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Facing Up to the Unbearable: The Mythical Method in Tony Harrison's Film/Poems

Peter Robinson (University of Hull, UK)

Tony Harrison is a poet who produces urgent, contemporary responses to public events that are made available in various formats whether on television, in newspapers or at the cinema. His modernity is evident in his utilisation of information technologies, faxing poems to the Guardian or beaming poems up satellite links from Bosnia. Yet he is also a poet whose indebtedness to classical Greek literature is very much in evidence. It is in this co-mingling of modernity and tradition that we find the locus for his public poetry.

The importance of the tradition to Harrison is clear. For example he has said he is deeply inspired by the tragic vision of the Greeks, the way their literature managed to maintain what he calls ‘a kind of celebratory route in the sensual and everyday to follow and emerge from their tragedy’. [1] It is this that informs his belief that art probably represents the only possible consolation we have for our mortality. Furthermore, in the sense that art is life affirming it can be said to redeem suffering. In this sense, he believes, poetry helps us to face up to that which is otherwise unbearable. Indeed, the whole point of poetry, he insists, is that ‘it should address the hardest things in life, and the most powerful weapon it brings to the fray is its own form’. [2]

Besides these elements there are a host of other reasons why Harrison’s work draws upon the classical tradition. For instance it offers tremendous visual and dramatic possibilities to a film/maker. Examples of this would include the memorable presentation of Zeus’s sycophant, the slippery, smooth-tongued, silver-clad Hermes and, of course, the huge statue of Prometheus, nicknamed ‘Golden Balls’, in the film of the same name.

Another reason why myths are so appealing to a storyteller is that they are fundamentally entertaining, in the broad sense of that term, so they add a vital ingredient to the films, a ‘ripping yarn’ quality. Hence the films become a vital mix of monsters and bogeymen, of Gorgons and Gods, of archetypal and literal baddies, like Zeus, Stalin and Hitler. This blend of myth and mythical figures helps to provide an audience-satisfying element that aids the ingestion of Harrison’s political critiques. It is worth noting that, artfully entwined with these myths, the poet has braided in his own created myth: that of the figure of the lone, classics-reading scholarship-boy cum public poet going out to confront the horrors of our contemporary world and slaying, if not dragons then Gorgons, perhaps even reinventing himself as a kind of Perseus figure in the process.

Besides these aspects, Harrison’s mythical method can be best understood in terms of his quest for a public poetry, particularly the way in which he is concerned with reinstating an oral sense in order to draw the audience in and facilitate their engagement. In fact, by making these classical elements accessible he is inviting a wider participation in those aspects that previously had been cordoned off in a preserve of high culture. In this context his work offers an ironic counterblast to someone like T. S. Eliot and his somewhat more rarified, perhaps even exclusive use of the classics [3] — Harrison’s use of myth is inclusive in that he locates these elements in the realm of oral storytelling.

It is this that informs his attempt to carve out a public poetry. I was once able to ask Harrison what this term meant to him. He said he wanted to create ‘a sense of shared intimacy amongst the viewers sat at home on their settees in their twos and threes’. [4] ‘Shared’ relates to Harrison’s politicised poetics, the techniques and strategies that make his work accessible and inclusive. For example, the politically conscious use of metre and rhyme; demotic idioms; colloquialisms and expletives; the direct appeals to the audience. To these we might add the repetitions and the sense of a less linear narrative thread, all of which together combine to create a sense of orality, rather than of something written. In addition we might add the development of a documentary sense that informs the films with a cleverly contrived illusion of objectivity because of the technique of privileging the visual image by typically using the verse to comment upon that, rather than television’s traditional practice of appending images to a pre-written poem. More generally, in all the work we can detect the impulse to demystify the ‘poetic’. This is deeply subversive, as Hermes knows, for

How can Olympus stay intact
if poetry comes to Pontefract ? [5]

One effect of these strategies is to make the use of poetry ‘unremarkable’ in that the linguistic strategies at work serve to present language as disinvested of any privileged social status. In this sense the works undermine the notion of poetic discourse as somehow sacred. While still conforming to Harrison’s definition of poetry as ‘the word at its most eloquent’ [6] poetry has, in his hands, become somehow ‘unspecial’ in all but an imaginative sense.

