written it, 'How does that sound?' And if it doesn't sound right in the open air, then it probably won't be right on the page.
Well, if I'm writing for the theatre, that's only... the only criterion is, is how does it sound when it's performed. I think it's different with the poem on the page, although I do monitor everything for sound, and I read my poems aloud, and poems that you know you're going to read aloud may have a different form than those that you want people to take away with a private light and read in bed or whatever, wherever they read their poetry. They're slightly different, but this constant, constant monitoring of words for their sense and sound. What the relationships of the... tastes of the sounds, the assonances, the consonantal repetitions, the voice and voiceless counterparts that Welsh poets made a great deal of, and...,
Let's talk about how this applies to the classics. You learnt Greek and Latin at school. You have made some significant translations, reworkings again, of the 'Orestiea', in particular, 'The Trackers'; but the deeper question of what it is about the Greek myths that still remains relevant to you and relevant to us, because, you know, the standard thing that people say, 'Why bother to teach the classics', what does it mean to the young, or the not so young today? But to you, they are burningly relevant and real still, aren't they?
They are. I think my interest chiefly is not so much essentially the myths as the invention of drama, especially tragedy. I'm not a religious person and I think in some ways the monotheistic religions were a kind of disaster after things like the culture of Greece with its essential role for drama and for tragedy. It seems to me that it was one of the human resources that was an incredible invention for grappling with, coming to terms, sometimes even celebrating, the darker parts of experience; and it seems to me that the darker parts of experience are the ones we need most help with. We can all cope with our joys, I think, alone, or in the company in which we have the joy. There's not much really good poetry which is joyful or happy. So for me, art is the deepest thing we have to grapple with the realities of existence and one of the best arts that did that was Greek tragedy. And it seemed to me that we needed that kind of art which was open-eyed about savagery and darkness and blood, and yet refused, as Nietzsche said, to be turned to stone by the experience. And tragedy has that pre-eminently, it seems to me. And we need... we needed exactly those resources for the experiences of the 20th century.
But in that case, why do schools say, as a matter of course, and not just schools... they say that classics are irrelevant to the young, won't take them, they don't understand them? Is it another case of the difficult being badly taught?
I think so. I think so. I think there are people who do classics and translation, which can be also a very interesting course, but fewer people doing Greek, as I did, or... I'm certain that someone from the same background as me would find it very difficult to find his way to learn Greek.
But you see, recently, when Deborah Warner produced Medea in the West End with Fiona Shaw, that was in the West End , after all, and that ran for quite a long time. And the cast talked, and they all talked about what it was that was producing the intense response from the audience that they could feel. And they decided in the end that it wasn't the obvious thing - the mother murdering her children; I mean, in a sense you can take that for granted. Nobody needs to argue about that. We all got the very strong feeling that what was churning the audience up was that it was about the break-up of a marriage, and that the audience was sitting there, acknowledging that these emotions, doing hideous destructive things on the stage, were about something that they may well have experienced - the break-up of relationship.
Yes. But the interesting thing, although it's not always the case in productions, even productions like the one you mentioned, is that for me, the resources are not those of naturalistic drama. It seems the cliché of today in film and theatre is naturalistic. I think that if we want to force ourselves to look at, not only the horrors of the last century, which in some ways cancel out what seem to be the acclaimed achievements of culture, then we need other resources than naturalism, because the end of naturalism is to scream, it's an inarticulate cry, or it's a covering of the eyes. For me, in Greek drama, and this is emblemised by the mask, which is created with open eyes and an open mouth, that it must see everything and it must sing about it. It must speak about it. I can think of one Greek play where the messenger, which... always the messenger's speech is the, often the great speech of a Greek play. He comes in to tell us... all the blood that we splatter about freely in film and even on the stage, but we can do any kind of mutilation and violent death very graphically. The Greeks didn't do that. They reported it. And the man comes on stage and says, 'I have seen something I can't speak about.' And then for three hundred lines he speaks about it. It's been filtered through the reporting human heart and the reporting voice, which I think is an essential one. So I go back not just out of antiquarian interest - I'm not interested in antiquarian reproduction - but to go and find stylistic resources for our own times.
