This is the full article from 1985.
(9 December 1942 - )
Tonights’s Lover (London: The Review, 1968);
A Violent Country (London: Oxford University Press, 1969);
Ashridge (Oxford: Sycamore Press, 1970);
Truce (Oxford: Sycamore Press, 1973);
After Dark (London: Oxford University Press, 1973):
Dreams of the Dead (London: Oxford University Press, 1977);
Mister Punch (London: Oxford University Press, 1984);
From an Inland Sea (London: Viking/ Penguin, 1985).
"Rouault," in New Poems 1967, a P.E.N. Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Harold Pinter, John Fuller, and Peter Redgrove (London: Hutchinson, 1968), p. 42;
Ian Hamilton, ed., Eight Poets, includes two poems by Harsent (London: Poetry Book Society, 1968);
Poetry Introduction 1, includes eight poems by Harsent (London: Faber & Faber, 1969);
Peter Porter and Charles Osbourne, eds., New Poetry I, includes two poems by Harsent (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1975);
Patricia Beer and Kevin Crossley-Holland, New Poetry 2, includes two poems by Harsent (Lon-don: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1976);
New Poetry 7, edited by Harsent (London: Hutchinson, 1981).
"The State of Poetry - A Symposium," Revlew, no. 29-30 (Spring-Summer 1972): 36-38;
"The Punch Poems," Bananas, no. 23 (October 1980).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s David Harsent was an important member of the group of poets associated with the literary magazine the Review, edited by Ian Hamilton. In addition to Harsent and Hamilton, this group also included Colin Falck, Michael Fried, Hugo Williams, and Peter Dale. Harsent achieved early success and critical recognition with Tonight's Lover (1968) and A Violent Country (1969), and was considered to be one of the most promising of the young poets in Britain. The external facts of Harsent's life are guarded carefully: he was born in Devonshire, studied at Oxford, and has worked since then in the bookselling and publishing trades; he is divorced, and has three children. As Sean O'Brien has written in a recent appreciation of his work, "Harsent's books must be studied hard for any strong sense that outside privacy there is an economy, a regime, a public realm with claims on private fates." The technical excellence of his poems derives from a finely honed poetic credo, which was ex-pressed in a symposium on "The State of Poetry," in the Review (1972). After praising Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, he went on to assert that they "have demonstrated, more than anyone, that lyricism still equals power and that craftsmanship is what comes first in making a good poem." It is precisely this concern for craftsmanship, together with the persistent echoes of Lowell, Plath, and his admiration for other American poets such as "early Sexton, Snodgrass, Hecht… and chunks of Berryman,” which characterizes his poetry.
These American influences represent the taste of the so-called Review group, most atticulately voiced by A. Alvarez in the introduction to his Penguin anthology, The New Poetry (1962), and in his weekly reviews of new poetry in the Observer). Harsent's declared distaste for experimental, concrete, and sound poetry, expressed in the Review symposium, also marks his membership in this group, while his own work is clearly susceptible to the criticisms of "minimalism" advanced against the Review poets. The Review group's policy of withholding explanatory information and prose links from their poems (thus producing sequences of imagistic poems) is evident in Harsent's earliest work, for instance in "Rouault," first published in New Poems 1967 and then in Tonight's Lover. The first of four brief sections suggests no forward movement, gives no context:
Dawn musters its brutalities.
The light crackles
and shakes out like a lash.
The strong words, "musters," "brutalities," "crackles," do not quite come off. In this vague context they sit uncomfortably, drawing attention to themselves. There is a certain amount of blind feeling in these early poems, a searching for a subject that leads to repetition, of ideas and images, which makes reading them difficult. "Sunbather" (in Poetry Introduction 1, 1969) contains the lines:
You turn in the ruthless light -
a neophyte, suffering
initiation in ecstasy or pain,
which echo the second section of "Home Movies" (in Eight Poets, 1968):
Stretched on the towel
you are smiling.
Your skin begins to burn.
