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Tony Harrison and the Holocaust (review)
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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.3 (2003) 515-517

Tony Harrison and the Holocaust, Antony Rowland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 299 pp., $54.95.

This scholarly work does precisely what its genre should: instruct, elucidate, and create a climate for understanding a specialized type of poetry, while offering the possibility of bringing Tony Harrison into the canon of Holocaust poets. Harrison's aim for the printed page, television, opera house, concert hall, and theater is no less than "to confront the major horrors of the twentieth century" in a public forum, according to Mick Imlah in a review of Harrison's The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film Poems (1995). The poet's duty is to lend his voice to those who have been rendered historically inaudible. A few critics, Oswyn Murray among them, have asserted that Harrison's poetry is meant for performance and loses something in publication. Murray hasstated "Harrison's poetry has always been public poetry, immediately accessible and directed at an audience rather than at the solitary reader. His chief weakness as apoet, that he lacks the ability to speak in a private voice, is in the theater his greatest strength."

Rowland argues that Harrison's work has suffered from too narrow a focus on the issue of class. Rowland therefore seeks to widen discussion of the poet's work to include engagement with defining crises of the modern world: the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust and the American bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as the fear of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Rowland is thorough in tracking down evidence of what he believes is the climate of guilt, horror, and fear characterizing Harrison's poetry. Harrison has a tendency to interpret every mention of an oven as a reference to the Nazi Holocaust and every "dark night" as heavy with the anxiety of potential global extinction.

At times, however, the book reads like its earlier life as a doctoral dissertation; conclusions at the end of each chapter would have been helpful. It is sometimes difficult to understand the point Rowland is trying to make, possibly because he focuses solely on Harrison and could perhaps better locate him aesthetically by comparing him with some of his poetic contemporaries. Although Sylvia Plath and Geoffrey Hill are discussed, only one poem by each of them ("Daddy" and "September Song," respectively) is cited as evidence of their being, like Harrison, post-Holocaust poets. Harrison's work appears to exist in a vacuum: Ted Hughes is reckoned as too conservative, Craig Raine is mentioned briefly but only as a critic.

Quoting Theodor Adorno's dictum "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," Rowland places Harrison as a "post-Holocaust" writer because his work is "awkward," "embarrassing," and not written in a "mellifluous iambic pentameter" (pp. 10, 20, 21). "Harrison's poetry is tainted by moments of barbarism because it engages directly with extreme events and is thereby unspiritual, mindless, revolutionary, ephemeral, and seminar based" (p. 261). The book is replete with analysis of Harrison's metrics—at times distractingly so—as well as Rowland's argument that barbaric poetry challenges metrical authority. Responding to Adorno's argument, Harrison asserts that after Auschwitz there can be only poetry, since this genre may be the most successful means of engaging with atrocity.

Rowland convincingly contends that in The Shadow of Hiroshima and The Gaze of the Gorgon Harrison has articulated a response to the events of 1933-45. In School Library Journal, Michael Lockwood explained The Gaze of the Gorgon: "Tony Harrison uses Greek myth and an elaborate narrative concerned with the statues of German poets to trace the dehumanizing force of war as it has reemerged in recent conflicts." Rowland does not ignore Harrison's frank and sometimes flamboyant use of sexual themes—especially masturbation—in Chapter 1, "Cinema, Masturbation and Peter Pan: A Non-Victim Approach to the Holocaust." Rowland quotes Harrison's mother's anguished reaction: "You weren't brought up to write such mucky books" (p. 51).

Harrison's version of the Holocaust is mediated by newsreels, documentaries, and literature. He typifies Western humanism as the "persisting myth about the...