Tony Harrison at 80: A Celebration of One of Leeds’ Most Accomplished Poets

Earlier this month, local poet Tony Harrison visited the university as part of the celebration of his life and works to mark his eightieth birthday. Harrison is considered one of the greatest poets writing in the UK today and is widely celebrated in Leeds having grown up and studied in the city. He is an alumnus of the University, graduating with a degree in Latin and Linguistics in 1958.

Harrison has had a long and fulfilling career as both a poet and a playwright. He has produced a vast collection of his own work including ‘The Loiners’ (1970) which takes early inspiration from the tension he felt between his working class background and grammar school education. Classical works have also been sources of inspiration for Harrison, as he has developed his versions of tragedies such as the Oresteia and Lysistrata. Many of his works have been performed at the National Theatre, including the adaptation of the York and Wakefield cycles of the English Medieval Mystery plays, titled The Mysteries, first performed in 1985. As well as his positive reception, Harrison is not shy when it comes to controversy; he received criticism for his use of profanity in his poem ‘V’ as well as his outspoken views on the Iraq war.

The University held a celebration of the poet’s career last weekend with an intimate reading and an academic conference organised by Special Collections at the Brotherton Library. The celebration on Friday evening began with a rare screening of one of Tony Harrison’s film poems: The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) which was introduced by its director and a long-time collaborator of Harrison’s, Peter Symes. The film sets Harrison’s poem ‘The Gaze of the Gorgon’ against a back-drop of classical motifs, vintage images, and clips from urban life which in turn examines the politics of conflict that occurred in the twentieth century. The attendees then received a reading by Harrison of a selection of his poetry and the evening concluded with a signing by the poet. The conference took place on Saturday, featuring talks including ‘Harrison and Northern Poetics’ and ‘Harrison and Myth’.

Eleanor Smith

(Image courtesy of James Drew Turner)