If gale-force Fortune sweeps you off you feet,
let it; ride it; and admit defeat.
There’s no point in resisting; it’s too strong –
willy-nilly, you’ll get swept along.
Palladas. Tony Harrrison
It was an unseasonably warm October night. The high winds of the midweek had ceased and it was still. My own turmoil was resting, licking its wounds, trying to heal itself. This was the second time we had ventured out on a Saturday evening to see my favourite poet. The first time had been a wrong call; I got the month wrong. Perhaps my father was right when he insisted that I was dateless. My wife shares this acute judgement of the strange being that is her husband. A month late, but on time, I prayed that the firmaments were now in line.
The last time that I attended a reading of his poetry was almost thirty years ago. I had gone along with a good friend and sat suitably in awe of the greatest light in modern poetry. I considered him to be one of us (UZ) rather than one of them. I came from working-class roots and confronted the received-wisdom that denied the masses so that the few could prosper. It was through his poetry that I found mine. I also found a torch that lit up the tunnels in which I could work away at the foundations of that which chose to imprison me.
It was Harrison’s School of Eloquence that originally pulled me in:
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.
If my father had ever written verse, I would have liked it to have been like this. My dad was a realist, not a dreamer like his son. He could not waste words on silly rhymes; life was too short and there was work to be done. So, I took Tony Harrison at his word(s) and made him my surrogate muse. Each time I came across well-trodden feet, I stopped in wonder at the things I had previously not seen. It was like waking-up for the first time, every time, and seeing the world afresh.
I was saddened and surprised by how few people had turned-out to listen to the Rhubarb Bard. There was a time when he was admired as ‘one of the most prodigiously gifted and accessible poets’ alive. He could ”speak the language” that he spoke at home, but use the form of sonnets to drive his point home at the same time. When I first read him, it was at the behest of Mary Eagleton, the sister of Terry Eagleton, another well-read socialist interpreter of higher learning. I was like Tony’s uncle; “mouth all stuffed with glottals”. My public reading had never been good, even if I did have the accent to suit the verse. After tripping through his lines, I went home to sit in my undergraduate bedsit and study his words. They were mine.
That was years and years ago in the long, long ago that will not disappear.
Tony Harrison came to the front of the small gathering, apologised for not having his microphone attached, had it attached, then shuffled the white pages of his world of words. We were in Beverley Minster, a grand building that has been used by TV companies to ape its better known cousin, the palace of Saint James. And Tony, though not in the pulpit, was at the front. When he started to read, I fell into the time between the pages and saw not an old man, now gone eighty, but the Tony Harrison of some forty years before. I caught myself mouthing the words that he was speaking and realised that I was performing an act of devotion. I nodded when lines long deep in my own memory were recited. Other people disappeared into the shadows of the ancient hall and there was Harrison speaking directly from within me.
My fellow audience members were probably retired teachers; their sensible clothes suggested as much. I recognised faces from the past and shared a greeting or two. Nobody applauded when he reached then end of individual poems. My hands were itching to give him a warm ovation, but to my shame I followed the crowd. It was like being at an opera or classical concert. Everything Harrison stood for was being filtered into their sense of the world. I actually wanted to cheer and to shout encouragement or agreement, but I merely nodded and mouthed the words I knew.
At the end of the reading, there was a little Q&A. An interviewer asked generic questions about poems that had been written decades before. It was obvious and a little puerile. I filled a void of silence when I held the microphone to tell him that I was pleased that it was being held in that setting as I had worshipped him as a poet. The wife said that that was a little corny and she was right. But at least it was honest.
A question that wasn’t asked, but was partly addressed by the poet, was about the impact he had had through his writing. At its point, his eyes fell towards the floor and he thought for a moment.
“The world has gone back to what it was like back then. I thought it would have changed. I hoped that it would have got better, but it’s back to where it was. Isn’t that what history teaches us? And we never learn.”
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.”