The second part of the phrase, ‘intimacy’, relates to the ways in which the poet strives to create an act of emotional engagement on the part of the viewer/reader as a result of their act of empathy. Indeed, Harrison’s work explicitly invites an emotional response, something apparent in the direct appeals that many of the films make to the viewer. The aim is that the films might thus create a bond, a sense of being part of something greater than the individual, as a result of this shared experience. In this way the public poet, Harrison, intends to put a sense of the communal back into the concept of the public, to show that the public and the private are not separate spheres but two points on the same continuum. He wants to publicise the ‘private’ by facilitating a personal response on the part of the audience which will then, in a sense, have some kind of bearing on the ‘public’ sphere because the films will have facilitated an access to a literary experience previously denied to many.

An early intimation of this shared intimacy is apparent in Richard Eyre’s televised version of v. (1987). The film cuts between images of location shots and Harrison reading the poem to an audience. If we remember that Greek tragedy was played in daylight then the fact that the audience can see each other might be significant. The ancient theatre was a place for seeing, where the actors brought dark events to ‘the light of day’. [7] It was also a place, Harrison tells us, where the audience saw each other ‘so that the bearing of terror was not only shared but seen to be shared, and that is very important. As it was seen to be shared so was it communally endured’. [8] In the film of v. the audience at the reading can see each other and hence realise that they are not alone, precisely the effect the poet wants to achieve as a result of engendering ‘shared intimacy’. But this shared light has implications for the poet, as it had for the actors - they too can see the audience. Consequently it is something that, Harrison has explained, ‘creates "obvious reciprocity". It is harder to slide into some of the self indulgences of obscurity and some of the audience-dodging evasions of much modernism’. [9]

Though Harrison’s television work is screened in the evening, his desire to create a sense of shared intimacy seems to me to aspire to the same goal as the ancient Greek tragedy: to show the respective audiences that they are not alone in their situation. His statement is also interesting because of its emphasis on communication and the need to avoid ‘audience-dodging evasions’. This suggests the primacy for the poet of the audience-poet dynamic. It is not enough for him just to write — the writing has to have a social function; there has to be a point to it. One point is to ensure that the work speaks to, and on behalf of, the public.

According to Walter Ong, the originality of poets in oral cultures consisted less in their subject matter and more in their ability to present the story: ‘at every telling the story has to be introduced uniquely into a unique situation, for in oral cultures an audience must be brought to respond, often vigorously’. [10] Harrison is aware of this in that his reinstatement of the oral sense testifies to his understanding that a huge proportion of viewers are people who are not normally participants of the literary culture. Consequently he has got to make his films work first time for the audience, and (on TV at least) entice channel-hoppers to stay with a film. In this respect, rather like Greek theatre (and Harrison’s) the film/poems seem designed for one performance only. It is this ability to deal with the stories, and manage the interaction with the audience in terms of eliciting a response that is significant and, though I am not suggesting an exact parallel between oral modes and the films it helps to explain his approach and indicates which ones might be more fruitful for us to pursue. For me, this reinstatement of the oral sense is the basis of Harrison’s inclusive televisual and cinematic style as a public poet: I see him as an oral storyteller incorporating, adapting and re-presenting inherited traditions (the classical forms/myths), making up and telling stories (the films) to people who have no written literature, (who don’t read poetry).

If the film/poems need to be understood as part of a process of reinstating an oral sense, in order to widen participation in literary culture, then it seems clear that the films are not designed to disseminate a specific political appeal or party political line. In fact what the films do is attempt to transcend narrow political tags. In this context the public poet’s role is, to paraphrase Shelley, that of an unacknowledged facilitator, rather than a political didact, though that element is not always entirely absent either!

