Part of the Leeds University celebration of Tony Harrison at 80, this was a double header – firstly we had the striking and rather brutal reflection piece “The Gaze of the Gorgon” and then we had an hour of the author reading selected pieces of his own work.
The Gaze of the Gorgon is a powerful poetry film, originally commissioned for BBC2 back in 1992. It takes in several aspects of humanity’s inhumanity towards itself – drug abuse in modern day Germany, the persistence of a century of persecution of the Jews and the horrors of 20th century global conflicts. This is all framed through references to Greek mythology – the gaze of the creature from mythology reaching through the ages, staring endlessly at the unending pain of war and brutality across the centuries. It’s not hugely optimistic or cheerful as you can imagine, and there are graphic scenes of drug taking and war injuries in there, to heighten the impact. It is some of the other images that have stayed with me though – the strings of the lyre replaced with barbed wire for example. Each strum tearing fresh cuts in the fingers of the player. The film presents itself as a warning to the future leaders of the common currency that was just about to be born – a warning about history repeating itself, relentlessly.
With Harrison you do get planned construction and a sense of rhythm and rhyme. He does like a rhyme. Sometimes you can see it coming, you know there is only one word that is going to fit, and you are poised waiting for it to fall. Personally, I find this a little distracting, to be honest, but he mixes it around with a delayed rhyme from time to time. An extra beat, an extra word inserted to extend the moment slightly before the rhyme drops into place.
The narrative has power, even after 25 years, and just as much relevance, particularly on the day before Remembrance Day. How many people will die in civil wars, interventions and conflicts today? Yemen. Iraq. Syria. Afghanistan, Mali, Congo… I’m not going to name them all. I accept Steven Pinker’s point about the perceived level of violence in the world today against the actual level of violence in the world, relative to historical levels. The world is a more peaceful place, I take that point. But we still have families forced from their homes, towns and cities destroyed and young soldiers liberating bikes and mandolins as trophies of war, we still have lives ended or devastated, and as poets we have to continually cry out against this; voices of remembrance, voices of humanity reclaimed.
The second half of the event was a reading, and this was a proper Leeds homecoming reading. Harrison knows his roots and still wears scars from being told that he had to compromise his accent and his dialect if he wanted to be taken seriously in a literary sense. Uz not As being an example of this, and his defiant defence of his natural voice and natural accent. We heard about how he was inspired by the rhyme and humour of music hall, of hiding away from his friends when they called for him to play “because he had Latin poetry to translate.” We heard the recurring themes of his family, particularly of his relationship with his mother. And we heard about his experiences as a war poet – a modern, Bosnia, Gulf War poet. Controversial, frank, honest, and always northern and true to his roots.
All in all, a good evening. An interesting opportunity to listen to the man tell his stories and share his words.
You can read more about Tony Harrison here.