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Tony Harrison and the Holocaust

Volume: 39
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Tony Harrison and the Holocaust
    Book Description:

    This book argues that Tony Harrison’s poetry is barbaric. It revisits one of the most misquoted passages of twentieth-century philosophy: Theodor Adorno’s apparent dismissal of post-Holocaust poetry as ‘impossible’ or ‘barbaric’. His statement is reinterpreted as opening up the possibility that the awkward and embarrassing poetics of writers such as Harrison might be re-evaluated as committed responses to the worst horrors of twentieth-century history. Most of the existing critical work on Harrison focuses on his representation of class, which occludes his interest in other aspects of historiography. The poet’s predilection for establishing links between the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the prospect of global annihilation is examined as a commitment to oppose the dangers of linguistic silence. Hence Harrison’s work can be read fruitfully within the growing field of Holocaust Studies: his texts enter into arguments about the ethics of representing traumatic incidents that still haunt the contemporary. Harrison’s status as a ‘non-victim’ author of the events is stressed throughout. His writing of the Holocaust, allied bombings and atom bomb is mediated by his reception of the events through newsreels as a child, and his adoption and subversion, as an adult poet, of traditional poetic forms such as the elegy and sonnet. This book also discusses the ways in which Holocaust literature engages with a number of concepts challenged or altered by the historical events, such as love, mourning, memory, humanism, culture and barbarism, articulacy and silence.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-425-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-32)

    Tony Harrison’s poetry is barbaric. In ‘Them & [uz]’, the schoolteacher refers to the young poet as a barbarian because of his working-class accent; this is not the particular sense of the word that I wish to evoke.¹ Instead, I refer to Theodor Adorno’s statement that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’: the philosopher’s statement seems to suggest that such activity in the late twentieth century is unethical due to the sheer horror of the Holocaust; aesthetics and atrocity are incompatible.² In this introduction, I challenge this standard interpretation of Adorno’s polemic. For now, it needs to be noted...

  5. Chapter One Cinema, Masturbation and Peter Pan: A Non-Victim Approach to the Holocaust
    (pp. 33-86)

    In the article ‘The Inkwell of Dr Agrippa’, Harrison writes: ‘When I search my childhood for something to explain what drove me into poetry [… my] images are all to do with the War’.¹ As well as stressing his northern – but not, in terms of the quotation, especially working-class – credentials, he remembers his experience of the Second World War as a child in Beeston:

    One of my very earliest memories is of bombs falling […] myself and my mother crouching in the cellar […] lit-up streets […] the whistlings sounded so festive […] Another is the contact I had with...

  6. Chapter Two Amorous Discourse and ‘Bolts of Annihilation’ in the American Poems
    (pp. 87-143)

    Given its propensity to universalise the human condition, it comes as no surprise that poetry has drawn extensively on the discourses of love. Declarations of love that appear to treat the amorous as transcendent rather than affected by historical contexts have been central to the history of the lyric; contemporary theatre audiences may grapple with the difficulties of Shakespeare’s verse, but can fall back on an appreciation of some of his supposedly universal themes, such as love, death and aberrant families. In contemporary poetry, the depiction of the besotted is always double-edged: no young poet worth his or her salt...

  7. Chapter Three Mourning and Annihilation in the Family Sonnets
    (pp. 144-194)

    Elegies are gloriously self-indulgent poems that exult in melancholic reiterations of the dead. Along with the amorous, elegiac mourning forms a central concern in Harrison’soeuvre; it is most extensively explored in the second, or ‘family sonnets’, section of the ‘School of Eloquence’.¹ Mourning is often confused with grieving: both denote the amorous subject’s sorrow and regret for the loss, and celebration of, a loved object. However, grief denotes a common psychological state that forms only part of a process of coming to terms with absence; it is this wider phenomenon that might be more accurately termed ‘mourning’. The distinction...

  8. Chapter Four The Fragility of Memory
    (pp. 195-247)

    If Harrison’s poetry is read as a whole rather than as a collection of individual pieces, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the threat of nuclear war function as extrinsic tropes that affect any intrinsic depiction of transience or mortality. My chapter on mourning has illustrated how, for Harrison as well as for other modern poets, these metaphors have radically transformed the genre of the elegy, with its traditional movement towards reconciliation and consolation. The following section will engage with the concepts of memory and memorialisation, which, along with mourning, are central tenets of this aristocratic poetic form. Whereas grieving suggests a...

  9. Chapter Five Culture/Barbarism Dialectics in Harrison’s Poetry
    (pp. 248-306)

    ‘Holocaust’ and ‘class’ approaches to Harrison’s work can be linked through dialectics of articulacy. Barbaric poetry’s struggle with the apparently unrepresentable nature of atrocity might find its counterpart in the battle against inarticulacy in working-class poetry; it would be disingenuous to assert that awkward aesthetics are the sole preserve of Holocaust and post-Holocaust poems. Critics have noticed the embarrassing nature of Harrison’s poetics before: for example, Spencer recognises the juxtaposition of regular pentameter with metrical tension in the sonnet entitled ‘The Queen’s English’.¹ Harrison’s aesthetics might be seen to be similar whether he tries to represent the working class or...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-321)
  11. Index
    (pp. 322-326)