The reason for Harrison’s assumption of the oral storyteller’s role is because it is the most effective way of helping people to face up to that which appears unbearable. However, rather than interpreting his film work from this perspective some critics seem intent on considering the films as book-bound texts. The consequence is that they tend to mis-read certain characteristics of orality such as repetitions, apparent meanderings, and the non-linear narrative style. This has variously given rise to charges of ‘doggerel’, [11] criticisms of the works as ‘ponderous meditations on Time and Death’,[12] even, on one occasion, as ‘basilisk television’. [13]

It is ironic that his emphasis on speaking to, and on behalf of, the people has given rise to criticisms of Harrison’s politics. Indeed, his aspiration for public poetry has often been misinterpreted by some critics as a characteristic of a brand of liberalism ‘typified by the sort of hand-me-down generalisations about how horrible war is, and how it must stop [and other such] facile evasions of the challenge of explanation’. [14] Similar concerns laced a recent review of Harrison’s Prometheus (1998) in which Keith Miller has argued, wrongly, that ‘the insistence that poetry has to be accessible talks it out of a job’. He goes on to make the point that ‘There is an arrogant tendency to conflate all of the big themes of the past 100 years into one enormous supermyth: Orgreave to Auschwitz via Dresden, all aboard!’. [15] The suggestion is that the use of myth has become too diffuse, the implication being that the poet, perhaps beguiled by having the keys to the chocolate factory as a result of his dual writer/director role, is attempting to make the myth do too much. The inference is that by apparently attempting to explain away Western European contemporary ills solely within the framework of the Prometheus story, Harrison is evading the challenge of offering an incisive political critique. It is a form of analysis that ultimately stems from perceiving the films in a conventional political context, of expecting to find evidence of a specifically Leftist, radical perspective and then criticising the poet for its absence. This is not to say that a film such as Prometheus is not political in a conventional sense. It is, explicitly so, as a line like ‘Bastard Heseltine’ suggests. [16]Paradoxically however, given a conventional political reading that fails to recognise the oral storyteller’s imperative, the film seems to suggest that Socialism and Leftist politics are found wanting. For example during part of the dialogue between the Old Man and Hermes (an exchange perhaps ironically echoing the alleged consultative process between the Department of Industry and the miners/communities) the Old Man, an ex-NUM steward, exclaims: ‘Smokers of the world unite!’. [17] He is looking to the audience, the wider public, for support. He does not get it. Moreover his laudably defiant attempt to torch Hermes ends in his own death. The suggestion is that the gesture, however noble, is ultimately vainglorious. Given what we know about Harrison’s work in general, it seems unlikely that this is the film’s depressing, final message. Indeed, if we consider Prometheus in the context of oral storytelling then the outcome is somewhat different.

The film’s main structural device (besides the journey that the statue makes) is the dialogue between Hermes and the Old Man. This emphasis draws attention to the poet as storyteller because it suggests that, as such, the aim is to dramatise how a human response can be articulated in the face of oppression. Harrison seems more concerned with this aspect, the posture of ‘undiluted defiance’, [18] as he has termed it. In this context it does not really matter who wins the confrontation: the attitude is all. This is where the real drama of the film, and the real politics, is to be found, in the confrontation between the Old Man and Hermes. Underlying this is Harrison’s idea that Zeus is a symbol of ‘all tendencies to despotism . . . I think it’s the tendency to want to create gods and monotheistic absolutes and absolute certainties that is the continual temptation in human thought - that’s the great danger. Everytime we create a god, we diminish humanity’. [19] It is this tendency to diminish humanity that the film’s attempt to undermine. To paraphrase Blake: all deities reside in the human breast. [20] We must, then, devise our own system before we become enslaved by someone else’s. In this respect it is the attitude, the Promethean gesture of defiance, rather than the outcome, that is crucial. This goes to the heart of much of the poet’s work. He has said of his translations of Palladas, for example, that: ‘What is unique and even invigorating about Palladas is that there is no sense at all of "gracious" surrender either to the inevitability of death or to historical change’. [21] In a sense this serves as a description of the Old Man’s attitude to Hermes in the film. Not surprisingly, given Harrison’s abilities as a dramatist, it seems that it is the rebel which is of interest, not the cause.

