Tony Harrison: Poems


Tony Harrison (born 30 April 1937) is an English poet, translator and playwright. He was born in Leeds and he received his education in Classics from Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University.[2] He is one of Britain's foremost verse writers and many of his works have been performed at the Royal National Theatre.[2] He is noted for controversial works such as the poem "V", as well as his versions of dramatic works: from ancient Greek such as the tragedies Oresteia and Lysistrata, from French Molière's The Misanthrope, from Middle English The Mysteries.[2] He is also noted for his outspoken views, particularly those on the Iraq War.[2][3][4] In 2015, he was honoured with the David Cohen Prize in recognition for his body of work.[5]


Adaptation of the English Medieval Mystery Plays, based on the York and Wakefield cycles, The Mysteries, were first performed in 1985 by the Royal National Theatre.[2] Interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for BBC television in 2012, Harrison said: "It was only when I did the Mystery Plays and got Northern actors doing verse, that I felt that I was reclaiming the energy of classical verse in the voices that it was created for."[6]

One of his best-known works is the long poem "V" (1985), written during the miners' strike of 1984–85, and describing a trip to see his parents' grave in Holbeck Cemetery in Beeston, Leeds, 'now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti'. The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse, etc. Proposals to screen a filmed version of 'v.' by Channel 4 in October 1987 drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its "torrents of obscene language" and "streams of four-letter filth" would have on the nation's youth. Indeed, an Early Day Motion entitled "Television Obscenity" was proposed on 27 October 1987 by a group of Conservative MPs, who condemned Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The motion was opposed only by MP Norman Buchan, who suggested that fellow members had either failed to read or failed to understand the poem. The broadcast went ahead and, after widespread press coverage, the uproar subsided. Gerald Howarth MP said that Harrison was "Probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us". When told of this, Harrison retorted that Howarth was "Probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us".[7]


Richard Eyre calls Harrison's 1990 play, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus "among the five most imaginative pieces of drama in the 90s". Jocelyn Herbert, famous designer of the British theatrical scene, comments that Harrison is aware of the dramatic visual impact of his ideas: "The idea of satyrs jumping out of boxes in Trackers is wonderful for the stage. Some writers just write and have little idea what it will look like, but Tony always knows exactly what he wants."[8]

Edith Hall has written that she is convinced that Harrison's 1998 film-poem Prometheus is "artistic reaction to the fall of the British working class" at the end of the twentieth century,[9][10] and considers it as "the most important adaptation of classical myth for a radical political purpose for years" and Harrison's "most brilliant artwork, with the possible exception of his stage play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus".[9]

Professor Roger Griffin of the Department of History at Oxford Brookes University, in his paper The palingenetic political community: rethinking the legitimation of totalitarian regimes in inter-war Europe, describes Harrison's film-poem as "magnificent" and suggests that Harrison is trying to tell his audience "To avoid falling prey to the collective mirage of a new order, to stay wide awake while others succumb to the lethe of the group mind, to resist the gaze of modern Gorgons".[11]



  • The Loiners (1970)
  • From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems (1978)
  • Continuous (50 Sonnets from the School of Eloquence and Other Poems) (1981)
  • A Kumquat for John Keats (1981)
  • V (1985)
  • Dramatic Verse,1973–85 (1985)
  • The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992)
  • Black Daisies for the Bride (1993)
  • The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems (1995)
  • Laureate's Block and Other Occasional Poems (2000)
  • Under the Clock (2005)
  • Selected Poems (2006)
  • Collected Poems (2007)
  • Collected Film Poetry (2007)
  • Kumkwat dla Johna Keatsa, in Polish, Bohdan Zadura (trans.), Warszawa: PIW (1990)
  • Sztuka i zagłada, in Polish, Bohdan Zadura (trans.), Legnica: Biuro Literackie (1999)


  • Earthworks (1964)
  • Newcastle is Peru (1969)
  • Bow Down (1977)
  • Looking Up (1979)
  • The Fire Gap (1985)
  • Anno Forty Two: Seven New Poems (1987)
  • Ten Sonnets from "The School of Eloquence" (1987)
  • A Cold Coming (1991)
  • A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan (1994)

Film and television

  • The Blue Bird: lyrics for George Cukor film (1976)
  • Arctic Paradise: verse commentary for film in series The World About Us, producer: Andree Molyneux for BBC Two (1981)
  • The Oresteia: translation for National Theatre production with music by Harrison Birtwistle, filmed for Channel Four television. (October 1983)
  • The Big H: musical drama, producer: Andree Molyneux, for BBC Two, (December 1984)
  • The Mysteries: adaption of medieval English mystery plays for the National Theatre, produced by Bill Bryden and Derek Bailey, filmed for Channel Four television. December 1985, January 1986)
  • Loving Memory four poem-films, producer Peter Symes for BBC Two
    • Letters in Rock: (July 1987)
    • Mimmo Perrella Non è Piu: (July 1987)
    • Muffled Bells: (July 1987)
    • Cheating the Void: (August 1987)
  • v.: poem filmed for television, producer Richard Eyre for Channel 4 (1987)
  • The Blasphemers' Banquet: poem-film producer Peter Symes for BBC One (1989)
  • The Gaze of the Gorgon: poem-film for television. (1992) which examines the politics of conflict in the 20th century using the Gorgon as a metaphor. The imaginary narration of the film is done through the mouth of Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. Located in Corfu the film describes the connection between the Corfu Gorgon at the Artemis Temple of Corfu and Kaiser Wilhelm II[12][13]
  • Prometheus: television film, also directed by the author (1998)

