Born into Leeds in 1937. Son of a baker, and a proud member of the working class.
“…the baker’s man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf”.
He was granted a scholarship for the Leeds Grammar School at 11 and as a result he was dislocated from his background and family. The alienation from his social class and community, and from his loving and rooted upbringing had an effect on him. He went through a process of loss which implied letting go of his Leeds working class vernacular, which he experienced as class colonisation. As he explained it later, he had to confront the internal colonialism of British education, with its marginalisation of the working class by the dominant middle-class culture, a fact which elicited his anger. Harrison is very much concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes. He recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English:
“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [us] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe (us)
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’
We say ‘(us) not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘Flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!”
(Them and [uz])
He borrowed from classical poetry but used his own dialect, themes and characters, all belonging to his working class backgroud. He never allowed middle-class education to engulf him and has always been proud of who he is. Thus, he is regarded as a writer with integrity whose edge hasn’t been dulled by age, and who speaks openly about a wide range of subjects.
In his poetry, controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his use of colloquial language and obscenities:
“Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem
and taking a short cut home through these graves here
they reassert the glory of their team
This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.
Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.
One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT
sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.”
Upon Ted Hughes’ death, he was considered as the next poet laureate. Anxious to share his contempt for the position, the wrote “Laureate’s block”:
I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,
free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,
free to say up yours to Tony Blair,
to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading
and regret the restoration of his heir.
Among so many people who try to climb up the social ladder, sweeping thier origins under the carpet, it is not that easy to find writers who stand tall and announce their proud as Harrison does.