A note on Anthony Conran (1931-2013)
(Later books credited to Tony Conran.) He is such a fluent and brilliant poet, but he can foresee difficulties too cleverly, and the poems lack depth, conflict, self-contradiction, in some way. Does a poem need to have internal tension and twist? I can’t see why. I don’t think I’ve read all his books. I thought the Formal Poems (1960) were unsatisfactory, and Castles (1993) also didn’t work out. But there is also A Gwynedd Symphony (1996). Life Fund (1979) may be the best. It reminds me of Edwin Morgan. It has particular poems that could be anthologised; the “poems for paintings on silk” are good.
Conran has an Irish name and was partly Welsh by “origins”, if we care about those, but he grew up in Wales. Conran published an essay about Welsh civilisation (Anglo-Welsh Review, number 58) which defines it as a separate organism from Western Europe (that is - before the English conquest), and says that modern Wales is a survival of that civilisation. He was perpetually writing about Wales as a figure, an agent, capable of moving and having a biography; his poetry adheres to this as a maximum (he has no interest in Britain or Europe) and a minimum - he is always writing about Wales as a whole, and his poems all cohere in that urgent project. This 1977 essay shows the influence of Toynbee (who described “an Abortive Far Western Christian Civilisation”) on his thought; he acquired his ideas rather early in life, it seems, and Toynbee, Graves, and Buber gave him much of his framework. The Welsh mythical figures he was constantly writing about serve as ideals which show this Far Western Civilisation but are deployed to rebuke Welsh people for failing to live up to them as ideals. The sociological basis for this is weak.
He was a career nationalist, for want of a better word, a full-time one. The story of his poems is therefore the story of the fate of Wales - a great deal of frustration with the language fading year by year, but also a success story as originally ridiculed ideas came to be accepted by a large proportion of the population. His understanding of the nature of Wales grew ever more precise - simultaneously an increasing knowledge of what was going wrong and an intellectual victory. He was acutely aware of the failings of nationalism as doctrine and a logical development would have been into a critic of nationalism. He remained a nationalist true believer. He didn’t see the poems as solutions because the only real problem was how to liberate Wales.
A basic step in his poetry is the evocation of a mythical realm. He was very excited by the heroic narrative of Wales, myths about gods or about historical figures (prior to the loss of independence) projected to super-human scale. An influence on this may have been Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes place on the mythical level. Ken Etheridge’s 1943 book already includes a number of mythical poems about Welsh legends. There were absolutely radical problems with this manner of writing. An improvement was to reduce the vagueness by using a laconic style full of physical details, which after all attacked one of the main problems with the style that was drunk on mythology. So -
In the untrodden light
Pilgrims or refugees.
The young ones
Crowd their balconies
At the next cold
Draggle the heart.
Refugee camp -
Or a quality of light
Drawing us inward…
A problem with the poems is the exclusion of process from the poem by the laconic style and its typically short lines. The lineation is odd - it lacks fluency although its terseness also seems to possess authority. However, it also punctured the exalted and elusive quality of the myths - the primary attraction. Both of these styles were deeply flawed and likely to produce unconvincing poems. However, the contrast between them produced a kind of dialectic. This would produce new combinations all the time and some of these combinations would be good poems, which also had this quality of internal tension - a way of expressing the tension of historical situations, the absence of structure which allows for freedom and for acts of consciousness.
A key thing to explain is how Conran was a fluent writer, who could write hundreds of poems and not be bothered with them later, and also use this anti-fluent, even grudging, style of writing. I liked this poem about Euros Bowen:
A thick tapering trumpet,
A rhizome of bronze
In a dark forge moulded and twisted
In spiralling rounds.