You've also done a lot of work on television. The particular piece that I want to talk about is of course the television film about your poem, 'V' which for those who haven't read it is a poem about the fact that your parents' grave was desecrated by vandals and four-letter words...
...and four-letter words were spread all over them. And you're then shown reading this poem with many four-letter words in it and that was a television programme, and much outcry it caused. At the time, and now, looking at it, I don't think anybody could possibly be shocked by it, but what is amazing is that the outcry that there was at the time... it was as if you were using those words and glorifying them rather than reporting them in a way that was protesting against their use.
Well, it was all stirred up, you know, by the Daily Mail, and by... and then the Daily Mail phoned around people who've never read the poem and don't know me from Adam, and they shoot off their mouth, and they're happy to be quoted, condemning something they know nothing about. That's how it started.
But for you, was there a dual sense of pain? That is, of course, real pain at the desecration of your parents' grave, but also a sense of pain at the thought of the deprivations of life that led to the football hooligans to do what they did.
Well, there are all kinds of things behind the poem. One is, you would go to any city area like the one I grew up in, and look at the graveyard, and once it was a fairly settled community with people who were butchers, and then their son was a butcher, and so on and so on. You can see this in the graves; the graves are quite high, and they leave space for other people to come on. My own family grave is like that. And of course everybody goes away. People leave, because economically they go somewhere else to find work, and so on. So the families who belong to the dead who were there, have moved away. I've moved away. I go to the grave, as I say in the poem, you know, for an odd ten minutes when I'm changing trains or something.
That's a social difference and the people who live round there don't have the settled continuity of jobs as they're represented on the graves. They go through... it's a shortcut to Leeds United, and as they go through, they spray 'United', which has all kinds of also other associations. It's also a thing, an expression you find chiselled on graves when a wife joins a husband, or children join their mother and father in death.
Don't think the graffiti writers know that
No. They don't, and they weren't aware of that, but I'm the sort of person who notices those sort of things, so that appears in the poem. And it was also at the time of the miners' strike and the closing of pits, and one of the reasons was that some of them were being worked out. Well, underneath this particular grave was also a hollowed-out pit, which made the graves lean a little. So all that's part of the theme. And I then encounter the sort of person I probably would have ended up being had I not had the opportunities I had, you know, from 1944 Education Act, going to Leeds Grammar School and so on.
Because you couldn't express yourself in any other way?
Because I couldn't express myself... and so the poem is a debate between me and the skinhead who graffities the grave. When he writes his name on the grave, it's mine. I think what a lot of people were irritated by, those who looked at the poem, was that all these tensions and this debate which uses the language of the street, is in the quatrains, the rhymed quatrains, of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard. I mean, deliberately. This is a rage in an urban churchyard, but I'm using the metre of Gray's Elegy; and some people like certain things uncorrupted, unpolluted, kept sacrosanct.
The Times says, or said, that you're the first genuine working-class poet of the century. It's clear of course where your loyalties lie... the... a couple of lines, 'The dumb go down in history and disappear and not one gentleman's being brought to book; the tongueless man gets his land took.'
That's... there are historians now who, like EP Thompson, who are correcting these biases, but if you look in...the written records of the history of any culture, you find mostly the, the writing of the privileged. You find the words - I've used it in another poem - of working-class people and unprivileged people only when they're written down, before they're going to be hung or before their execution and this kind of thing; so that if you're looking for vocal bearings, you don't find any. If you feel that these are the waves and the currents on which you are carried, and these are also represented by those uncles and father I had who were unable to express themselves, that if these are the currents that carry you, you... it's very hard to find where they come from, because they're not recorded.
Of course, 'V' was a programme filmed by Richard Eyre of an existing poem, but you also made your own programmes where you write the poetry, you write the words, you make the film, it's entirely your creation. Now, how do the various processes... after all, you don't have to argue with yourself as to which comes first, the images or the words. Give us some idea of how the processes work.
