Today’s poem is ‘On Not Being Milton’ by Tony Harrison – A wonderful Meredithian modification of the sonnet (16 lines instead of 14, after George Meredith’s ‘Modern Love’) that begins Harrison’s second full collection ‘The School of Eloquence’ (1978). Here’s how it starts:
On Not Being Milton
for Sergio Vieira & Armando Guebuza (Frelimo)
‘Read and committed to the flames, I call
these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
my growing black enough to fit my boots’
Today the Leeds Humanities Research Institute played host to scholars from Aalborg, Lund, Aarhus, York, and Leeds. Brought together in order to think about the notion of ‘Transnational Memory and Traumatic Histories’, the one-day conference saw papers addressing subjects as diverse as Franco-Iranian women’s writing, the Istanbul Pogroms, Algerian War narratives and post-memory literature, the poetry of William Wordsworth, Ulysses syndrome, multidirectionality and the Spanish Civil War, and Polish melodrama. The keynote address, given by professor Maxim Silverman, addressed the notion of palimpsestic memory, and indeed it felt as if each of the panels held interesting traces of the others in their return to notions of multidirectionality, transnationalism, and the constant need to interrogate and re-assess the ethics and transmission of historical trauma.
My paper, entitled ‘Leeds is Nigeria and Newcastle is Auschwitz: a Post-Holocaust Cartography in the Poetry of Tony Harrison’ looked at Harrison’s first two full collections. Rather than try and explain everything that I tried to get through, here’s the abstract:
‘Born in Beeston in 1937 and educated at the University of Leeds, the poet, translator, and dramatist Tony Harrison has based many of his poems in and around the North of England. Traditionally championed as a resolutely working class poet, Harrison’s writing often focuses on the public and private lives of his family and Leeds neighbours – a focus epitomised by his aptly named first full collection ‘The Loiners’ (1970) and his second collection ‘The School of Eloquence’ (1978). However, whilst the gaze of the poet seemingly focusses upon the post-War Leeds cityscape, this paper will argue that far from being simply concerned with class inequality and issues of local heritage, the two collections are in fact profoundly shaped by the poet’s keen awareness of both the Holocaust and England’s Colonial legacy. Drawing upon the Harrison’s prose and poetry, I will explore how ‘The Loiners’ and ‘The School of Eloquence’ together map a new, transnational landscape of violence and barbarity upon the streets of Leeds. Connected by their shared dark histories, Europe, Central Africa, and the North of England are compressed together within the tight form and often taboo subject matter of the poems, as Harrison breaks down the geographical, imaginative, and ethical boundaries that might have otherwise kept these diverse landscapes apart.’
Quite heavy stuff! But also a fantastic topic to work on, not just because I got to engage with the work of some wonderful writers – Michael Rothberg, Paul Gilroy, Walter Benjamin, Susan Gubar, Aimé Césaire, and Hannah Arendt to name just a few – but also because I got to re-immerse myself in the wonderful poetry and prose of Tony Harrison.
I had a bit of a major headstart, as my latest chapter is a much larger exploration of this very subject, but I’ve had a bit of a break (to attend an Arvon course, but more on that another time), plus when you work for so long on a few poems you tend to lose sight of what it was that attracted you to them in the first place. Writing a conference paper is such a different experience from writing a chapter, and it allows you to look at old poems in new ways. Coming back to ‘Allotments’, ‘Newcastle is Peru’, and ‘On Not Being Milton’ with fresh eyes and a need for brevity and accessibility, it was great to think about how these poems have the power to jump off the page, regardless of whether the reader/listener is new to poetry, or else a seasoned veteran.
Turning to the Poem of Today – ‘On Not Being Milton’ – what continues to impress with each new reading is the sheer volume of literary, geographical, and historical allusions contained within such a short and engaging piece. In particular, Harrison’s engagement with Césaire, negritude, roots, and the notion of ‘growing black enough to fit my boots’ throws the apparent subject matter and landscape of the poem into flux. Suddenly, the poem becomes as much about the power of poetry to shock, to break down geographical, historical, and ethical boundaries as it is about the poet’s return to his own ‘native land’ of Leeds.
As an example of Harrison’s tentative yet nonetheless persistent post-Holocaust humanism, the sonnet captures the equal darkness and light that shapes his often deliberately ‘awkward’ poetic: Darkness in the sense that Harrison is separated from John Milton not just by choice, but also by the historical ruptures of both the Holocaust and Britain’s colonial legacy. Yet light and celebration in the fact that poetry might reclaim this rupture, offering a positive disruption and transgression of outdated and inhibitive geographical, historical, and imaginative borders.
Anyway, the paper is done, the day was great, and so is Tony Harrison! Thanks to the organisers, the other speakers, the audience (particularly my lovely Literature dept. buddies who came along to support), and finally Nick for his humanism without guarantees.