Preview: Don Paterson and Tony Harrison

Don Paterson’s Rain was his most recent award-winning collection

This weekend promises to be another exciting opportunity for all the literary enthusiasts in county Durham and beyond as The Durham Book Festival gets well under way. A huge range of activities are on offer, providing entertainment for all ages and tastes, from Julia Triston and Rachel Lombard’s talk in Fowler’s Yard on How to be Creative in Textile Art to The Poetry Takeaway on Sunday, where you can have your own poem made to order, absolutely free of charge. The whole weekend starts on Friday night at seven o’ clock in Durham Town Hall with a talk by distinguished British poets Don Paterson and Tony Harrison.

Don Paterson, the current Professor of Poetry at the University of St. Andrews, is a specialist in sonnets, approaching them both as a reader and a writer in his own right. He also works as poetry editor for the London publishers Picador and is somewhat of an expert at playing jazz guitar. Amongst his many awards and achievements, Paterson can boast an OBE and The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. For anyone with a particular interest in translating literature, both Paterson and Harrison are renowned for capturing the true spirit of a text from a foreign tongue and introducing, or re-introducing, a brand new and novel piece of writing to the millions of English speakers worldwide. Paterson’s translation of Rilke’s Sonnette an Orpheus understands life better than we ourselves do; it breathes energy and expresses itself in a cut throat yet quietly musical way. It is the kind of poetry which, although translated, cannot be transliterated through a review, but a small bite might give you a taste for the flavour of these well-loved sonnets:

Where there were words, discovery
flows, all shocked out of the pith—-
what we call apple… do you dare
give it a name?

On this one-off occasion, Paterson comes together with Tony Harrison, a Leeds graduate born in 1937 who currently resides in Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. From the generation before Don Paterson, this duo has an abundance of expertise to offer a crowd and with vast collections of writing produced between them, this evening event could take any number of directions. Harrison himself comes from a classical schooling and much of his more recent work reflects this, such as his translation of Aeschylus’ Orestia, first performed at The National Theatre on the more alternative and experimental stage of the Olivier Theatre in the tail-end of 1981, Hecuba, which Harrison re-modelled to voice his frustration during the Iraq War and Prometheus, a film which he both wrote and directed and which brings in hints of his earlier, more autobiographical work in references to the coal mines of Yorkshire.

His earlier work, such as V., written during the miners’ strike of 1984–1985, is known for being graphic – poetry stripped of all glamour, written in black and grey. Energy brings together the passion of anger and a desperate zest for life in a clear cut way, (which is where I would mark the similarities in style between Don Paterson and Tony Harrison) which holds the heart of the reader in a way I can only compare with the feelings which surface when watching Billy Elliot. Obscene language is an important part of expression in V., and led to an attack from tabloid media when plans for televising the poem first rose. The ill-effect that potential profanities might have on the then-youth did not manage to outweigh the power of V., and it was broadcasted, much to the horror of scandalized MPs. Allegedly, the Conservative MP for Cannock and Burntwood, Gerald Howarth, who was one of those appalled by such verses as –

Ah’ve ’eard all that from old farts past their prime.
’ow now yer live wi’ all yer once detested…
Old farts with not much left ’ll give me time.
******* like that get folk like me arrested.

– went on to suggest that Tony Harrison was “probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustration on the rest of us,” to which Harrison is said to have responded that Howarth was “probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us.”

Whatever the evening has in store, it certainly promises not to be a boring one! For more information on up and coming events over the next week, visit the Durham Book Festival website at

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