On Tony Harrison’s ‘The Icing Hand’, from Illuminations

[Note: this was originally posted on Newcastle Poetry Festival 2020 Inside Writing showcase.]

Dr Christopher Ohge, Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature at the IES, reads ‘The Icing Hand’ by Tony Harrison from the Bloodaxe Books online archive and shares his thoughts on the poem.

I have long admired Tony Harrison’s poetry. He is justly regarded for giving dignity to the working people of his youth. Harrison is also grouped with that famed cadre of ‘Leeds poets’ after the Second World War, which included some other of my favourites, Geoffrey Hill and Jon Silkin among them.

I chose ‘The Icing Hand’ for several reasons. The first is that I find it to be a beautiful combination of techne (craft) and thought, which is evident not just in Illuminations but also in the collection in which it appeared, The School of Eloquence (1978), which is my favourite of his collections. This accessible poem has an incredible economy of words and is also teeming with philosophical significance and literary echoes. It meditates on the power of ephemeral experiences. His father makes beautiful cakes, then they are demolished (with pleasure) at happy occasions; the child and his father make sand castles that eventually get swept away. This may be a rejoinder to Tennyson’s imagining the ‘topmost froth of thought’ in poetry.

I cannot love thee as I ought,
For love reflects the thing beloved;
My words are only words, and moved
Upon the topmost froth of thought. (In Memoriam LII)

Yet Harrison’s wonderful turn in the poem, that his father’s hand ‘guides / my pen when I try shaping memories of him’, also recalls those wonderful opening lines to Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’: ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests’. He allows the returning waves to fill his memory––the froth settling on the beach after the receding wave.

I also chose this poem from the Bloodaxe Archive because, as a textual scholar, I love to see page proofs and holograph corrections. This poem includes an intriguing variant: in the third stanza, the proof initially read that ‘one wave-surge sweep / our wrinkle-stuccoed edifice away’. That sounds right to me at first, but it does not make sense upon reflection. It is corrected to ‘winkled’, a tricky word, but exactly the right word, being a shortened version of periwinkle, a spiral shell of a mollusc that covers the castle. This is perhaps another echo of Tennyson, from the same stanza with the ‘topmost froth’: ‘Abide: thy wealth is gather ’d in, / When Time hath sunder’d shell from pearl’. For Harrison, the wave is time; it is cyclical. Ruminative. An imitation of the father with a different medium, yet sitting in between two worlds––of craft and thought? A dance of the intellect, looping over constructed memories through the construction of poems.

Reading the poem aloud reinforces its meditative qualities. The meter is not consistently iambic (which I think is a virtue), and he employs thoroughly English tactics of alliteration and consonance. If you read the first two words as a trochee (about a kind of troche, no less?), as I do, you can hear how the poem begins with an energetic spirit. All good poems have an internal variation of pacing, and you can certainly see that working here. While the first three lines of the first stanza left me nearly breathless, as with the last three lines of the second stanza, Harrison ends that stanza with ‘hope to swim’––an apt phrase for me as the reader. The doubling of remembrance in the final stanza layers the poem about the similarity of cake-making and sand castles. It shows the dignity of quiet habit, of the creation of gritty beauty that might have no lasting value, of the likelihood that your work will be swept away by nature. It is, as T. S. Eliot said, in ‘the trying’ that the poet realises that ‘every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure’ (‘East Coker’, The Four Quartets). Yet there is something wonderfully earnest too in the page proof in which Harrison fixed a mistake.

The last two stanzas of ‘The Icing Hand’ have even more poetic abruptions, culminating in a final line with five commas, seemingly resisting ‘floods’ with the topmost froth of an agile mind.

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