He stands among the indispensable poets of modern and contemporary Scotland ? Douglas Dunn
About Stewart Conn
Stewart Conn is one of Scotland’s more softly spoken bards, but his particular Celtic muse is no less intense for all his quieter rhetorical flourishes and domestic asides. Indeed, his poetry has an affecting immediacy which comes from its easy manner; those unexpected shared confidences or some warm conversational intimacy often reveal a pang of heartache intrinsic to the potency of random reminiscence and the wider landscape of nostalgia and vestigial, insistent regret. He was born in Glasgow on Bonfire Night in 1936, but during the war moved to Kilmarnock, where his father had been appointed the new minister of St. Marnock’s. But it was in the Ayrshire countryside that he enjoyed his transcendental education, in traditional farms and on its hill slopes, not in his father’s church. Yet in manse and moorland lay the sources of his poetic voice, which carries a distinctive melancholy humanity that suffuses much of his work, and is never far off even when he appears more joyful in tone. But he is not a self-consciously solitary seer. Whether rueful or comical, celebratory or resigned, Conn is always happiest in the company of his imagined attentive readers, not unlike Schubert was in the drawing room or the inn making music with his friends.
After the University of Glasgow and National Service in the RAF, he followed a career in the BBC which took him from a fifteen-year production stint in Glasgow to the same span in Edinburgh, where he was Head of Radio Drama until 1992. He has also served as Literary Advisor to the Royal Lyceum Theatre and been the recipient of many awards, including the Institute of Contemporary Scotland’s first Iain Crichton Smith award for services to literature. Between 2002 and 2005 he was Edinburgh’s first Makar, the Scottish capital’s own Poet Laureate. His poetry books include Stolen Light: Selected Poems (1999), Ghosts at Cockcrow (2005), The Breakfast Room (2010) and The Touch of Time: New & Selected Poems (2014). Besides writing a memoir, Distances (2001), and editing acclaimed anthologies, he has also written several plays, among them Play Donkey and The Burning, an unflinchingly visceral drama about the witch trials in late sixteenth-century Scotland.
Throughout his long writing life, Stewart Conn has tried to reconcile the continuous fact of contemporaneity with elusive fragmentary glimpses of the past, that land of lost content, abandoned selves and all too easily neglected familial ties. His versatile pursuit of these moments often produces a tenderness, a passing sunniness and the sudden clarity of distant music which only a painstaking observation of time and place can recreate. Conn is a poet of snapshots coloured with poignancy long before their time, picturing and also memorialising each passing moment, which has slipped through his fingers like so many precious grains of sand. The Ayrshire landscape of his childhood exists in memory and in the harsher reality of an unforgiving present, and beyond these two time zones, in that perpetual future which is the eternal, “beyond the transience governing ourselves”. This is beautifully captured in the opening lines of ‘Craigie Hill’:
The farmhouse seems centuries ago,
the steadings slouched under a sifting of snow
for weeks on end…
a coming together of stone and symbol which Ted Hughes would have recognised and marvelled at, surely. It is this very precise evocation of intensity in mood and atmosphere which characterises Conn’s best work, and perhaps reveals the influence of Iain Crichton Smith, who had praised the younger man’s poetry, and himself wrote so movingly about the Isle of Lewis which he left for the mainland and University of Aberdeen when just a young man. The poem ‘Recovery’, was written for this fine Scottish poet around the time of his mental collapse, and marvellously refers to his frozen-over mind as
the intellect’s finery
and pulsing beneath,
those massive forces,
endurance and love.
It is in the same poem we find Conn’s brief and bleak poetic credo, when we read that the poet’s task has always been to seek
in the face of horror.
Yet Stewart Conn the playwright is an irrepressible persona in his poetic world, and melancholy anatomies apart, when this thoughtful makar is not musing on the restless ambiguities of estuaries or exchanging glances with a dishevelled “hoodie crow” on his study’s window ledge, he is ventriloquising in those virtuoso poems given over to Browning-like monologues, each superbly characterised, expertly notated and cadenced, and wonderfully read in his Poetry Archive recording. ‘The Luncheon of the Boating Party’, inspired by Renoir’s popular painting, is a tour de force of explication des ouvrages de peinture in verse, and often hilarious as well as plausible. Here, at least, is a more playful view of the past, and a very grand past to boot. But perhaps this sparkling social comedy is deeper still, as comedies are, and in reality is one of Conn’s divine consolations. No matter who we are, whether an unknown man, or the cocotte, or the Baron, or Renoir, or the poet himself – we are all caught up in that singularity of experience which means that even now, just now, the lived moment has already become “how it was”, for ever; life dying into art, or poetry if you like. Just two words of advice, then, from the poet: Carpe Diem.
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 29 January and 24 June 2014 at BBC Scotland, The Tun, Edinburgh and was produced by Paul Sumerling.