Theatre and opera

  • Aikin Mata (play), Nigeria (March 1964). An adaption of Aristophanes's Lysistrata.
  • The Misanthrope (play), National Theatre Company (opened at the Old Vic on 20 February 1973). Adaptation of Molière's Le Misanthrope.
  • Phaedra Britannica (play), National Theatre Company (opened at the Old Vic on 3 September 1975). Adaptation of Racine's Phèdre
  • Bow Down (play with Harrison Birtwistle), National Theatre (4 July 1977).[14]
  • Yan Tan Tethera (libretto for Harrison Birtwistle's opera), (1986).[15]
  • The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (play), (1990). A hit play.
  • Square Rounds (play), Olivier Stage (1992).[16][17]
  • The Labourers of Herakles (play), (1995).
  • The Prince's Play, National Theatre, London, 1996. A translation and adaptation of Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse. The play was subsequently published by Faber and Faber.[18]
  • Fram (play), Royal National Theatre (10 April 2008).

About Harrison and his poetry

  • Astley, Neil, ed. (1991). Tony Harrison. Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies. 1. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1-85224-079-2. 
  • Byrne, Sandie, ed. (1997). Tony Harrison: Loiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-818430-1. 
  • Rutter, Carol (1995). Permanently Bard. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1-85224-262-0. 
  • Sheehan, Sean. The Poetry of Tony Harrison. Focus On. London: Greenwich Exchange. ISBN 978-1-906075-15-6. 
  • Spencer, Luke (1994). The Poetry of Tony Harrison. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. ISBN 0-7450-1588-3. 
Literary prizes
  • 1972 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (for The Loiners 1970)
  • 1983 European Poetry Translation Prize (Aeschylus's The Oresteia 1981)
  • 1982 Whitbread Prize for Poetry (The Gaze of the Gorgon 1992)
  • 2004 Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award
  • 2007 Wilfred Owen Poetry Award[19]
  • 2009 PEN/Pinter prize, inaugural award.[20]
  • 2010 European Prize for Literature
  • 2014 European Poetry Prize
  • 2015 David Cohen Prize[21]
  1. ^ Alan Rosenthal (2007). Writing, directing, and producing documentary films and videos. SIU Press. pp. 78–. ISBN 978-0-8093-8772-4. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Dominic Head (26 January 2006). The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge University Press. pp. 488–489. ISBN 978-0-521-83179-6. Retrieved 14 May 2013. 
  3. ^ "HARRISON, Tony". Who's Who 2012. A & C Black. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  4. ^ Harrison, Tony (1991). A Cold Coming. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1-85224-186-1. 
  5. ^ Jonathan McAloon, poet Tony Harrison wins David Cohen Prize for Literature 2015, Telegraph, 26 February 2015.
  6. ^ "Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture: Episode 2, BBC2, broadcast 2 March 2012
  7. ^ "The Blagger's Guide To: Tony Harrison". The Independent. 29 April 2012. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  8. ^ "The Guardian Profile: Tony Harrison Man of mysteries". The Guardian. 1 April 2000. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  9. ^ a b Edith Hall. "Tony Harrison's Prometheus: A View from the Left" (PDF). ... an essential requirement in a film where the most unlikely wheezing ex-miner is slowly made to represent Prometheus himself 
  10. ^ Lorna Hardwick (15 May 2003). Reception Studies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 84–85. ISBN 978-0-19-852865-4. Retrieved 12 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Roger Griffin (December 2002). "The palingenetic political community: rethinking the legitimation of totalitarian regimes in inter-war Europe" (PDF). Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions. 3 (3): 24–43. doi:10.1080/714005484. 
  12. ^ BFI. "The Gaze of the Gorgon". 
  13. ^ Merten, Karl (2004). Antike Mythen – Mythos Antike: posthumanistische Antikerezeption in der englischsprachigen Lyrik der Gegenwart. Wilhelm Fink Verlag. pp. 105–106. ISBN 978-3-7705-3871-3. Retrieved 4 May 2013. der Räume und Kunstwerke des Achilleions hat, von entsprechendem dokumentarischem Filmmaterial begleitet. 
  14. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Bow Down - Universal Edition". Retrieved 24 November 2015. 
  15. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Yan Tan Tethera - Universal Edition". Retrieved 24 November 2015. 
  16. ^ Morley, Sheridan (7 October 1992). "A Sub-Brechtian 'Square Rounds'". The New York Times
  17. ^ "THEATRE / Bang, bang, dead confusing: Square Rounds - Olivier, National Theatre, 4 October 1992; Who Shall I Be Tomorrow? - Greenwich Theatre; The Darling Family - Old Red Lion; Lady Aoi - New End | Culture &#124". The Independent. Retrieved 24 November 2015. 
  18. ^ Independent newspaper review of the play, 22 April 1996. Accessed 16 January 2015.
  19. ^ "The Wilfred Owen Association". Retrieved 24 November 2015. 
  20. ^ Alison Flood, "Tony Harrison wins inaugural PEN/Pinter prize." 22 September 2009, Guardian
  21. ^ Moss, Stephen (26 February 2015). "Tony Harrison: still open for business". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 February 2015. 
External links
  • Quotations related to Tony Harrison at Wikiquote
  • Tony Harrison on Bloodaxe Books website
  • Tony Harrison at British Council: Literature
  • Tony Harrison on the Faber and Faber website
  • Guardian newspaper interview (March 2007)
  • University of Leeds profile
  • New Statesman profile (April 1999)
  • Archival material at Leeds University Library

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