Harrison was born in Leeds and educated at Leeds Grammar School and the University of Leeds, where he read Classics and took a diploma in Linguistics. For some years he has lived in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne.
The material of much of his poetry is provided by the memories of his working-class childhood. His poems and translations show a powerful command of rhyme and an expert adaptation of colloquial speech. His best known collections are The Loiners (1970) and The School of Eloquence.
Cited from Professor Rick Rylance's analysis, focusing on "Book Ends" and "V", as well as the themes of political and personal division. "Tony Harrison is deservedly known as the poet of a distinctive kind of post-war experience. The son of a baker, raised in working-class Leeds, his work dramatises aspects of growing up in that life and the tension between it and the very different culture he entered through his educational success as a star pupil, first at Leeds Grammar School and then at university. Though often highly personal, his poetry explores themes representative of his generation's experience of increasing social mobility through education that was a feature of post-war life. Typically, this takes the form of meditations on exclusion, like that of Harrison's own family whose origins did not permit much cultural mobility."
His best-known work is the long poem V. (1985), written during the miners' strike of 1984-85, and describing a trip to see his parents' grave in a Leeds cemetery "now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti". The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse etc. Proposals to screen a filmed version of V. by Channel 4 in October 1987 drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its "torrents of obscene language" and "streams of four-letter filth" would have on the nation's youth. Indeed, an Early Day Motion entitled "Television Obscenity" was proposed on the 27th October 1987 by a group of Conservative MPs, who condemned Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The motion was opposed by a single MP, Mr. Norman Buchan, who suggested that MPs had either failed to read or failed to understand (V.). The broadcast went ahead, and the brouhaha settled quickly after enough column inches had been written about the broadcast and reaction to the broadcast. Gerald Howarth said that Harrison was "Probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us". When told of this, Harrison retorted that Howarth was "Probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us".
His adaption, The Mysteries, of the English Medieval Mystery plays, based on the York and Wakefield Mystery cycles, were first performed at the Royal National Theatre in 1985; in a promenade production in the Cottesloe Theatre. They were revived the following year, in the much larger space of the Lyceum Ballroom.
In 1998, he wrote and directed a film, Prometheus, based on his poem of the same name, which links the myth of Prometheus - chained on a rock to have his liver eaten by the vulture Ethon as a punishment for the theft of fire - with the enchainment of workers in the Promethian industries - the closed coal mines of Yorkshire; the present day effects of heavy industry in Copşa Mică in Romania; to the gas ovens of Auschwitz, to Dresden and to Bomber Harris. The film involved driving a thirty foot golden statue of Prometheus from the industrial north of England to Greece, via Germany and a number of eastern European countries.
His translation of Hecuba (2005), which emphasised the relevance of Euripides' drama to the Iraq War, was poorly received.
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