Tony Harrison Is Sixty: Simon Armitage Salutes the Master

By Armitage, Simon | New Statesman (1996), April 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

Tony Harrison Is Sixty: Simon Armitage Salutes the Master


Armitage, Simon, New Statesman (1996)


I was watching telly during the afternoon, so I must have been bored or on holiday or ill. There was a man in a pub reading poems from a book. The people in the bar were standing in silence, pints in their hands, gobstruck. They didn't look like people who might go to a poetry reading, they looked like people who might go to the pub. Some of them were crying. When the camera moved in on the man reading the poems, he was crying as well. He had a Yorkshire accent - Leeds, possibly - and the poems were about his parents: living with them, losing them, loving them. The programme finished but the credits didn't name him, so it was another five or six years before I realised he was Tony Harrison.

Most writers can identify a few moments in their early life that somehow pushed them into picking up a pen, even if they didn't recognise them at the time. For me, that half an hour of daytime television was one of them. When I eventually clapped eyes on the poems, read them, it dragged the memory out of its dusty box, and I heard that voice again, making cry-babies out of the blokes in the boozer. From then on Harrison became a new section on the bookshelf, not far from Hughes and Heaney.

It's a theory of mine that the more you admire a person, the less likely you are to imitate them, mainly because you know the tricks of their trade so well that blood rushes into your cheeks when you find yourself passing them off as your own. You look over your shoulder to see if they're watching, and they are. That doesn't mean I've never written a Tony Harrison poem - I have - but it was more a question of having to go through one place to arrive at another. The most genuine form of influence, I think, is a lesson in attitude or disposition, and in that sense, I have taken certain things from him. His opinion that the poet should be a poet first, last and always, is wide open to all sorts of flamboyant interpretations, but his own rendition of the notion seems to boil down to this: getting on with the thing you're best at.

In an interview last year, I asked him if he saw his films, theatre work and journalistic pieces as separate from his writing as a poet. He replied that people are always hyphenating him into film-poet, news-poet, drama-poet, etc, but he sees it all as part of the same task, the task of being a poet. "So you're not double-bar-relied then?" I asked him. He just threw back his head and laughed.

If getting on with the thing you're best at also implies a certain amount of productivity, then his output and the range of his work says it all. At sixty he strikes me as more industrious and fired-up than ever.

I've also been impressed with the way he deals with his upbringing and back-ground in his poems, and more specifically, his accent.

Some have said that Harrison writes in the way he speaks, but that isn't true. Nobody does that. What he has done is to establish a written version of his voice, a sort of acceptable presentation of West Yorkshire utterance that stops short of dialect poetry. …

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