Who Owns The Language ? Poet Harrison Repeats the Question

In his review of Tony Harrison’s ‘Collected Poems’, Gregory Dowling* sees Harrison’s poem “On Not Being Milton ” (from which see below) as “ suggesting a parallel between the northern poet raising his voice and the Luddite rebellion, in which the weavers smashed the new frames that were putting them out of work with sledge-hammers, known as ‘Enochs’.

‘Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress
Clangs a forged music on the frames of Art,
The looms of owned language smashed apart..’

He suggests that the underlying thesis of this sequence of poems is to assert that it is by ‘owning’ the language that the ‘ ruling classes ’ have managed to maintain their social supremacy; so Harrison has taken up the task of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves – “bringing the voices of the northern working classes into the classical forms of English poetry…”

Whether this justifies Dowling’s “ poetry as class-warfare” rhetoric is for discussion, but it is certainly the case that, for Harrison, poetry is a ‘job’, a ‘craft’, linked with and on behalf of his community – precisely that poetry of involvement that I have been talking about, and missing, in the context of other, more current social and economic disintegration.

What’s more, it’s a job in direct line of descent from those of his father and tradesmen forbears …like them, he learned it by hard work and apprenticeship (I learned, he says, by what Yeats called ‘ sedentary toil and the imitation of great masters’…)

I strive to keep my lines direct and straight,
And try to make connections where I can…

You may recall some earlier comments I made on another great craftsman poet, Derek Walcott, who has supplied his own critique on why both form and language must be accessible to his communicants if it is to engage comprehension and memory.

‘I’m trying to get rid of the mystique as much as possible. And so I find myself wanting to write very simply cut, very contracted, very speakable, and very challenging quatrains in rhymes. Any other shape seems ornate, an elaboration on the cube that really is the poem. So we can then say that the craft is as ritualistic as that of a carpenter putting down his plane and measuring his stanzas and setting them squarely.’

Walcott, remember, is also the poet who sees ‘rhyme’ in terms of ‘sounds coupling to form a memory’ on the way to fulfilling his poet’s mission; part of the apparatus to supplement the more basic necessity of an available and understandable language transferred into the ‘ownership’ of those who otherwise might be excluded and disfranchised from it.

And what of Seamus Heaney who, unsurprisingly, also sees himself as a worker, though with different tools, in the longer labouring tradition of his forbears

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father digging. I look down ….

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

(from ‘Death of a Naturalist’)

Harrison, Walcott and Heaney are a formidable poetic trio who – I suspect – would have little difficulty with another artist’s (Picasso’s) judgement on the necessary kinetic energies of his own – and others’- art.

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet? How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”
Pablo Picasso. (Quoted in Russell Martin’s ‘Picasso’s War’)

Which brings us, with some urgency, back to the question I have been trying to raise elsewhere about the apparent distance and detachment of whatever constitutes or ‘speaks for’ our contemporary poetry profession, from the deep social, moral and political distresses around us. A customary – but decreasingly persuasive – answer is to assert the essential solitariness and idiosyncracy of the poet’s art – though Shelley, Neruda, Lorca and many others might demur.

The sad, contemporary image being projected is that of the poet as a mainly self-indulgent, campus-based, creative-writing-school or social-media junkie, on a semi-permanent festival trail and comfortably aloof from the less salubrious ‘peat-bogs’ of banking crises, soup-kitchens, social and economic disintegration, grinding poverty, injustice and inequality. Not much evidence of ‘instruments of war’, they are saying, in this supposed genteel world of contemporary, poetic letters.

One laudable part-exception has been the resurgence of highly creative interactions between poetry and contemporary sciences – though this simply, but importantly, re-establishes a centuries-long tradition, stretching back via the ‘romantic’ poets (Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats et al), on to the ‘scientist’ poets (Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy and others), and back to the more distant classical ages – of Empedocles, Aristotle, Lucretius and the ‘De Natura Rerum’.

Ruth Padel, Robert Crawford, Jon Glover, Jo Shapcott are among contemporaries who have chosen to dirty their hands at this poetry/science interface – which is very much alive and kicking. Yet this welcome, still partial, renewal of interactive relevance has not involved that more basic ‘emancipation’ or ‘legalisation’ of an ‘alien’ language which underpins Tony Harrison’s deeper concerns for society – and its poetry.

Which is why, in ‘On the Silence of the Poets’, and elsewhere, I’ve lamented the general absence of the mainstream poetic voice from the desperate social inequalities and injustices of our times. Paradoxically, the major ‘running’ among the Arts, so far, is being made in the important creative responses of live theatre and cinema, and I plan to comment further on these developments again soon. Meanwhile it’s wake-up time for some more involved and relevant voices of poetry.

That is why Tony Harrison’s BBC Radio Four uncensored reading of ‘V’ (on Monday 18 February 2013) was such an important, as well as deeply moving, event. It was beautifully timed, at this equivalent period of crisis to those must-never-be-forgotten days of the Eighties, to raise again, with great authority, the role and relevance of poetry in the biggest, most threatening, social and political issues of the day.

We’d better get on with it – or heed Harrison’s prophetic refrain (Them & [UZ])…

“So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy
Your lousy leasehold Poetry”

*Tony Harrison, ‘Collected Poems’ Viking 2007.
Review, Gregory Dowling, ‘Semicerchio’ (Journal of Comparative Poetry, Florence.)


RW. 2 March 2013.