TONY HARRISON'S POETRY, DRAMA AND FILM : THE CLASSICAL DIMENSION
Up to the Unbearable:
The Mythical Method in Tony Harrison's Film/poems
Robinson, University of Hull
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. 
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. 
Besides these elements there are a host of other reasons why Harrisons
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 Zeuss
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 Harrisons 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
Besides these aspects, Harrisons 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
 Harrisons use of myth
is inclusive in that he locates these elements in the realm of oral
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.
 Shared relates to Harrisons
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 televisions
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,
How can Olympus stay
if poetry comes to Pontefract ? 
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 Harrisons definition of poetry as
the word at its most eloquent 
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, Harrisons
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 Eyres 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.  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.  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. 
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
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. 
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 Harrisons)
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 Harrisons 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 dont 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 poets 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 Harrisons
assumption of the oral storytellers 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, 
criticisms of the works as ponderous meditations on Time and
Death, even, on one occasion, as basilisk television.
It is ironic that his
emphasis on speaking to, and on behalf of, the people has given
rise to criticisms of Harrisons 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.  Similar
concerns laced a recent review of Harrisons 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!.
 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. Paradoxically
however, given a conventional political reading that fails to recognise
the oral storytellers 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!.
 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 Harrisons work in general,
it seems unlikely that this is the films depressing, final
message. Indeed, if we consider Prometheus in the context
of oral storytelling then the outcome is somewhat different.
The films 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, 
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 Harrisons idea that Zeus is a symbol of all
tendencies to despotism . . . I think its the tendency to
want to create gods and monotheistic absolutes and absolute certainties
that is the continual temptation in human thought - thats
the great danger. Everytime we create a god, we diminish humanity.
 It is this tendency to diminish
humanity that the films attempt to undermine. To paraphrase
Blake: all deities reside in the human breast. 
We must, then, devise our own system before we become enslaved by
someone elses. 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 poets 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. 
In a sense this serves as a description of the Old Mans attitude
to Hermes in the film. Not surprisingly, given Harrisons 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
Owens poignant assertion that all poets can do is warn. 
Yet Harrisons 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 Owens
achievement. He showed his awareness of the Gorgons 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 
This diminuation of
humanity is a fear that also seems to haunt Harrisons 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? . . . 
The question of whether
the viewer can hear the humming Dome, the choir of the
dead of Hiroshima, can be understood as Harrisons 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 centurys fire? 
There is no easy answer,
something obvious in the speakers 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
the dead redemption when he sings. 
viewing figures  suggest he is
strumming the right lyre, the implication is that much of our contemporary
art is not. Compared to times when Apollos lyre / could
save men from the petrifier 
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
Bards hands bleed when they play
the score that fits an eras scream,
the blood, the suffering, the loss.
The twentieth century theme
is played on barbed wire barbitos. 
This passage represents
an assertion of public poetry and public themes on a grand scale.
Though the poets 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 poets
artistic vision. He discusses this in his preface to Prometheus
where he comments:
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. 
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,
theres no measure of life at all. 
One function of art is, perhaps, to reveal an individuals
relationship with his or her world by revealing the horrors, as
well as the delights. As M. L. Rosenthal has noted, it is arts
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.  If art
cannot fulfil this function, if it cannot measure up then, as Gaze
. If art cant
its just another form of dope,
and leaves the Gorgon in control
of all the freedoms of the soul. 
So, despite Hermess sneering when he comments that
poor mortals think that song redeems
the ravages of such regimes 
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. 
If, as Harrison has
said, every poem is a momentary defeat of pessimism.
 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 Harrisons 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.
 The inference is that poetry
can be present as an observer, even as a recorder like the poets
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 readers sense of engagement.
This is how Harrisons
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 doesnt
want to watch.  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
theyd been beautiful to kiss.
This is the Kaisers Gorgon choir
their petrifaction setting in,
grunting to the barbed wire lyre
gagging on snags of Lohengrin. 
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 dont. We are gently led into looking and
thinking about these people because of simple, yet effective, devices
such as these. This is Harrisons 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 havent 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.  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,
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,
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,
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
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.
This water mixed with childrens cries
paints the Dome, green trees, blue skies
and in that way, he hopes, redeems
something from his schoolmates screams. 
(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
Harrisons 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 poets
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 poets 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 Harrisons 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 childrens
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 storytellers 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 Harrisons hands they are transformed.