The films’ implied rejection of a explicit political line might remind us of Wilfred Owen’s poignant assertion that all poets can do is warn. [22] Yet Harrison’s films do something else in that, besides entertaining us around the campfire, he also facilitates a basic human function: as oral storyteller he helps us to gaze into the horrors by helping us to face up to the unbearable in order that we do not become as stones, somehow diminished in our humanity. This was also Owen’s achievement. He showed his awareness of the Gorgon’s petrifying gaze in his poem ‘Insensibility’, incidentally a Pindaric ode. Here he wrote

. . . cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
. . . . . .
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man [23]

This diminuation of humanity is a fear that also seems to haunt Harrison’s work. It is, for example, something that underlies the appeals to the viewer. In the Shadow of Hiroshima, for example, the exasperated Shadow San addresses his question directly to the viewer:

And you, in front of your TVs
which are no doubt, all Japanese,
all you sitting there at home
can you hear the humming Dome,
the M, the M? . . . [24]

The question of whether the viewer can hear the ‘humming Dome’, the choir of the dead of Hiroshima, can be understood as Harrison’s question as to whether the film is working. He is asking if he has done his job well enough as a storyteller to make the viewer aware of the victims’ presence in the contemporary world - or have they been forgotten? Only the viewer can answer this.

The worry that humanity is being diminished also impels the questioning we find in Gaze of the Gorgon. Here he asks

what are we doing with our art?
are we still strumming the right lyre
to play us through the century’s fire? [25]

There is no easy answer, something obvious in the speaker’s repetitions and reiterations of similar questions, but maybe the art of past times might suggest some possibilities. In the past, the speaker tells us, art had redemptive powers:

Homer brings
the dead redemption when he sings. [26]

Though Harrison’s viewing figures [27] suggest he is strumming the right lyre, the implication is that much of our contemporary art is not. Compared to times when ‘Apollo’s lyre / could save men from the petrifier’ [28] today the prospects for art (and for us) are altogether much grimmer. This is the nub for Harrison. It is fundamental to his vision of the role of public poet that he should work against this. In order to achieve this he/she must gaze into the nightmare fires of the twentieth century in order to forge an art that can withstand and face up to the contemporary ills. And it is not an easy task now that the barbitos, the ancient lyre, a symbol of artistic endeavour

is restrung with barbed wire
Bard’s hands bleed when they play
the score that fits an era’s scream,
the blood, the suffering, the loss.
The twentieth century theme
is played on barbed wire barbitos. [29]

This passage represents an assertion of public poetry and public themes on a grand scale. Though the poet’s hands will be cut to ribbons in the attempt to produce a sound that ‘fits’ the pain-wracked cries of this century, without this undertaking there is no possibility of a truly public poetry because, if the horrors are not confronted, art cannot have its redemptive function restored to it. The idea that art can redeem suffering is fundamental to the poet’s artistic vision. He discusses this in his preface to Prometheus where he comments:

Most Greek tragedy shifts its timescale from immediate suffering to some long-term redemption through memorial ritual or social amelioration, or simply through the very play being performed. The performed suffering was old, the redemption contemporary. The appeal to futurity is not simply that ‘time heals’ because it brings forgetfulness and oblivion, but because creative memory is at work, giving the suffering new form, a form to allow the suffering to be shared and made bearable across great gaps of time. [30]

This, then, is how the Gorgon can be withstood, by the poet applying his or her creative memory, giving the suffering new form and allowing it to be shared and made bearable. The challenge for the public poet is how to help us keep on watching, rather than turn away because, as Harrison has suggested, ‘unless you come to terms with dark subjects, there’s no measure of life at all’. [31] One function of art is, perhaps, to reveal an individual’s relationship with his or her world by revealing the horrors, as well as the delights. As M. L. Rosenthal has noted, it is art’s job to ‘hold on to . . . images of revulsion . . . It is important to do so lest we forget the realities that have shaped us and that must be remembered if we are to see ourselves and the world around us at all truly’. [32] If art cannot fulfil this function, if it cannot measure up then, as Gaze tells us:

. If art can’t cope
it’s just another form of dope,
and leaves the Gorgon in control
of all the freedoms of the soul. [33]

So, despite Hermes’s sneering when he comments that
poor mortals think that song redeems
the ravages of such regimes [34]

as those of Milosevic and Ceausescu, there is a real sense in which ‘song’ can help, not like a bullet or a bomb, but because the very fact that it is written - an example of creative memory giving new form to the suffering - can itself be a source of inspiration, even a reminder of our common humanity:

There is something about the act of writing poems which seems futile in the face of Phantom bombers. A poem engages on a different level. It reminds us of those other feelings we neglect in order to concentrate on destroying others like ourselves whom, for the purpose of the exercise, we call enemy - or less than human. Meaning, of course, less than us’. [35]

If, as Harrison has said, every poem is a ‘momentary defeat of pessimism’. [36] then our act of reading is also a momentary defeat of negative forces. The attitude is all. Moreover we realise we are not alone - it is as if we are included in a conspiracy of hope. We feel part of something greater than ourselves, we too feel a sense of shared intimacy.

