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Histories of War as seen by two indispensible Poets-Part One

Tony Harrison: The bard of Beeston | Prospect Magazine

 

Tony Harrison is a poet whom I feel I know rather well from his television appearances. He seemed to be on the box quite a lot around 2000 or so. By any criteria his is a radical poet from Leeds. In my imagination I see him as a radical voice from that period along with another favourite poet, Tom Paulin. Harrison is an engaged poet from Leeds and is probably best known for his long poem “V” which was published in 1985. He is an immensely clever poet immersed in his Northern background with which is radicalism is associated and his broad knowledge of the classics. He is a playwright, a film-maker and a translator. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Harrison

In the poem which I discovered recently he is addressing his view of history. How the past has been recorded is an issue that perhaps becomes more pressing as we age. There is much debate about statues currently, who we should remember and what is both consciously and unconsciously addressed. What should we pass on to future generations and how to counteract distressingly current propoganda. This poem comes from the new edition of Selected Poems by Tony Harrison published by Penguin – you can find it here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Harrison He is travelling with his children over moorland-

Past scenic laybys and stag warning signs

the British borderlands roll into view.

They read: Beware of Unexploded Mines

I tell my children that was World War II.

Those borderlands are becoming politically more controversial, there is a simple rhyme-scheme with those dangerous residues beneath the surface. The poem makes the link between khaki uniforms and cavalry twill. It brins to mind the smart casual wear demanded of upper ranks in their so called leisure time. The areas forbidden to play are those marked off by signs and fences which remind the reader of enclosures and the imperial system of trade providing employment in a regulated manner to mill workers. The latter similarly having their time divided by tolling bells.

Mill angelus, and church tower twice as high.

One foundry cast the work-and rest-day bells-

the same red cottons in the flags that fly

for ranges, revolutions, and rough swells.

The alliterative Rs remind us not only of the Union Jack but that to some it was considered the butcher’s apron. The rough swells is almost classical ( Homer’s wine-dark sea) and rowdy posh boys with the ambivalent firing ranges in the background.