by Tony Connor [336pp, £15, Anvil]


by Tony Curtis [202pp, £10.99, Arc]

The fact that Things Unsaid isn't a Collected Poems suggests that Tony Connor, though now in his seventy-sixth year, is not quite ready to become a monument; it also obviously implies that the poems in it ('the author's own choice,' in words from the back cover, '...from a writing career that spans nearly half a century') are ones he's prepared to stand by, that is leaving out four sequences named in his Preface he is 'unwilling to print in part.'  This is his second New & Selected, the first being published in 1982.

Some poets my age and background (I was born in the back streets of Bootle six years later than Connor), and especially Northern ones, see Tony Connor (and in some ways Norman Nicholson too) as a prototype. His first collection appeared in 1962. Here was poetry being brought to and being made out of working-class Northern streets, poetry shifting attention away from the metropolis to the provinces, to industrial cityscapes and working-class lives. New territory was opened up. This was the time commentators told us that the Modernists were being nudged aside to make way for the renewal of a tradition kept alive in Hardy. It was the time of Kitchen Sink drama, the revival of the provincial novel, and, in art, the paintings of John Bratby, Jack Smith, Derrick Greaves and Edward Middleditch, a time when, as Frances Spalding in
British Art Since 1900 tells us, Bratby 'painted dustbins, milk bottles, beer bottles, cornflake packets, the clutter and debris of ordinary domestic life.' Edward Lucie-Smith says in his Penguin anthology British Poetry Since 1945 that Connor is 'one of the best of the naturalistic 'domestic' poets who have abounded in England since the war'.

My earliest memories of Connor are of two poems that have become classics: 'Elegy for Alfred Hubbard' and 'Child's Bouncing Song', first encountered in anthologies for children. It is good to be reminded of them and meet them again here in a context that puts on records a writing career of over fifty years. And for the over three hundred pages of poems we have here we should be grateful.

It is a known fact that Tony Connor left school at fourteen to spend some twenty-six years as a textile designer in Manchester; he was later to become a professor of English at Wesleyan University in America, where he moved in 1971. Ironically he has done what many of the Modernists did - go into voluntary exile and exploit the perspective this affords. Though there are a good number of poems here that tell us about (generally uncomfortable) life in modern America, Connor is predominantly a poet of memory. It is as if he constantly poring over a family photograph album, haunted by ghosts - of those killed in the Great War (something we find too in the early poems of Ted Hughes), of relatives, lodgers, neighbours:

     Many people who are dead
     Address me within my head
          [from 'The Crowd at My Door']

It is also as if Connor's imagination is constantly primed to engage with poetry: he is always conscious of being a poet, confident in his ability to make at least a half-decent poem even out of seemingly slight events. In recreating the world in which he had, as we say in Liverpool, his broughtin's-up, there are few can match him:

     One winter morning, half in a dream,
     the young boy lurched from his heaped bed
     before the sky hinted at light.
     The window, encrusted with frosty flowers,
     concealed the tangle of whispering streets
     knotted together around the graveyard.

     All night long he had dreamed of the graveyardÉ
          [from 'The Graveyard']


     A needle eased the world away.
     She did not see the window's curdled shine
     grow fronds which multiplied
     all night despite that thrusting, fiery breath.
     At dawn winter went on without her,
     while by her bed he sister stood and cried.
          [from 'A Woman Dying']

He is a autobiographical poet, musing on everyday experience, the emotions evoked and the thoughts each event or memory provoke - not just of a childhood in Manchester but of the problems of marital/sexual relations and of adjusting to life in a new place, growing old. His writing mostly engages us with an apparent simplicity but the pondering mind behind this is complex and subtle. There is often humour at work. Eliot has said that old men should be explorers: this can be readily said of Tony Connor and his journey through poetry.

When asked if I'd like to write something on Tony Curtis, I immediately started to look forward to receiving and reading a book by the Welsh Tony Curtis. That disappointment may have coloured my first reading of what turned out to be a book by the Irish Tony Curtis (born 1955). I wondered what the fuss was about: the poems didn't make much of an impact. Some fell flat, some felt a tad glib. There were oddnesses of phrasing when words seemed to have come too easily (things that would have cried out for comment at a decent workshop); times when sentiment confuses itself with feeling; where references to Beckett, Akhmatova, Lucien Freud, Robert Frost, Li Po etc. seemed like coat-tailing; there were 'found' poems like chopped-up prose, haiku that failed to hit the spot, clerihews that merely sounded flip, and a set of pleasant-enough poems about Tibet that contained much less wisdom than they pretended to.

I see that three years ago Stride reviewed Curtis's What Darkness Covers. There Thomas White complained of the way Curtis makes some of his characters speak in a contrived way, 'never allowed to speak for themselves - so the voices all sound the same.' There is something to this. Characters who speak do so in their author's voice not their own. White sees this as Curtis being so much in control that 'he leaves little room for the reader.' I would say that he is often not in enough control of his poems, is too easily satisfied, with the result that he risks blandness. I know people who have heard him perform at readings and have enjoyed what they heard. Maybe this is a classic case of poems made effective at readings with the author's introductions and seductive tone of voice (the old Irish blarney) being less effective on the page.

A second reading was a mellower one. I recognised a certain talent at work but still felt it a flawed one. There were moments I could feel something of the burden of Irish history Curtis takes on board, the bleakness of some of his landscapes. I just wish he'd mined his
real subjects more deeply, brought out richer ore and wasted less energy on things that matter less than I think he imagines they do.

             © Matt Simpson 2006