Michael Horovitz gets into a tizzy over Blake Morrison writing about Tony Harrison, from the London Review of Books Vol. 4, Number 8, May 1982.
SIR: In what monkish cell has Blake Morrison been conducting his explorations into contemporary verse? He alleges, without telling your readers what they are, that ‘there are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century … Harrison seems to have the field to himself.’ This would be admissible only if you’d had your ear to the grounds of middle or upper-class literary coffee mills. Which is not to say that Harrison isn’t a genuine or working-class poet – nor that working-classness necessarily or always matters very much.
But since Morrison invokes these grounds, and a concern with thinking, let me commend the food for further thought on this subject to be found in plenty in the poetry of Attila the Stockbroker, Jim Burns, Aidan Cant, Anne Clark, John Cooper Clarke, Joolz Denby, Patrik Fitzgerald, Mark Hyatt, Roger McGough, Barry MacSweeney, Brian Patten, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, Alan Sillitoe and Seething Wells; and in the poems, as well as the songs, of pre and post-punk songwriter-singers, such as Syd Barrett, Pete Brown, Kevin Coyne, Ray Davies, Roy Harper, Richard Jobson, John Lennon and Paul Weller – amongst many, many others. None of them is haut bourgeois (indeed, most of them wouldn’t know, or want to know, what that means): but each is, or was, like Tony Harrison, in full possession of ‘first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in’.
New Departures, Bisley, near Stroud
Blake Morrison writes: I have yet to see a Michael Horovitz letter (and I have seen many) which does not reel off at least a score of names which are said to prove the existence of some renaissance in contemporary British poetry. The names vary from week to week, but the ones cited here do little to persuade me that I was wrong in singling out Tony Harrison. For this is an issue of quality rather than quantity, and the ‘genuine working-class poet’ is, as I understand it, not only genuinely working-class but of genuine poetic stature. None of Horovitz’s candidates meets that requirement, not even what he calls the ‘pre and post-punk songwriter-singers’ (in what useful sense can the likes of Roy Harper and Syd Barrett be called pre-punk – this is rather like calling a Thirties poet a pre-Forties poet?). Like Horovitz, I don’t believe that ‘working-classness necessarily or always matters very much.’ But it does matter in Harrison’s case because it is the subject of Continuous. And if one is going to invoke class one should be accurate and not assume that all rock musicians are by definition working-class. John Lennon was brought up in a semi in a respectable neighbourhood, and punk has had more to do with bourgeois art schools than with working-class council estates.