This is not to say, however, that Harrison’s work holds out any false hopes. Indeed, in Prometheus, for example, there is a subtle reminder of the limits of the imagination. For instance though the derelict fire engine (a literal vehicle as well as an imaginative one) does ‘move’ to the burning cinema it cannot extinguish the flames. As Harrison has said, the imagination can only do so much. [37] The inference is that poetry can be present as an observer, even as a recorder like the poet’s role in the Gulf War poem ‘A Cold Coming’ (1991), but it cannot intervene in an explicit sense. It can, and does, intervene, however, in terms of a viewer or reader’s sense of engagement.

This is how Harrison’s art copes. His achievement is to make us keep on watching. Once again the Greeks are the inspiration as the whole idea of the Greek tragic vision is ‘to keep looking, to keep singing’. Language is the key to this, Harrison tells us, as ‘The ear will surrender even at those times when the eye wants to close, when the eye doesn’t want to watch’. [38] He achieves this in many ways. For example, while we view the archive images of men with mutilated faces in Gaze the narrator tells us, with a simplicity that conveys an extraordinary tenderness:

Before these Germans went to fight
they’d been beautiful to kiss.
This is the Kaiser’s Gorgon choir
their petrifaction setting in,
grunting to the barbed wire lyre
gagging on snags of Lohengrin. [39]

Harrison is keen to humanise these awful faces. They are people who once had a physical existence in the same way as everyone else. The obverse is left unsaid: now they don’t. We are gently led into looking and thinking about these people because of simple, yet effective, devices such as these. This is Harrison’s strength. By fixing on one, small aspect that is immediately identifiable as a fundamental human gesture, a kiss, and contrasting it with facial mutilations, Harrison brilliantly provides a location for our pity and our anger because he is able to effect the movement from the abstract (the war which we probably haven’t literally known) to the physical that we do know. And it is not merely a memorable phrase, for the verse works on a technical level at the same time. This is how verse can be seductive in the sense that its effects work on us without us consciously noticing this. We see this in the last two lines of the quote with the assonantal rhyme of "barbed wire lyre" and the alliteration in "gagging on snags", and the artistry evident in the bleakly punning irony of the last syllable of Lohengrin — these faces will only grin as a result of their features having been permanently contorted in that position.

Another way that verse helps us to face up to the unbearable is more subtle. This can involve an absence of visual horror, as is the case in Shadow, for example. [40] In one instance the narrator recounts the most horrific illustrations of injury and suffering while on the screen we see tranquil images of the Motoyasu river, and the character Hara San painting. The contrast between what our eyes see and what our brains tell us (as a result of what we hear) is very powerful. It is worth considering an extensive quote from this section. The narrator tells us that the location is, in fact,

1   the river those flayed by the Bomb,
    including all his friends from school,
    jumped in, hoping it would cool
    their burning and bomb-blackened skin,
5   here where he dips his bottle in.
    His schoolmates’ shrieks from blackened lips
    haunt Hara San each time he dips
    his brush in water from the stream
    to give relief to those who scream,
10 all his dying schoolmates, those
   whose skin slid off their flesh like clothes.
   Like clothes, three times oversize
   their flayed skin loosens from their thighs.
   Burns and blisters, bloated blebs
15 burst as the Motoyasu ebbs,
   the tidal Motoyasu trails
   black flaps of flesh like chiffon veils.
   Like kimonos with their belts untied
   black sloughed-off skin floats on the tide.
20 This water mixed with children’s cries
   paints the Dome, green trees, blue skies
   and in that way, he hopes, redeems
   something from his schoolmates’ screams. [41]
(My line references)

