With his blasts against the war in Iraq, the monarchy and the poet laureateship, Tony Harrison fuels his poetry with politics. Now in his 70th year, he is as outspoken as ever.
For Tony Harrison, the ritualised beauty of poetry answered his "existential unease with war". Shocked by newsreel footage of concentration camps in 1945, when he was eight, he became obsessed, he says, with "how you could measure even simple pleasures against such images - when the violent events of history seem to cancel out joy and meaning". At the VJ celebrations, "even as a child, I likened the bonfires in the street to the terrible fire that helped finish the war. I've always struggled to find a way of uniting my celebratory nature with a way of seeing horrors clearly."
Earlier this month in London, Harrison received the Wilfred Owen poetry award for 2007 - whose past winners include Seamus Heaney and Harold Pinter. War poems have been a vital thread in his commitment to public poetry, from recalling his mother's metrically ticking knitting needles in a Yorkshire bomb shelter, and indignantly speaking up, in A Cold Coming, for the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier in the first Gulf war, to Guardian front-page dispatches from the Bosnian frontline, and the Krieg Anthology lambasting Bush and Blair ("flayed-off human flesh like hanging chads"). In the poem "Shrapnel", he links the blitz of his boyhood to the London bombers of July 7 2005 who lived in the same part of Beeston, Leeds, where he grew up.
Yet war forms only part of a poetic oeuvre, both public and intimate, that spans page, stage and screen over 45 years. For Harrison, "it's all one poetry". Writing for television since the early 1980s, he broke ground with a new art form of "film/poems", with documentaries and features such as Prometheus (1998), which transposed Greek myth to post-industrial Yorkshire and post-communist eastern Europe. To mark his 70th birthday on April 30, his Collected Poems (Viking) and Collected Film Poetry (Faber) will be published next month. And the same day he will talk about his work after a screening, at the BFI South Bank in London, of The Shadow of Hiroshima, his 1995 Channel 4 film for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing.
Andrei Tarkovsky's film Mirror revealed verse to Harrison as the "fittest narration" for stark, even terrifying, images, where naturalistic voiceovers can sound voyeuristic. "You need the objective eye, but also a feeling of engagement," he says. His poetry often gives the dead or afflicted a voice, whether a civilian in Hiroshima whose shadow is stamped on stone, or women on an Alzheimer's ward in the BBC2 film-poem Black Daisies for the Bride (1993) - its title inspired by E Powys Mathers' version of a Sanskrit love lament. "There are risks of sentimentality," he says. "But my metre starts ticking in the presence of dumbness and inarticulacy. Coming from a very inarticulate family made me try to speak for those who can't express themselves, and created a need for articulation at its most ceremonial - poetry."
For him, rhyme and rhythm - partly inspired by English speech patterns - are "like plugging myself into a life-support system, especially when I'm looking at subjects that seem too terrible to talk about. The heart beats iambically; the form keeps the connection to the heartbeat." That ease with form has enabled Harrison to write poetry of great subtlety and power to order, whether on battle-fronts or film shoots. "I learnt all the metres by imitation; it gives you a structure from which to venture out, like being on a trapeze but having a wire to catch you if you fall." The playfulness of rhyme is "really about keeping the mind open, monitoring sounds at the same time as subject. For me, this fluidity of rhyme in the head is like water that keeps the clay malleable till it's ready."
He has lived for 40 years in the same house in Gosforth, Newcastle, where "the muses know my telephone number". His two children, Jane and Max, grew up there, and he now has three grandchildren. He is twice divorced (his second wife was the Greek soprano Teresa Stratas), and he and his partner of 18 years, the actor Siân Thomas, "shuttle back and forth, and spend as much time as we can together". His shelves are lined with blue notebooks, and, unless editing a script on computer, he works with pen and Pritt Stick. "I love being on the road with others, with a camera, but also being alone writing poetry."
An artist's impression of one of his poems shows the budding poet's head poking from an attic window. "Almost a nerdy little loner, I was: 'I can't go out as I've got Latin prose,'" he mocks. "There's something a bit like that with me still; life's going on outside." He travels the world, but at home relishes cooking as "poetry by other means - the same deeply necessary alchemy". His father, a baker, could "see a perfect wedding cake broken up and eaten with no regret", and Harrison forbids the filming of his own one-off "kamikaze" dramatisations, in a Delphi amphitheatre or a Yorkshire salt mill. "I like that theatre should perish. Just as mortality is the seasoning of our relish for life, so ephemerality is a stimulus to seize the experience of the moment."