Well, you... I learnt it with a very agreeable colleague, Peter Symonds , a BBC director with whom I did a four-part series on death. And when he first came to me, I said, 'Well, you realise it's all going to be in verse?' And he gulped but bit the bullet. And we evolved a way of both sitting in the editing room writing to a picture, reediting, then going out and filming more and so on, and gradually I, I just developed an ease with the process, and then eventually also directed my own films.
You obviously have a very strong and a very useful journeyman streak. Words are there to be crafted.
Oh, absolutely. I always remember, when I was very young on a train in Ireland , going to Galway , an old woman said, 'What do you do? What are you? What do you do?' I said, I'm a poet. She said, 'Well, that's a grand trade to be in.' I've always loved that expression. I feel, you've got to learn, you learn the mechanics of the theatre, the film, and sound, filming, all the techniques. I like all that, just as I like learning... as I did like to learn originally, all the technicalities of poetry itself.
So it's not poetry with a capital 'p' and a halo around it?
Oh, never. Never. Never. No halos. A few horns maybe.
In that poem, 'V', 'Versus', in the football sense, there are so many things which reflect the tensions in yourself, though maybe they're not tensions... left versus right, nature versus nurture, which we've been discussing, school versus home, north versus south. Are they things that you can wholly reconcile, that you want to reconcile them, or is there also an element of confrontation in your working out of these versuses in your life.
I think the versuses are very important to creating the verse, I mean, this rather awful pun of course in that title, that I think I need that dialectic, I suppose, to create. It's part of my way of looking at things.
The tension at the heart of your poetry, you've said, 'between the pessimistic intellect and the celebratory heart.'
Yes. I would say that in many ways I have a pessimistic view of human history, but from day to day I have a sensual sense of the celebratory richness of existence, and sometimes it's very hard to bring the one to the other, although sometimes you find that darkness is the best burnisher of light in so many ways.
But you've always found, so far, that the celebratory aspect has triumphed over the pessimistic intellect, even when the pessimism has driven you close to depression, not being able to write and so on.
It's an ongoing struggle. It's... it has to be fought all the time. [overtalking]
Is it worse? Is it more acute now that you're a bit older?
I think it was worse when I was younger because I didn't quite... I understood it less. It's now... darkness is a familiar friend, I'm not afraid of it. I say, 'Oh, come in. Sit down', you know. 'Come and join me in my study.' I'm not trying to drive it away.
But you don't know that it will go away, do you.
No. You never know it will go away, and probably it doesn't, but you have to... you have to let it in. I'm afraid it's a co-producer of my creative work.
Is one of the things that you're representing, care about, a culture which has a memory of its past and an involvement in its past, and perhaps a contemporary culture which tends only to be aware of the present?
Yes, certainly, I think in some ways I've always thought that poetry is a kind of an art near to extinction, but that... as I've written in a series of poems called Art in Extinction is probably animals which are near to extinction show the beauty of the natural existence almost more than at any other time. So that I have that belief in it, but in order to give myself help, from day to day in feeling like this and giving most of my life's energy to poetry, I need also to connect to the past where poets were more ambitious and more central to cultural life and social life. I think there's something about it which carries some of the truest meanings of our culture, even though it can be neglected; I feel it's also my role by trying to keep alive the energy of poetry you are also allowing the stream of past poetry to keep entering into the culture. I think that's what I mean.
I'll risk summing you up, because I must have a chance to read a few of your words, however badly, with your attack on the Poet Laureateship: 'I'd rather be a free man with no buts, free not to have to puff some prince's wedding, free to say, 'Up yours' to Tony Blair, to write an ode on Charles I's beheading and regret the restoration of his heir, free to scatter scorn on Number 10, free to blast and bollock Blairite Britain.' Is that the true you?
It's a great deal of the true me, sure. Certainly in regards to a ridiculous institution like the Laureateship, and the monarchy, I might say. I've always been a great republican.
Did you enjoy writing that?
I did, I did, I did enjoy it; I enjoyed writing it a great deal. I think it came off the pen quite fluently.
And off the page. [laughter] Tony Harrison, thanks very much.