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Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison

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Tony Harrison is an English poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 and playwright
A playwright, also called a dramatist, is a person who writes plays.The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder...

. He is noted for controversial works such as the poem V
V (poem)
V is a poem by Tony Harrison written in 1985. The poem aroused much controversy when broadcast in film version on Channel 4.-Premise and setting:...

and Fram
Fram (play)
Fram is a 2008 play by Tony Harrison. It uses the story of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen's attempt to reach the North Pole, and his subsequent campaign to relieve famine in the Soviet Union to explore the role of art in a world beset by seemingly greater issues...

, as well as his versions of ancient Greek tragedies
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

, including the Oresteia and Hecuba
Hecuba (play)
Hecuba is a tragedy by Euripides written c. 424 BC. It takes place after the Trojan War, but before the Greeks have departed Troy . The central figure is Hecuba, wife of King Priam, formerly Queen of the now-fallen city...

. He is noted for his outspoken views, particularly against the Iraq War.


Tony Harrison was born in Leeds
Leeds is a city and metropolitan borough in West Yorkshire, England. In 2001 Leeds' main urban subdivision had a population of 443,247, while the entire city has a population of 798,800 , making it the 30th-most populous city in the European Union.Leeds is the cultural, financial and commercial...

, and despite his working class background, he received a scholarship to be educated at Leeds Grammar School
Leeds Grammar School
Leeds Grammar School was an independent school in Leeds established in 1552. In August 2005 it merged with Leeds Girls' High School to form The Grammar School at Leeds. The two schools physically united in September 2008....

 which then gave him the opportunity to study at the University of Leeds
University of Leeds
The University of Leeds is a British Redbrick university located in the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England...

, where he read Classics
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

 and took a diploma in Linguistics. For some years he has lived in Gosforth
Gosforth is an area of Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England, United Kingdom, to the north of the city centre. Gosforth constituted an urban district from 1895 to 1974, when it became part of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. It has a population of 23,620...

, Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne is a city and metropolitan borough of Tyne and Wear, in North East England. Historically a part of Northumberland, it is situated on the north bank of the River Tyne...



The material of much of his early poetry is provided by the memories of his working-class childhood. But he mastered classical learning without abandoning a relationship to where he came from, and he writes in a strong English voice that is learned in Latin and Greek sources yet without a hint of 'Oxbridge'. His poems and translations show a powerful command of rhyme and an expert adaptation of colloquial speech. His best known collections are The Loiners (1970) and The School of Eloquence and the Penguin Selected Poems. Perhaps the poem that best illustrates his range, energy and ability to bring the joy of life and the anger with what is made of it together, is his A Kumquat for John Keats, written in Florida when he was 42.

Cited from Professor Rick Rylance's analysis, focusing on "Book Ends" and "V", as well as the themes of political and personal division. "Tony Harrison is deservedly known as the poet of a distinctive kind of post-war experience. The son of a baker, raised in working-class Leeds, his work dramatises aspects of growing up in that life and the tension between it and the very different culture he entered through his educational success as a star pupil, first at Leeds Grammar School and then at university. Though often highly personal, his poetry explores themes representative of his generation's experience of increasing social mobility through education that was a feature of post-war life. Typically, this takes the form of meditations on exclusion, like that of Harrison's own family whose origins did not permit much cultural mobility." An example is the short poem on the cremation of his father, Marked with a D.

His best-known work is the long poem V. (1985), written during the miners' strike of 1984-85, and describing a trip to see his parents' grave in a Leeds cemetery "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
Channel 4
Channel 4 is a British public-service television broadcaster which began working on 2 November 1982. Although largely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned; originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority , the station is now owned and operated by the Channel...

 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
Early day motion
An Early Day Motion , in the Westminster system, is a motion, expressed as a single sentence, tabled by Members of Parliament for debate "on an early day" . Controversial EDMs are not signed by Government Ministers, PPS or the Speaker of the House of Commons and very few are debated on the floor...

 entitled "Television Obscenity" was proposed on the 27th October 1987 by a group of Conservative
Conservative Party (UK)
The Conservative Party, formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, is a centre-right political party in the United Kingdom that adheres to the philosophies of conservatism and British unionism. It is the largest political party in the UK, and is currently the largest single party in the House...

Member of Parliament
A Member of Parliament is a representative of the voters to a :parliament. In many countries with bicameral parliaments, the term applies specifically to members of the lower house, as upper houses often have a different title, such as senate, and thus also have different titles for its members,...

, who condemned Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority
Independent Broadcasting Authority
The Independent Broadcasting Authority was the regulatory body in the United Kingdom for commercial television - and commercial/independent radio broadcasts...

. The motion was opposed by a single MP, Mr. Norman Buchan
Norman Buchan
Norman Findlay Buchan was a Labour politician, who represented the West Renfrewshire seat from 1964 until 1983 and the Paisley South seat from 1983 to 1990....

, who suggested that MPs had either failed to read or failed to understand (V.). The broadcast went ahead, and the brouhaha settled quickly after enough column inches had been written about the broadcast and reaction to the broadcast. Gerald Howarth
Gerald Howarth
James Gerald Douglas Howarth known as Gerald Howarth is a British Conservative Party politician. He has been the Member of Parliament for Aldershot since 1997, having been the MP for Cannock and Burntwood from 1983 to 1992....