He was born in Leeds in 1937. A scholarship boy at Leeds grammar, he read classics at Leeds university. The early poetry of The Loiners (1970) and From the School of Eloquence (1978) probed inarticulacy as powerlessness, and the gulf between his class background and his education. "I was well read and knew languages, but I didn't want to become Ezra Pound," he says. "I wanted to write poetry that people like my parents might respond to." In Them & Uz, he recalled not being allowed to recite Keats with a northern accent. But adapting the medieval mystery plays for the National Theatre in 1985, he reclaimed them. "When I saw the Mysteries in York as a child, only the comic roles had a local voice, but the poetry doesn't work without northern vowels," he says. "It's not as bad now - people don't have to fight that fight."
Wole Soyinka was a student friend at Leeds, and Harrison identified with writers from the crumbling empire, as much as Scots and Americans, "seizing the English language without inhibitions". Teaching in northern Nigeria, he staged Aikin Mata (1964), his version of Aristophanes' Lysistrata using pidgin. Lecturing in Prague, he learned Czech and saw theatre every night, a lesson in how, especially under censorship, "audiences read classical plays with a contemporary eye".
He wanted to emulate the Greek dramatists, yet thinks TS Eliot "ruined verse theatre by taking it into the drawing room". He "cleared a space" with sparkling translations of Molière, Racine and the ancient Greeks - from his celebrated Oresteia (1981), to Hecuba (2005). Reviving aspects of the lost satyr plays that accompanied Greek tragedy, he found affinities with music hall, not least in its "recognition of the audience - you can't be in profile in a mask". As a war poet in Bosnia, he returned to the "model of the messenger of Greek tragedy to keep me calm and focused; the tragic mask as metaphor - eyes and mouth always open".
His most controversial poem V (1985), prompted by football hooligans desecrating his parents' gravestones, voiced the vandals' four-letter hatred in the quatrains of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Harrison wanted to "take on my own instinct to vandalise my own art. There's always that voice - 'what's the point, who the hell wants a poem?' I have to outstrip that dark, negative force to write anything." Made into a Channel 4 film by Richard Eyre, V drew praise and outrage. Harrison believes "bringing the skinheads into high art was what caused the offence. It was like I'd done the graffiti on the classical form." Twenty years on, V is taught in schools.
A film-poem in the quatrains of the Omar Khayyam, The Blasphemers' Banquet (1989), was prompted by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and saw Harrison awaiting Rushdie, Voltaire and Byron in a Bradford curry house. The Archbishop of Canterbury failed to halt its broadcast on the BBC, where it was seen by almost four million viewers. Harrison says it was aimed at all religious fundamentalisms that pose a threat to free speech. "Just to offend isn't a great crime," he says. "To say 'your beliefs are to me rubbish' shouldn't be an issue; we had an Enlightenment."
His last film-poem was Crossings (2002) for ITV, a homage to WH Auden and state-of-the-nation address. He thinks it unlikely that he will ever have funding for another: "The ranks of producers swell up with the stupid, the timorous and the mercenary." But he has finished a new play Fram, based on a polar expedition, for the National Theatre. He is also revising his 1973 translation of The Misanthrope for Kevin Spacey's Old Vic, shifting it from De Gaulle's France to the volatile salons of Washington DC, where he senses parallels with Molière's perilous patronage at the court of the Sun King.
Some of his "political squibs" have been savaged by critics, along with his blasts against the monarchy and the poet laureateship ("toadies like Di-deifying Motion"). "I've not got a chip," he says in reference to Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning speech thanking the Queen for her part in Mirren's success. "I'm just a republican." He is scathing about an "English reluctance to marry politics and poetry. Why shouldn't poetry address what happened yesterday, and be published in the newspaper?" As he said when reading his Iraq war poems, "yes, I've got inwardness and tenderness, but I also get angry and vituperative, and you have to honour that as well".
Approaching 70, "I thought I might slow down, but part of me has no interest in what I've done, only what I'm doing now or tomorrow," he says. The older you get, he adds, "the more sensual experience nourishes the poetry". Of late he has written love lyrics. Yet while his poetry charts life's pleasures, from Callas to "papaya spritzed with lime", it also reveals "joy banked with grief". "I used to have depressive cycles, but instead of being afraid, I say: 'Come in and talk to me,'" he says. "I've realised darkness and light are inter-dependent, just as death is an enhancer of life."
Likening the stillness of poetry to a "vigil with a candle", he adds, "poetry is not a popular art; it doesn't change anything. But it reminds us there are ways of contemplating destructive forces in a secular, meditative way which it's important to keep alive. That's what keeps me going."