Tony Harrison wins David Cohen Prize

Tony Harrison wins David Cohen Prize

Poet and playwright Tony Harrison has been awarded the £40,000 David Cohen Prize for literature, honouring his career.

The prize was presented last night (26th February) at a ceremony at the British Library.

Harrison, now 77, said in his acceptance speech that the award was an "enormous encouragement" even as he approached his eighth decade.

He said: "I wrote my first poems 70 years ago, and I spent most of my lifetime producing poetry for page, stage and screen and this unexpected recognition is an enormous encouragement from the generous David Cohen Prize and helps me to confirm my commitment to what I've aways believed to be a united body of work, wherever the words were printed or performed."

He added: "In this lifetime of writing, I've tried to balance the isolation necessary for serious composition with the communal creation of producing poetry of actors… This generous award is accepted with enormous gratitude as I approach, with renewed energy, my eighth and I hope most creative decade, with the poems, plays and films flowing till the end."

Chair of the judging panel Mark Lawson, who presented the award, said: "Tony Harrison is a great poet of the private - in his early work about his upbringing and education in working-class Leeds - but also of the public -addressing social incohesion… As a stage dramatist, he has made classical texts speakable and spoken-about in plays such as his muscular translation of "The Oresteia" and "The Trackers of Oxyrynchus", an original - in every sense - drama spun from a fragment of Sophocles."

In his speech, Harrison read a long passage from "The Trackers of Oxyrynchus", a speech by a messenger denouncing the split between high and low art.

The winner of the prize is also able to bestow the £12,500 Clarissa Luard Award, funded by Arts Council England, on to a young writer or body to encourage them in their work. Harrison selected The Wordsworth Trust.

Harrison is the author of several books of poetry, plays, and television works, many of which are inspired by Classical literature, but address current concerns. One of his best known works is the poem V, written during the Miner's Strike, which described a visit to the Harrison family grave above Leeds United's stadium. It was turned into a TV film and resulted in a debate in Parliament over the amount of swearing it contained.

He has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and the European Prize for Literature.

The David Cohen Prize is awarded every two years to British and Irish writers. Previous winners include Hilary Mantel in 2013, Julian Barnes in 2011 and Seamus Heaney in 2009.

This year's judges were Lawson, Adam Begley, Dame Gillian Beer, Melissa Benn, Susannah Clapp, Blake Morrison, Leo Robson, Kamila Shamsie and Michael Symmons Roberts.

The prize is administered by Booktrust. Chief executive of Booktrust, Viv Bird, said: "Tony's poetry speaks of his childhood and how he used education and books to excel and eventually become Britain's leading poet-playwright. This rings true with Booktrust's mission to transform lives through reading, celebrate excellence and inspire the readers and writers of the future."