In an early review of
D. J. Enrights poetry Harrison offers an insight into how
a poet should view the world. Noting that though Enrights
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.  [My emphasis].
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 Aristotles Poetics testifies
to the balance that must be kept between suffering that is
so close to home as to be ones own [ . . . ] and that which
is so remote as to be meaningless or incomprehensible. 
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. 
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 dramatists
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. 
This emphasis on deception and vividness sound extremely akin to
Harrisons techniques, the terms suggesting both Harrisons
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
in this same room at 8.15
the 6th of August 45
None of them would be alive. 
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
Girls as beautiful,
as young, as sweet
were seared to cinders by the heat. 
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 Sans
painting and Harrisons film, can indeed give relief
to those who scream.
As one of the epigrams
to Gaze of the Gorgon Harrison quotes Nietzsches observation
that Art forces us to gaze into the horror of existence, yet
without being turned to stone by the vision. 
At the heart of Harrisons 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 cameras 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 Harrisons 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 poets work.
In this way the gaze
of the public poet can help us to resist Gorgonisms and the totalitarianism
of everyday life. This is Harrisons achievement as an oral
storyteller, as a poet around the village campfire whose aim it
is to draw the audience in. It is Tony Harrisons 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
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. 
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.
Robert Winder. Robert Winder meets Tony Harrison. Interview.
The Independent Weekend 5th August 1995, 3.
Consider Eliots inclusion of notes to explain
his poem, The Wasteland
Harrison in conversation with me at the Hull Literature Festival,
20 November 1993.
Tony Harrison. Prometheus. London: Faber and Faber (1998)
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.
Tony Harrison. Facing Up. Bloodaxe, 441.
Ibid., pp. 441-442.
Walter, J. Ong. Orality and Literacy - The Technologizing of
the Word. London: New York: Methuen, 1982, 42.
Bruce Woodcock. Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrisons
Invective. Critical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2 (summer
Peter Forbes. The Gaze Of The Gorgon. Poems by Tony Harrison.
Review. The Guardian 27 October 1992, 11.
Luke Spencer. The Poetry of Tony Harrison. New York: London:
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994, 135.
Keith Miller. Times Literary Supplement May 14 1999, 9
Incidentally, despite the possible association of Hermes, Zeuss
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 poets part given the apparent ease with
which she seemed to dispense with human attributes.
Tony Harrison. Prometheus, 30.
Harrison interviewed by Nicholas Lezard. Fire in his Belly,
Independent on Sunday, 11 April 1999, pp.5-6.
See William Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Plate
11. Introduction and commentary by Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, xx.
Tony Harrison. Preface to Palladas, Bloodaxe Critical
Wilfred Owen. Insensibility. The Poems of Wilfred
Owen. Ed. Jon Stallworthy. London: Hogarth, 1985, 192.
Tony Harrison. The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems.
London: Faber and Faber, 1995, 7.
Tony Harrison. The Gaze of the Gorgon. Newcastle-upon-Tyne:
Bloodaxe Books, 1992, 64.
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 Harrisons 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.
Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, 66.
Tony Harrison. Prometheus, pp. vi-vii.
Don Patinkin. A bleeding poet. Vol. 326, Economist,
01-23-1993, pp 83. [sic]. Internet download via Electronic Library
M. L. Rosenthal. Poetry And The Common Life. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1974, 98.
Tony Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, 62.
Tony Harrison. Prometheus, 75.
Don Patinkin. A bleeding poet.
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) shares
Robert Frosts sense of a poem being "a momentary
stay against confusion", except for the fact that pessimism
is the operative word.
Tony Harrison. An informal talk given at the Warburg Institute,
London, November 1999.
Robert Winder. Interview, 3.
Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, pp. 71-72.
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.
Tony Harrison. Shadow of Hiroshima and other film/poems,
Tony Harrison. Some Men Are Brothers, Stand Vol.
4. No. 4, 1960-1961, 51.
Malcolm Heath. The Poetics of Greek Tragedy. London: Duckworth,
Tony Harrison. Shadow of Hiroshima and other film/poems,
Tony Harrison. Gaze of the Gorgon, 59.
W. H. Auden. Introduction. Poems of Freedom. Ed.
John Mulgan. Left Book Club. London: Victor Gollancz, 1938, 9