Academic journal article Text Matters

On (Not) Being Milton: Tony Harrison's Liminal Voice

Academic journal article Text Matters

On (Not) Being Milton: Tony Harrison's Liminal Voice

Article excerpt

Text Matters, Volume 6, Number 6, 2016 DOI: 10.1515/texmat-2016-0017

Agata G.Handley

University of d

Tony Harrisons poetry is rooted in the experience of aman who came out of the working class of Leeds and who, avowedly, became apoet and astranger to his own community. As Harrison duly noted in one interview, from the moment he began his formal education at Leeds Grammar School, he has never felt fully at home in either the world of literature or the world of his working class background, preferring to continually transgress their boundaries and be subject to perpetual change.

The paper examines the relation between poetic identity, whose ongoing construction remains one of the most persistently reoccurring themes of Harrisons work, and the liminal position occupied by the speaker of Harrisons verse. In the context of the sociological thought of such scholars as Zygmunt Bauman and Stuart Hall, the following paper discusses the way in which the idea of being in-between operates in On Not Being Milton, an initial poem from Harrisons widely acclaimed sonnet sequence The School of Eloquence, whose unique character stems partly from the fact that it constitutes an ongoing poetic project which has continued from 1978 onwards, reecting the social and cultural changes of contemporary Britain.

On (Not) Being Milton: Tony Harrisons Liminal Voice


On (Not) Being Milton: Tony Harrisons Liminal Voice

Born in 1937, Tony Harrison is apoet who crossed the boundary dividing the English working and middle classes. He was one of these children who, due to education reform, received state scholarships, went to grammar schools and as aresult had the opportunity to become students representing the rst generation of the working class of the North at university level. Reading Harrisons poetry, it seems justiable to say that his poetic path started not when he published his rst poem but much earlier, in 1948, when, as a scholarship boy, he crossed the threshold of Leeds Grammar School, nding himself from that moment onwards at the friction point of two cultures,1 as Richard Hoggart put it (239). This was acrucial moment, atriggering point that changed the trajectory of Harrisons life, opening doors to the world of eloquence and simultaneously depriving him of aclear identication with the place he grew out of and to which he will be returning again and again in his verse.

Joanna Bourke comments on the British education system in Working-Class Cultures in Britain 18901960, providing a useful background for understanding the situation in which children like Harrison found themselves:

By the 1940s, it was clear . . . that the education system was in crisis and radical reforms were needed. The Education Act of 1944 was advertised as Free Secondary Education for all. Based on the principle that every child should be educated according to his age, aptitude and ability, Butlers Act [1944] abolished tuition fees at state maintained schools, raised the leaving age to 15 years and introduced the tripartite system of secondary schools (grammar, modern and technical), which in the 1950s became bipartite (grammar via the 11-plus, and secondary modern). . . . Despite these attempts to promote greater social equality in access to education, class differentials persisted. (11720)

The authorities ignored the problems working-class children encountered in the classroom, which meant that prejudice and alienation became adaily reality for pupils from the lower stratum of society, who were not

1 Until the 1970s it was largely agreed that the working-class was characterised by distinctive cultural values and practices which stood outside and in opposition to those of the middle and upper classes. A series of landmark studies of working-class culture, especially those carried out between the 1950s and the late 1970s emphasised the distinctive values and solidarities seen as characteristic of working-class life. …

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