Durham Book Festival: Tony Harrison and Don Paterson

Rarely do we meet the public figures that inspire us, for which reason amongst others the double billing bringing together the Durham Book Festival laureate Don Paterson with Tony Harrison, one of his personal heroes, was described as a highlight of the festival.

The historic splendour and formality of the Durham City Town Hall seemed somehow at odds with the readings of two poets who consciously oppose pretension and elitism, but the combination of dark wood panelling and low lighting managed to make such a grand setting feel intimate enough for the coming together of two of Britain’s finest living poets.

When Paterson first gets up to read, he admits to the room that reading his work in front of Harrison has made him, understandably, a bit nervous. However, any fear he felt seemed to be channelled into the energy and animation that lasted throughout his time onstage. Paterson can recall the exact moment he was first inspired to start reading poetry, after watching on the television. He described how he felt Harrison, as a fellow poet from the working classes, had given him permission to “appropriate literary English into his own language.”

Such tensions between high art and low art, and the different registers of English, run throughout Harrison’s work, and on this note Paterson chose to begin his reading. The appropriately titled “A Reading” sees Paterson pepper a poem set in the Ancient world with more local references, such as “coupon,” which he informs us is a Glaswegian slang for “face.”

Paterson is an engaging and lively storyteller, in both the narrative spaces of his poetry, as well as the personal anecdotes he recounts in preface to them. His poems, and his commentary on them, are testament to a highly self-conscious poet, who can also be humorously self-deprecating.

After the playfulness of Paterson’s poetry, and the audial texture of his colourful rolling r’s, seemed to set a more serious tone when beginning his time onstage. His rich, deep voice was much slower, each syllable heavy with the weight of experience. Harrison began with several poems written in reaction to warfare, including one of his most recent, “Cornet and Cartridge,” which reflects on his time spent in Sarajevo with The Guardian. His choice to open with three consecutive readings about war seemed to ask questions about the social responsibilities of the poet; in 2009, Harrison was the inaugural recipient of the PEN/Pinter prize, awarded to a writer who holds “an unflinching, unswerving gaze upon the world,” and he has never shied away from the political or controversial in his work.

From these first poems alone, Harrison’s extraordinary feel for rhythm and assonance are immediately apparent. He described his younger self as “hungry for all forms of language,” and it is because of the incredible texture of Harrison’s language that his poetry demands to be read aloud.
Many of Harrison’s best-known works look back towards his past, and the majority of his other readings were poems that concern his relationship with his parents. Harrison’s story of a local boy made good is well known: born into a working-class family in Leeds, he was accepted into the local grammar school on a scholarship, and went on to study Classics at Leeds University.

As he dramatises with heart-breaking pathos, his education put him at odds with the community he grew up in, but especially distanced him from his parents. Harrison’s commitment to writing in direct, quotidian speech is how he attempts to bridge these divides; as he described it, “I wanted to write poetry that people like my parents would respond to.”

His Classical education is apparent as he compares himself writing about the Bosnian war to the messengers’ speeches in Greek tragedies:  he vividly describes the action offstage for an audience who did not witness it, reinforcing the image of Harrison as both a public poet, and a poet of the public.

Indeed, Harrison chose to conclude the evening not with a poem, but a monologue from his plays, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. Speaking in a voice he feels closely resembles his own, Harrison asks, “Who gave the satyr the right to play?’’ as he finds parallels for his ever-present concerns of class division and the accessibility of art in the stories of the Classical world.

Watching Paterson and Harrison side by side is like seeing the fabric of literature being woven. Both poets eagerly incorporate borrowings from other literary texts, foreign languages, local and dialect Englishes, as well as writing (and reading) in their own distinct accents: the lending and borrowing of words, phrases and themes condenses time and collapses divisions. Harrison describes poetry as “language at its most powerful,” and it is ultimately through their unsurpassed use of language that both Harrison and Paterson exhibit the power of poetry.

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