Tony Harrison has been telling us for some time that he is not a potential poet laureate. He is not a toady of the Establishment, not a lover of the status quo: he drove home the point last February in "Laureate's Block", a poem published in the Guardian which attacked the monarchy, the literary establishment, and Blair's government. Yet, despite his loud protestations, Harrison has been tacitly acknowledged as poet laureate of the hard left for many years now.
Since the mid-1980s, Harrison has been writing self-consciously public poems that have mixed ideology and censoriousness in equal measure. He is Mr Outraged writing from his mildewed Marxist mansion; the laureate for that sad generation of people who attend fund-raisers for Castro's Cuba; the bard for a bunch who wish Tony Benn was prime minister, Arthur Scargill leader of the TUC, and who read fondly about the royal beheading of 1649.
The poet's politicisation began back home in working-class Leeds (Harrison Snr was a baker). In 1948, 11-year-old Harrison won one of only six scholarships at Leeds Grammar School and immersed himself in "books, books, books". The disjunction between school and home life was extreme and Harrison soon found that he was growing apart from two devoted parents who demanded his allegiance to their working-class values. In "Punchline", Harrison writes movingly, but with his customary patronising tone, of his father's political allegiances:
No! Revolution never crossed your mind!
For the kids who never made it through the schools
the Northern working class escaped the grind
as boxers or comedians, or won the pools.
All of Harrison's best poetry harks back in one way or another to this period in his life and his vexed relationship with his parents. His sequence of brilliant sonnets "The School of Eloquence" (of which "Punchline" was but one) has rightly been hailed as some of the finest poetry written in the past 50 years. Subtle, personal and quiet explorations of his relationship with his family, these poems eschew the political simplicities and generalities of his later work, where dogma drowns lyricism and psychological insights.
Rejecting the customary Oxbridge route that was expected of him by his school, Harrison read classics at Leeds University and stayed on to do postgraduate work in linguistics. The budding poet's reading of John Milton, E P Thompson, Richard Hoggart and Marx provided him with the ideological framework he has adopted ever since.
Although his studies were vital for his writing - he has translated a number of Greek plays and a real love of languages and dialects permeates all his work - Harrison soon grew bored by the provincial, academic environment he was working in. In 1960, after marrying Rosemarie Crossfield, whose family had fled from Nazi persecution, Harrison decided to travel: he took a post teaching English at a Nigerian university and spent four years in Africa (1962-66), befriending the political playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. He also learnt some of the local languages, just as later, when he spent a year in 1966 teaching at Charles University in Prague, he learnt Czech.
By the time Harrison returned to England to take up a Northern Arts fellowship in the late 1960s, he and Rosemarie had two children. Tragedy struck the family when the Harrisons' six-year-old daughter suffered an accident that left both her legs crushed. (The poet went on to movingly describe how he would carry his injured daughter around on his back.)
On the proceeds from a Unesco fellow-in-poetry scholarship, Harrison took the whole family to Cuba and Brazil. Here, the machismo cultures of the Caribbean and South America seem to have catalysed his poetry. When he returned to England his first poetry collection, The Loiners, was published in 1970. It won the prestigious Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1972. As always with Harrison, dogma lurked beneath the complicated wordplay. In "On the Spot", a poem which meditates on the enmity between the States and Cuba, he writes:
History inescapable, high,
unburied, still not picked over,
only the balls of it gnawed at -
Although he may find some of the things he has seen in Cuba "putrescent", they are "necessary", and the trouble with most socialist countries is that they have only "gnawed at the balls" of socialism and not got to the real meat. There's an optimism behind these obscure metaphors which Harrison was to lose by the mid-1980s, but his belief in "unadulterated" socialism remains to this day. As his fellow poet Sean O'Brien says: "He has remained true to his roots. He still believes in the class struggle."
In his play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1990), the heavy hand of the poet's political persuasion is in evidence. The play concludes with a supposedly climactic scene where the dispossessed rise up in rebellion against their masters. The scene is embarrassing rather than inspiring, though, for Harrison fails to make the audience believe that this is the scorned proletariat that exists in society today.The same problem mars his filmed poem "v." (1987). This unconvincing tale of the poet meeting a skinhead in the cemetery where his parents were buried was hailed as a masterpiece by the liberal establishment and vilified by the right. The poem seems both dated and unrealistic now; the aggressive skinhead, who is supposed to be a symbol for the disaffected youth of today, was never really accurate then and is a historical curiosity now.
If "v." was Harrison's first public poem as "laureate of the hard left", then three filmed poems, "The Gaze of the Gorgon" (1992), "The Shadow of Hiroshima" (1995) and Prometheus (1998), established his credentials further. These attempts to explain the atrocities of the 20th century were muddled and labyrinthine and his targets obvious ones: Nazi Germany, the United States and imperial Japan, and the evil, brainwashing ways of capitalism.
It is in his translations that Harrison succeeds in soaring above ideology. His colloquial and erudite translation of Moliere's The Misanthrope (1981) for the theatre director John Dexter was a fantastic success and in many ways a landmark piece of art: he was the first person really to enliven the translation of the "classics" with his earthy, rumbustuous approach, and his work has been much imitated since. A whole volley of translations followed, including the award-winning Oresteia (1982) and The Mysteries (1985).
It was at this time that, having divorced Rosemarie, Harrison married the opera singer Teresa Stratas and began a rewarding - financially and artistically - period in the New York and London theatre worlds.
By the nineties, when the revolution Harrison spent so many years preparing still showed no sign of taking place, the poet turned from the class war to his personal life. Settling old scores with figures in the literary establishment became one of his favourite new activities. In a very public quarrel, Harrison accused the mild-mannered poet Andrew Motion of being a "toadie" and of "Di-deifying", because he was moved to write a poem about Diana's death. (Motion seems to be so traumatised by Harrison's cheeky comments that when I phoned him up and asked him what he thought of Harrison's work, the would-be laureate said furiously that he had nothing to say and slammed down the phone.)
As well as literary feuds, Harrison now seems to relish trumpeting details of his domestic life. In "Laureate's Block", he ends the poem with this quatrain:
A poet's death fills other poets with dread,
a king's death kings, but under my duvet
is Queen Elizabeth, and off our bed
slide these quatrains and all of Thomas Gray.
Harrison seems to be saying here that he is fucking the Queen, both literally and metaphorically. He is also issuing a very public confession about the status of his marriage: the lover in the poem is not his wife, Teresa Stratas, but the actress Sian Thomas. Harrison, who is a notoriously private man and very reluctant to be interviewed, uses this poem to confess publicly (without, presumably, his wife's consent) the messiness of his sex life.
It is this obsession to convey a message - whether personal or political - to the public at large that persuades many fellow poets of Harrison's qualifications as poet laureate. "It's a shame that he puts himself out of the running," says Tobias Hill, "he would have made a good laureate." One can't also help feeling that the post might have forced him to write public poetry that spoke beyond the narrow confines of his dogma and helped him to return to the more reflective mode that gave his early poems such power.