While we see beautifully filmed images of the Motoyasu river, and the water-colour artist creating his new work, we learn that the painter is getting his water from the same river that his schoolfriends jumped into in an effort to quench the flames that burnt their skin. Given that Harrison’s imperative is to make us feel in order that his verse will guide us in and take us further than we would otherwise go, it is noticeable that he relies upon an extensive use of simile, rather than metaphor. This is something that adds a gritty realism that the more abstract metaphor might not create because a degree of emphasis is generated in the repetition. Moreover the use of simile rather than metaphor also seems to do justice to the memory of those slaughtered in this way because it somehow seems a less precious, a less ostentatiously ‘poetic’ use of the poet’s craft. Its use seems to imply, in a sense, that this is not a piece of writing that is intended to promote the poet at the expense of the poet’s subject. Rather it is a piece of writing in which the poet is marshalling his talents in order to serve the subject, in this instance the memory of the appalling events on the day of the A-Bomb blast.

Besides the explicitness of the narrative and the use of simile, other techniques include the extensive use of alliteration, as we see in ‘burning and bomb-blackened skin’ (line 4); ‘Burns and blisters, bloated blebs / burst . . . ‘ (lines 14-15). Moreover, given that it is schoolchildren that suffer this fate it is possible there is a certain ironic poignancy in the tentative hint of a pun in line one with its reference to ‘flayed’, not ‘played’. Besides this we have horrific images as in the ‘blackened lips’ of line 6. In other poets’ hands this might have been mistaken for a metaphor. The horror of the situation is surely greater for our dawning realisation that phrases like ‘blackened lips’ are not figurative at all. Hence Harrison’s characteristic emphasis in the film on the specificity of what he describes. The children jumped in ‘here where he dips his bottle in’, the narrator tells us. This is how it was, it is implied. This is fact, the verse insists.

Harrison has utilised his skill in order to make us empathise with the children’s suffering. This is clear, for example, in the instances of onomatopoeia in lines 12 to 17. Here the repetition of ‘s’ sounds in particular, and consonant sounds such as ‘k’ and ‘ck’ grimly invoke the hissing and crackling sounds of burning. Harrison accentuates this, accelerating the rhythm of the account by his typically exhilarating facility with enjambement and also the way that he sometimes reinforces a point. This occurs over lines 17 and 18. Here the oral storyteller’s imperative is very apparent in that a succeeding line picks up and develops the simile in the previous line. He talks of flesh being ‘ . . . like chiffon veils. / Like kimonos with their belts untied’. There is an additional horror inherent in these images in that besides the fact that the analogy between the clothes and skin is perfectly suited to convey the enormity of the suffering, ‘chiffon’ and ‘kimono’ are typically associated with softness and gentleness. In Harrison’s hands they are transformed.

In an early review of D. J. Enright’s poetry Harrison offers an insight into how a poet should view the world. Noting that though Enright’s subject matter had the potential to move immediately almost any heart and conscience . . . it does not justify Enright becoming, as he often does, too easily content with reportage. It is largely a modern heresy that art is not needed to make such important themes profoundly felt . . . His journey is that of a reporter taking notes . . . But notes are not enough . . . we need the product of vision rather than sightseeing. [42] [My emphasis].

Harrison’s work represents vision rather than sightseeing. Rather than just make generalised comments about huge fatalities, or rely on archive material, he offers us case histories, relating a particular situation to a specific person or persons so that we can understand it on a human level, rather than dismiss it as something too removed from our experience. Malcolm Heath, writing in The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (1987) has commented that Aristotle’s Poetics testifies to ‘the balance that must be kept between suffering that is so close to home as to be one’s own [ . . . ] and that which is so remote as to be meaningless or incomprehensible’. [43] This is precisely the challenge that Harrison faces in Shadow. The challenge the Greek dramatists faced involved the requirement of Greek tragedy that ‘its characters be elevated, removed from ordinary people in status and condition’. [44] The problem is then to render an identification with these characters possible. Heath suggests that an understanding of how this apparent contradiction was resolved lies in ‘the notion of deception (apatê) and vividness (enargeia) so important to Greek thinking about literary art; it is part of the dramatist’s job to make the remote and improbable seem so vivid and credible

