Born in 1937 in Leeds, formidably and passionately educated in classics, with wonderful metrical, formal and rhyming skills (his version of the York Mystery Plays brilliantly evoked the poetic quality of the world before the King James Bible or the iambic pentameter hit the English language) and profoundly political. Dedicated to making serious poetry and ideas as popular as possible, he brings all language into poetry - from Greek to Yorkshire dialect, inarticulate grunts, rhyming couplets and puns; he invented the poem-film, and began the renaissance of translated verse-drama (especially Greek plays). What with film, TV, opera, theatre, lyric, satire, elegy, political polemic, love poetry, and poetry of ideas, he has the most diverse command of genre of all poets writing in English today. Many collections, two-volume dramatic works, film scripts (see the recent Prometheus) and a Selected.
He leads into his startling scenario (mum's ring, after the incinerator) via a universal observation (gold survives) and an ambiguous you in the second line. To make you ashes could mean "make ashes for you (or anyone)". Only in the fourth line, your wedding ring, do we realise how personal that first you was. The first two lines are a universal comment; the second two (an envelope contains) are uniquely particular. Only once in your life do you get an official envelope with your mother's post-cremation wedding ring in it. This quatrain sets up a contrast between the universal, whose regulations contain human lives (standard urn, coarse official buff) - and the particular, the attached individual who survives (wouldn't burn) as gold, image of richest value in our life. From the impersonal (standard, official) the poem moves to attachment, embodied in the first line of the last stanza (paradoxically isolated from the rest of its verse, to highlight it) where the ring that wouldn't burn meets the poet's warm palm. Now the balance between particular and universal, so crucial to all effective poetry (especially tragedy, Harrison's prime reference-point), becomes the sift of the title-image, that timer. Which, on the universal side, evokes ancient poetic images like sands of time (in Burns's "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose", "I shall love thee still, while the sands of life shall run"), the circle of eternity (see dad's hope in the second verse) or wheel of fortune. But on the personal side, we have the little boy who doesn't know the word (that thing) but is allowed (let me) to time eggs: image of maternity, of where he's come from (see womb), image of beginnings and rebirth. Aptly, for a poem about a ring, this is "ring- composition". In its ideas and connections, the end goes back to the beginning. But instead of "ashes to ashes" we have gold to eggs, making this elegy a poem of survival, warmth, strength, and valued relationship.
Between the universalising stanzas are two very particular ones. …