There are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century. Of course, poets from D.H. Lawrence to Craig Raine can boast a proletarian background, but their poetry isn't usually interested in doing so - not at its most characteristic and not to an extent that would make the term 'working-class poet' a useful one. Other poets have written of working-class 'subjects' (by which is usually meant the view from the factory floor) and have furthered working-class aspirations (by which is usually meant socialism), but most of them have been haut bourgeois - Stephen Spender writing of cogs, driving-belts and the beauty of labour - lacking first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in. Douglas Dunn, impeccably proletarian and Left-inclining, once wrote memorably about a backstreet in Hull - but he, it turns out, is Scottish. And D.J. Enright's vivid account of a working-class childhood, The Terrible Shears, is really more prose documentary than poem. Remarkably, in an age that was supposed to see the flourishing of working-class writing, Harrison seems to have the field to himself.
LRB 1 April 1982 | PDF Download