[ . . . ] that the experience and emotions of the characters can be grasped imaginatively by the audience despite their remoteness and unfamiliarity’. [45] This emphasis on deception and vividness sound extremely akin to Harrison’s techniques, the terms suggesting both Harrison’s creation of an illusion of objectivity and his sense of authenticity and the appeal to the emotions. Indeed his apatê and enargeia are evident, in a sense, in his strategy of locating the horrors of the blast in the context of personal situations. In Shadow this process of personalisation is evident when, for example, Shadow San remembers the burning children on the day of the blast. As we view contemporary images of Japanese schoolchildren we learn that

if these pupils here had been
in this same room at 8.15
the 6th of August ‘45
None of them would be alive. [46]

Even the most insensitive viewer could imagine these children suffering the fate that the speaker has told us of. In this way Harrison is able to put faces on the statistics of the A-bomb blast — ‘they were people like you and me’, is the inference. Later, in a more graphic example, Shadow San comments on the sleeping form of Sonoko in the Love Hotel and, as the camera focuses on her comments:

Girls as beautiful, as young, as sweet
were seared to cinders by the heat. [47]

In such a way Harrison creates appalling conjunctions of contemporary vitality and historical suffering. The technique helps us to go on listening and watching; though we can only feel the pain by proxy, we can at least feel. The consolation for us is that art, represented here by Hara San’s painting and Harrison’s film, can indeed ‘give relief to those who scream’.

As one of the epigrams to Gaze of the Gorgon Harrison quotes Nietzsche’s observation that ‘Art forces us to gaze into the horror of existence, yet without being turned to stone by the vision’. [48] At the heart of Harrison’s public art is his poetic gaze, the poetical countering of anything that acts to diminish our humanity. The gaze of the poet squares up to the horror on our behalf and continues speaking, like the mask in Greek tragedy and like the camera’s unwavering gaze in the films.

This poetic gaze provides the readers and viewers with a way of looking at things from which they would otherwise turn away. In the case of the film/poems, and his work more generally, the finished art work - the film - represents a kind of mirror, a polished shield perhaps, like the one Perseus used to slay Medusa. His shield allowed him to gaze upon the horror by proxy. So it is with the viewer of Harrison’s films. The work acts as a shield that reflects the horrors of our age yet still allows us to gaze at the Gorgon (to see the horrors clearly) without turning to stone. This is the achievement of the public poet. In this way we too become as Perseus in that we are able to slay the refracted form in the shield of the poet’s work.

In this way the gaze of the public poet can help us to resist Gorgonisms and the totalitarianism of everyday life. This is Harrison’s achievement as an oral storyteller, as a poet around the village campfire whose aim it is to draw the audience in. It is Tony Harrison’s mythical method, the way his aspiration for a public poetry is informed by a sense of the Greek tragic vision, the idea that art probably represents about the only thing that consoles us for our mortality, above all the aspiration for, and creation of, a sense of shared intimacy, that equips him to do this. And it is a process that, in its open-eyed humanism and its realignment of the public and the private is profoundly political.

It was Auden who said ‘The primary function of poetry . . . is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us . . . I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State . . . have deeply mistrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking’. [49]


[1] Clive Wilmer. ‘Face To Face’. English Review Vol. 2: 4, July 1992. pp. 31-35. From the transcript of an interview with Tony Harrison, first heard on Radio 3 in February 1991, 35.

[2] Robert Winder. ‘Robert Winder meets Tony Harrison’. Interview. The Independent Weekend 5th August 1995, 3.

[3] Consider Eliot’s inclusion of notes to ‘explain’ his poem, The Wasteland

[4] Harrison in conversation with me at the Hull Literature Festival, 20 November 1993.

[5] Tony Harrison. Prometheus. London: Faber and Faber (1998) 23.

[6] Harrison, Tony. ‘Preface’. Contemporary Writers Series. London: Book Trust, in association with the British Council, 1987. Reprinted in Neil Astley, ed., Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies 1: Tony Harrison. Ed. Neil Astley. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books (1991) 9.

[7] Tony Harrison. ‘Facing Up’. Bloodaxe, 441.

[8] Ibid., pp. 441-442.

[9] Ibid., 442.

[10] Walter, J. Ong. Orality and Literacy - The Technologizing of the Word. London: New York: Methuen, 1982, 42.