Heightening the language of the later poem (using words such as "ruthless") without saying much more, Harsent exposes himself to all the dangers of this sort of poetry. There are fine things, similes such as "your head lifted as if to catch a scent" (in "Storm"), but the result is an overwhelmingly slight poetry. Ironically, given these precedents and his declared quest for a lyricism of minimalist tendencies, it was the development of an interest in narrative which gave strength to Harsent's poetry. The brief sections of many early poems extend to the first intimations of a sequence in "Itinerary of a Suicide" (in Poetry Introduction 1, 1969), with its four sections called "Days." But it was in his first major collection, A Violent Country, that this tendency became of importance with the appearance of a well-rounded character.
The first part of this volume contains a series of hauntingly sad love poems and poems about madness and death. They are precise in their use of language and full of accurate observation, but too often read like exercises in technique; the influ-ences of Ted Hughes, George MacBeth, Sylvia Plat h, and others are apparent, as Sean O'Brien has observed, in "On the Death of a Friend":
The land is rich,
it passes nothing up.
Brains of sheep, a crow corpse,
The closing sequence, however, devoted to a woman whose intensely felt presence dominates the volume, shows a distinctive poetic personality at work: as the poems map out the territory of the woman's interior existence the reader feels an intelligent, probing character in the making. She is gradually presented through the objects around her and her inner doubts, fears, and guilt, although within the anguish and violence of her existence there is still an extreme lyricism, as in these lines from "The Woman's Soliloquies":
That evening, tired of speech
the astringency of song.
It is, however, the narrative interest, the creation of a character who could serve as the subject for a film or a novel, which holds the reader's interest. The "Woman" poems point to the later achievement of "The Punch Poems," and seem to have fully engaged Harsent's poetic intelligence. A Violent Country was a powerful debut, and was generally recognized as such. Harsent's next collection was After Dark (1973), which incorporated the poems published in the Sycamore Press pamphlets Ashridge (1970) and Truce (1973). After the power of the "Woman" poems this volume represented a return to minimalism: of thirty-four poems in the collection eight fit Ian Hamilton's definition of a minimal poem ("around five or six lines"), while twelve other poems contain only ten or twelve lines. Harsent seems to have succumbed to the temptations of the genre, and produced what Anthony Thwaite has described as "small observations poised somewhere between the haiku and the confessional." "Wizardry" may serve as an example of the haiku:
A torrent of neon
floods the street at midnight
We are miles above it
working the high wire.
Haircut as an example of the quiet, personal confessional style:
I sit on a kitchen stool as you clip my hair,
your fingers deft and steady - unconcerned.
The house is quiet,
the children's dreams are good tonight.
We have learned to pretend that we live like this.
These brief poems seem to justify Thwaite's dismissive attitude, and only when Harsent allows himself more freedom does he produce a memorable poem, as the opening "Two Postscripts to my Father." Perhaps most indicative of all is the title poem, "After Dark," which marks a quiet retreat into the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and from the difficult terrain of his early poems.
Strange that I should think of them so much,
those journeys he undertook: all those renewals.
I have bogged down in this odd village;
my children belong to the place.
At night I can hear the cows
coughing in a field behind the house.
I close my eyes
and invent arrivals.
This poem, and the volume, symbolize the end of what might be termed the Review period of Harsent's poetic career.
Dreams of the Dead (1977) is a much denser volume, which consists of five long poems or sequences - “Fishbowl" (eight sections), "Truce" (thirteen sections), "Dreams of the Dead" (twenty-seven sections), "Level 7" (six sections), and "Moments in the Lifetime of Milady" (fourteen sec-tions), plus three poems in which Mr. Punch is the central character, and nine shorter poems. The long title sequence is an interesting reworking of Harsent's familiar themes, and is extraordinary for its accumulation of rich visual imagery. Images, verbs of sight, visual descriptions, and references to color pile up to create a powerful vision - where even movement is seen rather than heard or felt. It creates an especially harrowing image in the case of an albino child:
Albino. Poor child. He tiptoes through playtime,
his bloodless head
in negative against the wood's penumbra.
Where the sun strikes back
from the blazing cruciform of the chalk excavations,
he almost disappears.
