© Image by Kitty Sullivan

David Harsent

(b. 1942)

"Harsent has an unusual claim to notice: you begin every poem with the certain prospect of pleasure and surprise." - Martin Amis, Observer

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These poems come from a special recording for the Poetry Archive:

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Select bibliography

  • A Violent Country, Oxford University Press 1969 - out of print
  • Truce, Sycamore Press 1973 - out of print
  • After Dark, Oxford University Press 1973 - out of print
  • Dreams of the Dead, Oxford University Press 1977 - out of print
  • Mister Punch, Oxford University Press 1984 - out of print
  • Selected Poems, Oxford University Press 1989 - out of print
  • Gawain (libretto), Universal Edition 1991
  • News from the Front, Oxford University Press 1993 - out of print
  • A Bird's Idea of Flight, Faber & Faber 1998
  • Marriage, Faber & Faber 2002
  • Legion, Faber and Faber 2005
  • David Harsent Reading from his poems, The Poetry Archive 2006
  • Selected Poems, 1969-2005, Faber and Faber 2007
  • Night, Faber and Faber, 2011
David Harsent (b. 1942) won the 2005 Forward Prize for Legion, which was also shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the TS Eliot Award; he has also been the recipient of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, an Eric Gregory Award, two Arts Council bursaries and a Society of Authors Fellowship. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Distinguished Writing Fellow at Hallam, Sheffield University. His work in music theatre has involved collaborations with a number of composers, but most often with Harrison Birtwistle, and has been performed at the Royal Opera House, the South Bank Centre, Carnegie Hall and the Proms.

In his introduction to this recording, Harsent describes his "tendency to work often in sequences that make use of a lyrical vocabulary to frame a broken but substantial narrative." The poems on this CD give a sense of the sequences from which they are drawn, their subjects ranging from aspects of the commedia dell'Arte Punch to the Trickster hare in Lepus. They show that his poetry is ever open to human darkness, whether in the imagined war-zones of Legion or in Sprinting from the Graveyard, his versions of poems written by Goran Simic while under siege in Sarajevo.

Harsent is justly praised for his idiosyncratic use of formal skills: his ability to spin a poem over the same few near-rhymes, placing them internally or at unexpected line-breaks, as in the poem beginning "I perch on a Bauhaus-style chrome-and-raffia / chair", from Marriage - a sequence that offers a close and startling view of what Harsent calls 'the mysteries of domesticity'. The Lepus poems unite subjects which range from psychology and myth to film noir and cartoons, sometimes opening to naked threat, sometimes to a black humour. It is no surprise that the Observer has described Harsent's work as "bold in language, rich in reference and caustic wit".

The insistent music of Harsent's delivery leaves the stark power of his lines lingering in our memories. It also bears witness to Martin Amis's claim for Harsent's work that we "begin every poem with the certain prospect of pleasure and surprise".

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 10 January 2006 at the Audio Workshop, London, UK and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.


1967 Eric Gregory Award

1978 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award

2005 Forward Prize for Best Collection Legion

1968 Cheltenham Festival Prize

1970 Arts Council Bursary

1983 Arts Council Bursary

1989 Society of Authors Travel Fellowship

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