Wednesday, 23 January 2013

R.I.P Tony Conran, poet

Tony Conran died recently and was buried yesterday. The meaning of his life and the poetry and other writings he gave us ripple on, touching so many lives.

What I write here is personal and inexpert. For a beautifully-written, expert view, go to:

Tony was a poet, and a - in my view, the - translator of Welsh poetry into English, and therefore the translator of a culture and a history. He was a critic and a teacher. He was a party-giver, and a generous host; he brought together a fascinating variety of people, who may not otherwise have met.

He had a powerful and fierce intellect, wide-ranging too. The poem below has in it a more-or-less technical term. Just like Tony to find, know and use the accurate geological term. He brought together the imaginative power that people sometimes call "romantic" with the clarity and accuracy of a natural scientist. He was an expert on those mysterious and ancient plants, the ferns. He had a fernery, which he was always very pleased to show you. He knew a hell of a lot about music, and provided a hub for the burgeoning traditional music scene in his part of the world.

In person, he could be forthright, never sentimental, sometimes deliberately contrary in order to stimulate discussion. 

He published a lot of his own poetry, often in small booklet form, though volumes of his poetry were also gathered. He published his book of translations, The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, in the mid-sixties; it was revelation to me then and still is. It's titled "Welsh Verse" now; it is, disgracefully, not that easy to find outside Wales, although there is plenty of his stuff on Amazon.

I hadn't seen a lot of him in recent years; I saw a lot of him and his circle when I was a student; he gave me more than he could ever know.

He was not, despite his huge talents and dedication to poetry, an arrogant, over-inflated sort of man. He was courteous and sensitive.

I'm proud of this anecdote: at the height of the late sixties perturbations cultural and political, one witless McLuhanite of our mutual acquaintance told Tony that the days of poetry, and  indeed of books, were over, writing poetry was looking at the future through a rear-view mirror, the new thing was... whatever the hell he thought it was I can't remember.

Tony asked me - callow youth as I was - if I thought this was so. Tony was disturbed. 

What Tony had, which people like the McLuhanite couldn't grasp, was a traditionally-based but entirely up-to-date view of his work as a social poet. He would write beautiful little poems for an engagement, a wedding, a death; the recipients were awed, grateful, delighted. He wrote poetry to and for people, the community of people he built around him. (He also wrote much more widely-aimed poems, of course.)

Anyway, I asked Tony on no account to be thrown off-balance by such views, and said that in my humble opinion the bloke was a tosser. He didn't understand what a community poet was for, and that Tony's poems would be read and loved when the McLuhanite..etc etc. Tony smiled and cheered up.

In some ways, the least important thing about Tony was that he had cerebral palsy, except to say that the doctors told his parents he wouldn't make forty. Tony knew what he was here for, and he was a determined man. He wrote, taught, married, raised a family, and fulfilled his destiny as a poet. He died at the age of 81, honoured, loved and admired.

Pebble, by Tony Conran (1931 - 2013)

World pebble in my hand - 
Millimetre escarpments,
Cliffs, potholes,
Flat places.

It remembers 
A red mist of
Liquid stone
Slopping into the air.

Pressure was the heartbeat of living rock,
Millions of tons of it,
The pouring of world
To its centre.

Now this little lost stone
Must travel the trivial
Rivers of death.
Rub into dissolution.

Sharp gravel. Sand. Mud.
And then, deep down
Like a froth of rock.

Settle into the seabed.
Relax under the tons of deep sea.
Harden again 
To strata.

It could be my fingers
That the sediments
Into chert.

My thumbprints could be fossil next.
The pebble on its way to death
Might laugh last.
It would remember me.

This poem was read yesterday at his funeral.

Thank you, Tony, for so much.


  1. Hi Gloria I was at Bangor in the middle-late seventies and came across Tony there too. I can't claim friendship with him though - he was an august figure to me - even though I was used to seeing him across the table in one of Bangor's pubs. It was the time when more than anything the Welsh were finding their voice (and tongue again), but the poetry Tony and others found was - I think now - something new born out of respect for both languages. A great man. RIP Tony.

  2. Vale, good to hear this from you, I wonder how many others there are round the country and the globe reflecting on and remembering such times? Rippling...

  3. Something made me 'Google' Tony tonight and I'm utterly dismayed to discover he died just about two weeks ago. I'd hoped to see if there were any new books to be had but now I know there will be no more books of his wonderful poetry. I was at Bangor in the late 70's and early 80's and was extremely fortunate to have had Tony as my tutor for two years. He did everything he could to guide me into the meaning and beauty of the traditional ballad. I loved our weekly afternoon sessions at his house on Siliwen Rd, overlooking the Menai Straits: Tony would let us loose on his collection of records of folk song - sorry I dropped that needle too hard on the vinyl a few times, sir. He did succeed in gifting me a lifelong love of ballads and folk song and for that alone I will always be very grateful. I also recall his grace and openness and the wonderful parties he held at his house. As a very run-of-the-mill student of English literature, I was blessed to have had the good fortunate to have been taught by a literary great. I always hoped I might see him again but never did get the chance. Farewell, sir and thank you.


  4. Jerry, thanks for your generous words; I'm pleased you too recall his gracious hospitality and the way he broadened musical as well as poetic horizons. It was the man as well as the work that we all valued so much, wasn't it?

  5. Was the man, indeed. The work, of course, will live on. Thank you for giving me space to pay my small tribute.


  6. I knew him just barely when I was a student at the University in 1962-63, having come to Bangor to read poetry and attempt to write it. Tony was a protege of the head of the Department of Literature, John Danby, a roaring lilt of a man with a sly humor and who delighted in disrupting a lecture hall with rude jokes from time to time, as he lectured brilliantly about the great poets. He saw the greatness in Anthony Conran and made a place for him in the Department so that Tony could pursue his passion for poetry and "terrible beauty."
    RIP to both of them, please, wild gods in heaven.
    Gabriel Heilig

  7. Gabriel, good to hear from another Conranite, and a Danbyite to boot. JFD's "Shakesepare and the Doctrine of Nature" was one of the very few critical books that this idle student read from cover to cover twice, and it helped me move "King Lear" into the centre of my being.