One thinks of Harsent's interest in Rouault, Giacometti, and "Figures in a Landscape" (in After Dark), but the overall effect lacks bite and other equally effective tactile experience - in the same stimulating but ultimately narrow way that sex was visualized in "Rouault": "her sex a mere brush-stroke."
"Moments in the Lifetime of Milady," which closes the volume, is the most successful sequence. It begins with strong rhythms which suggest a greater confidence:
The island grasses were filled with unknowable scents
and the flurry of creatures running before her foot-falls.
Even at dusk, the nub of the crumbling abbey was a view on the eastern side.
On knees and palms. swaybacked like a stricken runner,
her skirt thrown up to billow across her back,
she begged, "Pleasure me, pleasure me."
In a series of fast-moving narrative poems which reads as easily as a ballad the sequence goes on to create Milady's gilded exile. The "pale cavaliers," "dogfights," "silken scarves," "yellow roadster," the nostalgic presence of Mozart, the cities (Berlin, Madrid, Oxford) convey a past world as effectively as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922). The accurate observation and precise control of language show Harsent working at his best, combining his early precision with narrative interest, as the concluding lines illustrate:
Sometimes, late at night,
she could almost abandon every wanton scheme ...
dozy with drink, as the cats arched and circled before the open fire.
"We are exiled here," the young man heard her say.
But perhaps the most interesting poems in this collection are the three "Punch poems" (part of the sequence that was published as Mister Punch in 1984). The gratuitous violence of the traditional Punch figure is transmuted into a deeper sexual violence: in the first poem, "Mr. Punch," which begins as a tranquil picnic scene, Punch seems to explode into the poem, "worming" into a girl while "His wife and family feast/and watch the dancers." Women are all alike to him, and his wild activities create a violent contrast with the idea of a family man:
He'd like to own them, he'd like to eat them whole,
he'd like their murders
feeding his night-time conscience.
The strong opening lines of "Punch and the the Judy” ("He feels so old, something primordial") and “Mr Punch Looks Good in Black" ("Quicklime in the pit that's more his style") and the clashing sonority oi moments of perfect lyricism with savage violence demonstrate the power of Harsent's character:
Love is his energy and his trap, spurring
the thug beneath the skin: homunculus
hooknosed, hunchbacked . . . Her voice
rings in the shower . . . It stirs in its cage of ribs,
inarticulate and murderous and mad.
The resulting heightened language contains some of his most eloquent and memorable poetry, and the longer stanza forms seem to encourage a natural narrative ability which his earlier tight forms crippled.
Three other Punch poems appeared in Bananas (October 1980) with the following comment: "Harsent says that, at one time, it seemed that he'd lit upon an inexhaustibly rich character: an endless source of kinetic energy; but recently something even more pleasing has begun to happen - Punch has provoked a way of writing which no longer needs him. The possibilities are greater, but couldn't have existed if Punch hadn't been there to usher them in." The importance of the Punch poems is clear from this statement, and the power of "Mr Punch Confronts his God" in the same issue of Bananas testifies to the continuing efficacy of this extraordinary character.
The development of Harsent's style has been slow and hard-earned; although, curiously, he criticized Stephen Spender for the "sketchiness of the writing" in a review of The Generous Days, his own early poetry was susceptible to the same criticism. His tendency toward minimal poetry was, however, comprehensible, since, as Blake Morrison has observed, "minimalism was the poetry that seemed historically 'right' " in the early 1970s because it was a vehicle for constructing a new poetics which avoided the confusion and conflict of the orthodoxies of the 1960s. Harsent's longer narrative sequences, especially Mister Punch, have built upon the precise discipline of those poems to produce moments of great power. But it must be concluded that the promise so often demonstrated. and re-marked by critics, has yet to be maintained.
Reference: Sean O'Brien, "David Harsent, An Appreciation,” Bananas, no. 23 (October 1980): 33-35.
David Harsent, Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland since 1960, Part I: A-L, edited by Vincent B. Sherry Jr, Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1985, pp.167-72.