 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". Thom Yorke
Thom Yorke
Thomas "Thom" Edward Yorke is an English musician who is the lead vocalist and principal songwriter for Radiohead. He mainly plays guitar and piano, but he has also played drums and bass guitar...

, the frontman and lyricist of Radiohead
Radiohead are an English rock band from Abingdon, Oxfordshire, formed in 1985. The band consists of Thom Yorke , Jonny Greenwood , Ed O'Brien , Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway .Radiohead released their debut single "Creep" in 1992...

, considers Harrison as one of his heroes, describing V as both "straightforward and wonderful"'.

His adaption, The Mysteries
The Mysteries (play)
The Mysteries is a version of the medieval English mystery plays presented at London's National Theatre in 1977. The cycle of three plays tells the story of the Bible from the creation to the last judgement....

, of the English Medieval Mystery plays
Mystery play
Mystery plays and miracle plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song...

, based on the York
York Mystery Plays
The York Mystery Plays, more properly called the York Corpus Christi Plays, are a Middle English cycle of forty-eight mystery plays, or pageants, which cover sacred history from the creation to the Last Judgement. These were traditionally presented on the feast day of Corpus Christi...

 and Wakefield
Wakefield is the main settlement and administrative centre of the City of Wakefield, a metropolitan district of West Yorkshire, England. Located by the River Calder on the eastern edge of the Pennines, the urban area is and had a population of 76,886 in 2001....

 Mystery cycles, were first performed at the Royal National Theatre
Royal National Theatre
The Royal National Theatre in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company...

 in 1985; in a promenade production in the Cottesloe Theatre. They were revived the following year, in the much larger space of the Lyceum Ballroom.

In 1998, he wrote and directed a film, Prometheus, based on his poem of the same name, which links the myth of Prometheus
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan, the son of Iapetus and Themis, and brother to Atlas, Epimetheus and Menoetius. He was a champion of mankind, known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals...

 - chained on a rock to have his liver eaten by the vulture Ethon as a punishment for the theft of fire - with the enchainment of workers in the Promethian industries - the closed coal mines of Yorkshire; the present day effects of heavy industry in Copşa Mică
Copsa Mica
Copşa Mică is a town in Sibiu County, Transylvania, Romania, located north of Sibiu, 33 km east of Blaj, and 12 km southwest of Mediaş. According to the town's website, its population in 2000 was 5189, down 23% from its population in 1989, the year communism collapsed in Romania.The town...

 in Romania
Romania is a country located at the crossroads of Central and Southeastern Europe, on the Lower Danube, within and outside the Carpathian arch, bordering on the Black Sea...

; to the "gas ovens" of Auschwitz, to Dresden
Bombing of Dresden in World War II
The Bombing of Dresden was a military bombing by the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force and as part of the Allied forces between 13 February and 15 February 1945 in the Second World War...

 and to Bomber Harris. The film involved driving a thirty foot golden statue of Prometheus from the industrial north of England to Greece, via Germany and a number of eastern European countries.

His translation of Hecuba
Hecuba (play)
Hecuba is a tragedy by Euripides written c. 424 BC. It takes place after the Trojan War, but before the Greeks have departed Troy . The central figure is Hecuba, wife of King Priam, formerly Queen of the now-fallen city...

(2005), which emphasised the relevance of Euripides' drama to the Iraq War, was poorly received.

His play Fram
Fram (play)
Fram is a 2008 play by Tony Harrison. It uses the story of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen's attempt to reach the North Pole, and his subsequent campaign to relieve famine in the Soviet Union to explore the role of art in a world beset by seemingly greater issues...

debuted in 2008 at the Royal National Theatre
Royal National Theatre
The Royal National Theatre in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company...

 in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...



  • The Loiners (1970)
  • From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems (1981)
  • 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)
  • Square Rounds (1992)
  • 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)


  • 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)

Literary Prizes

  • 1972 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
    Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
    The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize is a British literary prize established in 1963 in tribute to Geoffrey Faber, founder and first Chairman publisher Faber & Faber...

     (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
  • 2009 PEN/Pinter prize
    PEN/Pinter prize
    PEN/Pinter Prize is an annual literary award launched in 2009 by English PEN in honour of the late Harold Pinter, who had been an active member of PEN's Writers in Prison Committee, and an 'active defender of the whole enterprise of literature'...

    , inaugural award.
  • 2010 European Prize for Literature
    European Prize for Literature
    European Prize for Literature is a European-wide literary award sponsored by the city of Strasbourg with support from the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs . The prize is award by the Jurys des Grands Prix Littéraires, in Strasbourg, at the same time as the Prix de Littérature Francophone...

Further reading

  • Harrison, Tony (1985). V.. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 0-906427-97-5.
  • Harrison, Tony (1998). Prometheus. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-19753-1.
  • Astley, Neil (Ed.) (1991). Tony Harrison (Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies: 1). Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1-85224-079-2.

External links