v. Revisited: Harrison, Rimbaud, and the Communards
Thursday 27 July, 1pm Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL
Tony Harrison (1937 – ) is one of England’s greatest political poets, elegists, and verse dramatists of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the stature of his contribution to literature has been recognised by the canonisation of his poetry and prestigious awards. Harrison’s most famous poem is v. (1984), an urban elegy that satirizes its literary model, Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). Where the poor remain silent and spoken for in Gray’s Elegy, v. unmutes the poor, and its giving voice to the rage of an illiterate Neo-Nazi skinhead led to Tory calls in the tabloids and in parliament for that ‘torrent of four-letter filth’ to be banned. Harrison’s poetry is highly allusive and revisiting this extraordinary poem, v., unearths new layers of meaning. This paper examines the importance for Harrison of the great 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91). It is in v. that Harrison most directly expresses an enduring identification with Rimbaud. To understand the political significance of Rimbaud’s presence in v.—and why Rimbaud is important for Harrison’s politics—it is important to keep in mind that Rimbaud was a Communard. The paper will explore the importance of the French radical republican tradition, in the form of the Paris Commune of 1871, for Harrison’s political thought and for the interpretation of Rimbaud in v. This state-of-the-nation poem suggests an alternative social model to neoliberalism in Britain and late capitalism by turning to the Communards—and Rimbaud as ‘the first poet of a civilization that has not yet appeared’—to illuminate utopian possibilities about how to ‘transform the world’ and to ‘change life’.
Dr Christine Regan is the author of The Rimbaud of Leeds: The Political Character of Tony Harrison’s Poetry (2016) and essays on Harrison’s life and work. She is developing a new study of contemporary poetry.