[11] Bruce Woodcock. ‘Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrison’s Invective’. Critical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2 (summer 1990), 55.

[12] Ibid., 55.

[13] Peter Forbes. ‘The Gaze Of The Gorgon. Poems by Tony Harrison’. Review. The Guardian 27 October 1992, 11.

[14] Luke Spencer. The Poetry of Tony Harrison. New York: London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994, 135.

[15] Keith Miller. Times Literary Supplement May 14 1999, 9

[16] Incidentally, despite the possible association of Hermes, Zeus’s spin-doctor, with someone like Peter Mandelson, Hermes can also be read as a representation of Michael Heseltine. This invites an association between Margaret Thatcher and Zeus, perhaps an act of poetic justice on the poet’s part given the apparent ease with which she seemed to dispense with human attributes.

[17] Tony Harrison. Prometheus, 30.

[18] Ibid., xv

[19]Tony Harrison interviewed by Nicholas Lezard. ‘Fire in his Belly’, Independent on Sunday, 11 April 1999, pp.5-6.

[20] See William Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. ‘Plate 11’. Introduction and commentary by Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, xx.

[21] Tony Harrison. ‘Preface to Palladas’, Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies, 135.

[22] Wilfred Owen. ‘Insensibility’. The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Ed. Jon Stallworthy. London: Hogarth, 1985, 192.

[23] ibid., 122.

[24] Tony Harrison. The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1995, 7.

[25] Tony Harrison. The Gaze of the Gorgon. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1992, 64.

[26] Ibid., 67.

[27] Viewing figures: There were four films in the Loving Memory (1987) series: ‘Letters in the Rock’, 1 million; ‘Mimmo Perella’, 1.7 million; ‘Muffled Bells’, 1.6 million; ‘Cheating the Void’, Unknown. In addition these four films were repeated in 1988. (From a private correspondence with Peter Symes, 15 September 1998.) According to Andrew Holmes, the producer of three of Harrison’s film/poems: ‘Maybe Day in Kazakhstan was seen by 750,000 people in the UK and by a slightly smaller number in France and Germany. Shadow of Hiroshima was seen by 1.1 million on C4. Both these figures are for the first broadcast, there will be more over a considerable time. Not bad compared with the library and book sales.’ From a private correspondence, 9. 9. 98. In addition Peter Symes has told me that Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989) was seen by ‘3.9 million’.

[28] Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, 66.

[29] Ibid., 71.

[30] Tony Harrison. Prometheus, pp. vi-vii.

[31] Don Patinkin. ‘A bleeding poet’. Vol. 326, Economist, 01-23-1993, pp 83. [sic]. Internet download via Electronic Library at <>

[32] M. L. Rosenthal. Poetry And The Common Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, 98.

[33] Tony Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, 62.

[34] Tony Harrison. Prometheus, 75.

[35] Don Patinkin. ‘A bleeding poet’.

[36] See John Haffenden. ‘Interview with Tony Harrison’. Bloodaxe, 227. Here Haffenden reminds Harrison that he had said this elsewhere and suggests to him that it implies that he (Harrison) share’s ‘Robert Frost’s sense of a poem being "a momentary stay against confusion", except for the fact that pessimism is the operative word’.

[37] Tony Harrison. An informal talk given at the Warburg Institute, London, November 1999.

[38] Robert Winder. ‘Interview’, 3.

[39]Tony Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, pp. 71-72.

[40] There is approximately fifteen seconds of archive film of the A-Bomb blast screened at the very beginning of the film, before the verse starts. In the film itself the A-Bomb blast is represented by images of dead and burning birds.

[41] Tony Harrison. Shadow of Hiroshima and other film/poems, 6.

[42] Tony Harrison. ‘Some Men Are Brothers’, Stand Vol. 4. No. 4, 1960-1961, 51.

[43] Malcolm Heath. The Poetics of Greek Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 1987, 13.

[44] Ibid., 13.

[45] Ibid., 14.

[46] Tony Harrison. Shadow of Hiroshima and other film/poems, 10.

[47] Ibid., 14.

[48] Tony Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, 59.

[49] W. H. Auden. ‘Introduction’. Poems of Freedom. Ed. John Mulgan. Left Book Club. London: Victor Gollancz, 1938, 9