This semester I have been teaching on LIT108: ‘Introduction to Advanced Literary Study: Poetry and Drama’. As part of this course I’ve had the pleasure of discussing poetry in its many forms with my first-year students and we’ve covered a wide range of historical periods, from Beowulf (an Old English epic poem) to contemporary poetry.
We are very lucky here at Sheffield. We enjoy poetry readings throughout the year organised by Professor Adam Piette and Dr Agnes Lehoczky, and in late spring Professor Simon Armitage and Dr Jo Gavins organise the annual Lyric Festival. At this year’s Lyric, Tony Harrison was a headline act, and I arranged a ‘school trip’ for my LIT108 students to see his performance. We had discussed Harrison’s work in a seminar on the topic of ‘Poetry and Context’, so this was an exciting opportunity for us to engage with his poetry away from the seminar classroom.
A big “thank you” to Jo Gavins for providing our tickets, and what follows are the responses of two LIT108 students who attended that reading…
— Amber Regis
Amber McNamara, BA English Literature (Level 1)
I loved hearing Tony Harrison read a mixture of his political and intensely personal works and not only for his expressive, drawling voice. The reading introduced me to some new pieces including the gritty ‘Trackers of Oxyrhynchus’ which really captured my imagination. I had always preferred poetry to have a heightened language, not archaic but ‘RP’ enough. Poets like Harrison have helped wean me off a stream of near-identical poets, have helped me re-evaluate what poetry can be: profane, crude and colloquial, but without this detracting from its worth. After all, what is a poem measured by? If it is the power to make us feel, Harrison succeeded in gruff, candid glory. Into the bargain, the poetry reading was dabbled with stories, inspirations and general digressions—like his belief that poetry deserves a place on the front pages of leading newspapers as a political tool, a living, feeling documentation.
Colm Tóibín has declared: “I would not like to be alone in reading a book I admire. I do not know why this is the case.” Similarly, poetry is meant to be shared. The earliest forms of poetry were performed regularly in a communal setting. Maybe this is its natural form? Listeners can appreciate the musicality of the words and the passion of the poet, something your own inner narrator might not invoke. In some ways it feels like a welcome regression to your childhood, sitting on the carpet being read stories. But more than that, you want someone else to feel the way you do; we’ve come together to appreciate, listen and to know the truth, his truth, a higher truth. Leaving behind empty song lyrics, cheap laughs, shopping, out-of-date milk, rising above the mundane. Everyone at a poetry reading is revelling in the same words. And you don’t have to force their enthusiasm.
Saffron Rain, BA English Literature (Level 1)
The Art of Performance Poetry- Tony Harrison has it Down to a V!
Society is never slow to remark on the magic of live music or a live theatre production but often overlooks such magic as that of a poetry reading, especially when read by the author themselves. A lot of the time we look at the arts (theatre, music, art and dance) and forget that literature also falls into this category and therefore has the ability to be performed, and be performed fabulously.
As part of Sheffield’s annual Lyric Festival, Tony Harrison performed a selection of his poems in the fantastically reworked St. George’s Church, which went from mundane lecture theatre to a setting for something mesmerising. Taking my seat I didn’t really know what to expect—I’d never been to a poetry reading before never mind one read by the author himself. Tony Harrison took his place at the podium, still wearing his trench coach, and he managed to look like absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Like I said, I didn’t know what to expect. This coat was to stay on for the whole performance and the book signing after, accompanied only by a bottle of red wine and plastic wine glass.
However, this sense of anti-climax was destroyed as soon as the seventy-six year old poet opened his mouth. With a distinctly charming Yorkshire accent, Harrison began in a way that implied he was perhaps nervous but managing to be hilarious in the process, exclaiming that the “problem with getting old is that you have to live through many anniversaries” (a reference to his most famous poem, V.).
He didn’t perform V. and I was rather disappointed; it would have been spectacular to hear and see it live. But it was an interesting decision to avoid V. There has been so much interpretation and criticism of this poem that its subject matter is widely known. I know about this poem—I’ve read articles on it, listened to documentaries about it, and have heard Harrison talk about it himself. As such, it was great to hear what were, for me at least, unread and unknown poems. Besides discussing his fascinating life, there was also an insight into why his poems were written—what they were about and what they meant for Harrison. This is something I’ve never experienced before in all my years as an English student.
It was this—in combination with the emotion Harrison poured into his reading, especially those poems written about his mother—that made for an overwhelming evening. There was something spectacularly honest about this man in his oversized coat, standing at the front of a church, an atheist preaching to a church congregation. In that evening poetry became another performance art for me, something I could go home and rave about, something I could treasure for years to come.
Plus I got to meet him, and the man is just as sincere and interesting as the poet!