Tony Harrison, the award-winning poet and playwright, has been awarded the first ever PEN/Pinter prize for a writer, following in Harold Pinter's footsteps.
Poet and playwright Tony Harrison has won the inaugural PEN/Pinter prize for his "unmistakable and passionate voice". The prize is to be awarded annually to the writer who best exemplifies Pinter's own quest to "define the real truth of our lives and our societies".
Harrison, who filed poems from the frontline in Bosnia for the Guardian in 1995, was selected by a panel of judges including Pinter's widow, the author Antonia Fraser, playwright Tom Stoppard and National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner. "When Tony's name came up it pretty much stopped the discussion," said Stoppard. "I think we all felt immediately that he was exactly the writer for the PEN/Pinter prize, and PEN/Pinter was exactly the prize for Tony. Harold would raise a glass to that."
Leeds-born Harrison is seen as Britain's leading theatre and film poet, winner of the Whitbread poetry prize for The Gaze of the Gorgon, the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize for The Loiners and the Prix Italia for his film Black Daisies for the Bride. His translations and adaptations of Molière, Racine, the English Medieval Mystery Plays cycle and the Oresteia are widely acclaimed, and he is known for his blunt speech and political stance. "Why shouldn't poetry address what happened yesterday, and be published in the newspaper?" he said to the Guardian in 2007. "Yes, I've got inwardness and tenderness, but I also get angry and vituperative, and you have to honour that as well."
Describing Harrison as a "public poet", Hytner said his verse "engages consistently with the world around him, the world from which he sprang and the ancient world from which he has learned most". "His own Yorkshire vernacular is the clay from which he sculpts often ferocious verse that demands to be spoken out loud," Hytner said. "His voice is unmistakable and passionate."
Harrison, who will receive his £1,000 prize on 14 October, was a great admirer of Pinter, writing to him that "you have always inspired me more than anyone else". He will share the award with an imprisoned writer, who he will select from a shortlist compiled by English PEN's Writers in Prison Committee, who will also receive £1,000.
The prize was launched by English PEN in honour of the late Pinter, a defender of persecuted writers, and is awarded to writer who – in Pinter's own words on receiving his Nobel prize – casts an "unflinching, unswerving" gaze upon the world, and shows a "fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies".
A cold coming
I saw the charred Iraqi lean towards me from bomb-blasted screen,
his windscreen wiper like a pen ready to write down thoughts for men,
his windscreen wiper like a quill he's reaching for to make his will.
I saw the charred Iraqi lean like someone made of Plasticine
as though he'd stopped to ask the way and this is what I heard him say:
"Don't be afraid I've picked on you for this exclusive interview.
Isn't it your sort of poet's task to find words for this frightening mask?
If that gadget that you've got records words from such scorched vocal cords,
press RECORD before some dog devours me mid-monologue."
So I held the shaking microphone closer to the crumbling bone:
"I read the news of three wise men who left their sperm in nitrogen,
three foes of ours, three wise Marines with sample flasks and magazines,
three wise soldiers from Seattle who banked their sperm before the battle.
Did No 1 say: God be thanked I've got my precious semen banked.
And No 2: O praise the Lord my last best shot is safely stored.
And No 3: Praise be to God I left my wife my frozen wad?
So if their fate was to be gassed at least they thought their name would last,
and though cold corpses in Kuwait they could by proxy procreate.
Excuse a skull half roast, half bone for using such a scornful tone.
It may seem out of all proportion but I wish I'd taken their precaution.
They seemed the masters of their fate with wisely jarred ejaculate.
Was it a propaganda coup to make us think they'd cracked death too,
disinformation to defeat us with no post-mortem millilitres?
Symbolic billions in reserve made me, for one, lose heart and nerve.
On Saddam's pay we can't afford to go and get our semen stored.
Sad to say that such high tech's uncommon here. We're stuck with sex.
If you can conjure up and stretch your imagination (and not retch)
the image of me beside my wife closely clasped creating life . . ."
