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Friday, December 31, 2010

Number 24: Tony Harrison "Long Distance II"

Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he'd hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she'd just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven't both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there's your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

--Tony Harrison

Hap Notes: Tony Harrison (Born 1937) has certainly had his share of controversy in his lifetime. His poem, "V", raised hackles when it was read and shown as a film on television in Great Britain. The poem describes visiting his parent's grave site in Leeds during the miners' strike in the early 80s. His vivid use of the language of the graffiti on the graves offended some sensibilities. "V" is an acid slash of images and words. You can see this program on YouTube in several parts. Yep, welcome to the 21st century where poets do filmed projects. Harrison has done several of what he calls "Film Poems."

You have to smile a bit that poetry can still rankle politicians and the media. It's a powerful sword that many think has rusted but this proves otherwise. It may not make you a millionaire but don't forget what Kipling said about words being the most powerful drug on earth. Harrison knew this at an early age. He was one of those kids who stayed inside, read classics and Shakespeare and took a bit of razzing for it.

Harrison is on YouTube reading much of his poetry, holding his frayed and splayed book and speaking in that flat gorgeous Yorkshire accent of his. I wish all poets were so gifted with reading their work aloud, but Harrison certainly is. Read the poetry first, then listen to him so you can hear his emphasis compared to your own. He (as Eliot would say) does the "Police" in different voices. (Is that too obscure a reference? In "The Wasteland" T.S. Eliot refers to a person who reads the paper with different voices for the speakers, with the words "He do the "Police" (Police Gazette, I think) in different voices." Harrison uses different voices and tones. Didn't mean to drop the tranny there.)

Harrison read classics at the university which is a very plain British way of saying he majored in them. He's done award-winning translations of Aeschylus's The Oresteia and (great shades of yesterday's blog!) his The Gaze of the Gorgon won the Whitbread Poetry Award.

Three charming and somewhat unrelated bits: I've always thought it amusing that a recurring character on "The Mighty Boosh", a pink brain with tentacles and a grin, is named Tony Harrison. The poet actually wrote the lyrics for the songs in a movie "The Bluebird," a strange children's film I've always sorta liked. And Thom Yorke from the band Radiohead is a huge fan of Harrison.

Let's talk about the poem, yes? First off, did you even notice that it rhymed? His seemingly effortless way with rhyme is miraculous. Must be his native Yorkshire woodnotes mixed with a healthy dose of the Greek and Roman classics. The poem is a marvel of smooth gorgeous effortless verse which, if you'd ever tried to write you'd know is the complete opposite of those words. One little comment and I'll let you enjoy it for yourself. How long was that number virtually disconnected do you think, from his parents, as opposed to literally? It's a lovely poem, ain't it? Such tender words from the furious spirit who wrote "V."

Here's a good Harrison quote: "I was well read and knew languages, but I didn't want to become Ezra Pound. I wanted to write poetry that people like my parents might respond to."

You can find more Tony Harrison poetry here:

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