A wide bloom opens for the root -
A crater of red
Like a lake of smouldering molten stone
Erupts from its bed -
(“To ask for a Bugle”, 1969)
Conran issued a book called “formal poems” (1958), which was pretty much juvenilia. A collected poems 1951-67 was published in 1974. There is a standard Anglo-Welsh poem which Conran never wrote at all, being original from the start. He took The White Goddess and developed a notion of poems based on social exchanges - gifts, marriages, etc., which would be raised to ceremonial level by the largesse of poetry. This was also a way of incorporating the pre-modern Welsh poetry, which had very frequently dealt with such moments- albeit in land-owning families. His selected poems of 2006 (The Shape of my Country) eliminate these poems almost entirely. However, some of these poems are picked up and show his later mature style in which events of history are used as a way of commenting on and staging events of the immediate present, that is in Wales. Despite the use of myth, Conran is a serious thinker: his observation of current events is very acute, he is capable of original thought about politics and that is the basis for writing serious poetry about politics. In fact, there is a tension between the information which this acuity feeds back to his brain and the objects of poetry. It is as if that acuity and his long study of events cut a way out of the poetic and nationalist and mythological presuppositions which Conran fastened onto as a teenager or young adult. Conran has done the work of understanding social processes but the payoff is missed because the information is too complex for the design of the poem he is prepared to write. An exit into large forms was strongly indicated for him. This would for most writers also be the signal for the exit from poetry into prose. In fact, Conran was much better as a prose writer, and his essays on Anglo-Welsh poetry are among the most enlightening for the foreigner. I have to say that his laconic statements have the force of truth, they point to a knowledge won by critical thought which he genuinely had won and could draw on. The selected poems (of some 120 pages) are not completely satisfactory as a career survey - it is a cleverly designed and coherent book, but the individual volumes, something over 800 pages in all, tell a more complicated story. (Did I count 800? No, but he wrote a lot of poems.)
‘A meritocracy’ is from a 1960 sequence called ‘Invocation of Angels’:
An aristocracy of intellect
Could come - has come already
In a few displaced souls
From the lost generations.
Like all aristocracies
That of the intellect
Is a matter of breeding.
This has a theme described in his notes: “Iaith (language) rather than gwlad has been the pre-occupation of both the Welsh intelligentsias at least since the 1970s. The result, the short term, has spelt some economic disadvantage for the English monoglot majority (and consequent resentment) because the new, bilingual Wales requires bilingual officers; but its long-term effects are likely to be disastrous for both communities.” The lucidity of the prose (written in 2004) reveals that Conran had done the studying and the thinking. The poem is not exciting because its theme is depressing. He rarely found optimistic subjects in Welsh politics. (Gwlad is the Land.)
“The Sisters” is from 1993:
Both sisters had their courts. Clients gathered,
Friends, conspirators, those with a phrase to offer
Or a kindness, warmth or wildness, way of the world.
The magic of their Welshness was Mediterranean,
Bright as seagulls. Lamplit palazzos
Where the twist and savour of a good story was king.
A taste of Gwales. The singing of Rhiannon’s birds.
The Assembly of the Head these umpteen years.
But in Non’s time, the door swung open, and she knew it.
Her court was at the rainbow’s end,
Time-bound. Men of action, or men hesitant
To act. Women poised in the rigmaroles of doubt.
Time. Time. And the great space beyond. The shuffling
Seas sweeping you out through Aber Henfelin
To the gannet ways, the shark roads beyond Cape Clear.
The introduction of figures from the Mabinogion is typical. (Opening the door brought paradise, on Gwales, to an end.) The style shows how many mediaeval Welsh poems he had read, it is genuinely un-English. Conran was not a Welsh speaker but had a passionate interest in the classical Welsh poetic forms and worked out a way of translating them. The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse (1967) consists wholly of his translations - the best ever, so far as I can see. Gwyn Williams also had that ability.
This note is a back-up to the “shopping list” of books of poetry 1960-97 which did not include a title of Conran’s. Over twenty years I have been pondering, at least intermittently, why I didn’t like his poetry enough and whether I should include one of his books. They were hard to find. Blodeuwedd (1988). All Hallows (1995). What Brings you Here So Late (2008) are three I haven’t read. I will read them, it’s just a question of finding copies.