Linguistic subversive

9th June 1995 at 01:00
PERMANENTLY BARD: SELECTED POETRY BY TONY HARRISON. Edited by Carol Rutter. Bloodaxe Books Pounds 7.95. - 1 85224 262 0.

John Mole on the work of Tony Harrison, a poet obsessed with language as power.

Carol Rutter's edition of Tony Harrison's poetry, including extracts from several of his verse dramas, is a labour of informed enthusiasm. Built into her introduction and annotation are several personal anecdotes, and a full page of acknowledgements pays tribute to a number of "remarkable English teachers . . . all passionate about Harrison's poetry" who have inspired and piloted her selection and notes. Disarmingly, she even thanks a group of sixth formers whose comments led to "the eradication of very many irritating parenthetical remarks!" although a number of exclamation marks remain as witness to her own passion. As the wife of actor and director Barrie Rutter, himself associated with Harrison's work in the theatre, she is also well-placed to give a vivid impression of the poet's craft as a dramatist, even claiming that he is our greatest theatre poet since Shakespeare.

It seems to me important to stress the collectivity of these credentials because they are the source of this book's strength and great attractiveness. Harrison is very much the poet of community, of social dialectic. A distinctive individual voice, the "quarrel with himself" - in Yeats' phrase - out of which he makes his poetry is inseparable from his political agenda, and he is always at his most moving, most eloquent, when the personal is fired by a solidarity with the inarticulate and marginalised, to whom he has always demonstrated a fierce allegiance, and by a keen sense of the ambiguities of privilege - setting his own achievement in the context of the odds stacked against it.

This is the Harrison whom Carol Rutter so clearly admires, the poet obsessed with language as power and who quotes Arthur Scargill as an epigraph to V (not included but essential further reading): "My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words." It's a power which derives from an alertness to the energies of dialect, the rich inclusiveness of wordplay and puns - those "acts of linguistic subversion". "R.I.P. R.P", as Harrison puts it in one of the best known poems "Them (uz)" which Carol Rutter rightly places at the start of Permanently Bard, and it's these energies - along with an admirably close attention to the poetry's metrical skill - that she celebrates.

Given more space, I should argue with her on a number of points, not least her contention - oversimplifying in my view - that the family poems "reek of testosterone and privilege the male voice, but the theatre poetry claims space for the female". While I'm happy to accept the second part of that statement, the first part seems reductive to the point of absurdity. On the other hand, such confident assertions make good discussion points, and Carol Rutter's commentary is full of them. There are excellent and subtle explorations of a number of individual poems (particularly of the seminally autobiographical "Me Tarzan") and in the hands of a good teacher Permanently Bard will make a real contribution to the study of contemporary poetry, taking it well beyond the narrow constraints of an academic syllabus.

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