(I let the unfleshed skull unfold a story I'd been already told,
and idly tried to calculate the content of ejaculate:
the sperm in one ejaculation equals the whole Iraqi nation
times, roughly, let's say, 12.5 though .5's not now alive.
Let's say the sperms were an amount so many times the body count,
2,500 times at least (but let's wait till the toll's released!).
Whichever way Death seems outflanked by one tube of cold bloblings banked.
Poor bloblings, maybe you've been blessed with, of all fates possible, the best
according to Sophocles ie "the best of fates is not to be"
a philosophy that's maybe bleak for any but an ancient Greek
but difficult these days to escape when spoken to by such a shape.
When you see men brought to such states who wouldn't want that "best of fates"
or in the world of Cruise and Scud not go kryonic if he could,
spared the normal human doom of having made it through the womb?)
He heard my thoughts and stopped the spool: "I never thought life futile, fool!
Though all Hell began to drop I never wanted life to stop.
I was filled with such a yearning to stay in life as I was burning,
such a longing to be beside my wife in bed before I died,
and, most, to have engendered there a child untouched by war's despair.
So press RECORD! I want to reach the warring nations with my speech.
Don't look away! I know it's hard to keep regarding one so charred,
so disfigured by unfriendly fire and think it once burned with desire.
Though fire has flayed off half my features they once were like my fellow creatures',
till some screen-gazing crop-haired boy from Iowa or Illinois,
equipped by ingenious technophile put paid to my paternal smile
and made the face you see today an armature half-patched with clay,
an icon framed, a looking glass for devotees of 'kicking ass',
a mirror that returns the gaze of victors on their victory days
and in the end stares out the watcher who ducks behind his headline: GOTCHA!
or behind the flag-bedecked page 1 of the true to bold-type-setting SUN!
I doubt victorious Greeks let Hector join their feast as spoiling spectre,
and who'd want to sour the children's joy in Iowa or Illinois
Or ageing mothers overjoyed to find their babies weren't destroyed?
But cabs beflagged with SUN front pages don't help peace in future ages.
Stars and Stripes in sticky paws may sow the seeds for future wars.
Each Union Jack the kids now wave may lead them later to the grave.
But praise the Lord and raise the banner (excuse a skull's sarcastic manner!)
Desert Rat and Desert Stormer without the scars and (maybe) trauma,
the semen-bankers are all back to sire their children in their sack.
With seed sown straight from the sower dump second-hand spermatozoa!
Lie that you saw me and I smiled to see the soldier hug his child.
Lie and pretend that I excuse my bombing by B52s,
pretend I pardon and forgive that they still do and I don't live,
pretend they have the burnt man's blessing and then, maybe, I'm spared confessing
that only fire burnt out the shame of things I'd done in Saddam's name,
the deaths, the torture and the plunder the black clouds all of us are under.
Say that I'm smiling and excuse the Scuds we launched against the Jews.
Pretend I've got the imagination to see the world beyond one nation.
That's your job, poet, to pretend I want my foe to be my friend.
It's easier to find such words for this dumb mask like baked dogturds.
So lie and say the charred man smiled to see the soldier hug his child.
This gaping rictus once made glad a few old hearts back in Baghdad,
hearts growing older by the minute as each truck comes without me in it.
I've met you though, and had my say which you've got taped. Now go away."
I gazed at him and he gazed back staring right through me to Iraq.
Facing the way the charred man faced I saw the frozen phial of waste,
a test-tube frozen in the dark, crib and Kaaba, sacred Ark,
a pilgrimage of Cross and Crescent the chilled suspension of the Present.
Rainbows seven shades of black curved from Kuwait back to Iraq,
and instead of gold the frozen crock's crammed with Mankind on the rocks,
the congealed genie who won't thaw until the World renounces War,
cold spunk meticulously jarred never to be charrer or the charred,
a bottled Bethlehem of this come- curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium.
I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY and I heard the charred man say…