Three Symphonies by Tony Conran

Tony Conran - Three Symphonies (Cover)

By Bryon Beynon

In 1968 the poet Basil Bunting wrote “with sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician picks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.”

Reading the preface to Tony Conran’s Three Symphonies he says that for sometime he had been “haunted by the idea of a long poem in several disparate movements like a symphony in music”. There is a sense here of a bond between the two poets, wave-lengths not too dissimilar.

The word symphony derives from Greek, meaning a sounding together or concord of sound, and arguably is the most pure musical form that can be written. I believe that during his lifetime (he died in 2013), Conran’s Symphonies (the first, Day Movements, appeared as far back as 1967) worked towards this union or concord of sound, using the rhythm of words. Conran’s book contains symphonies 7 The Magi, 8 Fabrics (in one movement of sonnets), and 9 Everworlds (including “Requiem for Robert Graves”), all composed in the period 2004-2007. I remember that in December 2004 I published in a magazine (Roundyhouse) I co-edited, a sequence of seven sonnets from Symphony 8, which included Fabrics (which became the untitled sonnet 4), ‘Stone Age’, ‘Fleece’, ‘Washing the Fleece’, ‘Dye Plants’, ‘Penelope’ and ‘India’ with “Brahamani bulls humped like toast racks-all day /Odd villagers with an hour to spare would meet/ To shed the warp, let fly the scuttling weft.” The sonnets were a work in progress, and numbered sixteen when completed.

I first heard his poems being read aloud by his wife Lesley at the Poetry Society in London, when it was based at Earl’s Court. By coincidence, the following day I went along to Keats House in Hampstead, where Basil Bunting sat and read by a table in the Brawne Rooms. Conran also belongs to that same line of Modernists which includes Bunting, MacDiarmid and David Jones. 

Born in India in 1931, he spent most of his life in north Wales, settling in Bangor, where he taught at the university. Widely published, he was much admired for the passion behind his writing, as a poet, critic, dramatist and translator of Welsh-language poetry. His Penguin Book of Welsh Verse appeared in 1967, with translations from a selection of work from fourteen centuries of poetry from Taliesin and Aneirin, to Waldo Williams and Gwyn Thomas. Through his discovery of Welsh literature he went on to learn the rules of cynghanedd, and wrote poems in English which were based on Welsh metres. His books of essays The Cost of Strangeness and Frontiers in Anglo-Welsh poetry, are impressive, stimulating and important works, and his many volumes of poetry include Life Fund (1979), Blodeuwedd (1989), Castles (1993), The Shape of my Country (selected poems and extracts 2004), and What Brings You Here So Late? (2008).

In his informative and thought-provoking introduction to Three Symphonies the poet Jeremy Hooker, a fine critical writer on Anglo-Welsh matters, writes with detachment, insight, and warm sympathy, that Conran’s “ modernism acknowledges diverse influences including Eliot and Yeats, Robert Graves and Idris Davies……he used what he found in them creatively in making poetry of striking originality.” Add to this his knowledge of Welsh poetry dating back to the sixth century to the present day, a fusion of something new and powerful occurred. Hooker guides the reader as he notes “ the symphonies’ encyclopaedic form includes everything, from the Big Bang to the present state of the world.”  We are taken on a poetical, cultural, and political journey, an unsentimental celebration of “the gift of life”, an exploration of “the making of the world and all that it contains.”

We hear this in the poem ‘Life’ (from Symphony 7):

It has taken me time
Wherever life grew first –
In black smokers
Of the rifting seabeds
Where bubbling lavas
Geyser up
Into an airless murk;
Or by breakwaters
The soup of lagoons
Warmed by the Sun, but saved
From the deadly light
Under rock debris
Or buried in mud
-Wherever the thin whiskery
Haze of the protein
Crept like rottenness
Into sharp stone
Foul-smelling – but
There were no noses –
The secret changelings,
T he cloned effluvia
From whose myriads
Came our breathable air,
Our shielded home…..
Came, like locust swarms,
Eventually, us.

Conran also thought of his poetry “as a dance for the tongue and the vocal chords: ultimately, since tongue and vocal chords don’t occur in a vacuum, for the whole body, the whole mind.” In an interview in The New Welsh Review with Ian Gregson in 1988, he was asked about the influence of Robert Graves, in the sense of how poetry happens, how it gets written, Conran’s reply…… “I think that writing poetry does involve you in a different level of experience, a deep trance-like state. But it depends on the poem. Poems which have a strong rhythmic base and the rhythms takes you along into the darkness….the poem is a stranger to you like a baby”.

In the second movement of the final Symphony 9, there are several poems in memory and in praise of Robert Graves, including ‘Dejà Unvisited’, ‘The Erosion of Everworlds’, ‘Castle’, ‘Soldier’, ‘Oxford 1919’, ‘Disembarking’, ‘The Goddess Sings’, ‘To the Utmost’, and ‘The Peony’.

The second movement begins with:

Passage to Dejà
i.m. Robert Graves (1895-1985)
Dejà Unvisited
The hill haunted me. Dejà –
One of my everworlds
Whose magical fauna
Sometimes as friends of friends would come
Filling my room
With his last, dumb
Awarenesses, geologically
Slow, a poetry
Speechless as lichen.
My household could have been translated
And I’d only to look out
Through olive groves
To see twilight
Blur the long stairs
Up to the town,
The corner to his home…..
And behind me, did I half-hear
Her footsteps
Who ‘variously haunts’
This hill,
This island Earth ?

This is a life-affirming book, written with intensity and energy, poems of mystery and beauty, where the personality of the poet enters the vital sinew of each poem. He has, as T.S. Eliot said of the work of James Joyce and David Jones, “the Celtic ear for the music of words”.

Byron Beynon lives in West Wales.  His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, London Magazine, Cyphers, Poetry Ireland Review, The Sante Fe Literary Review, The Yellow Nib and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets).  He coordinated the Wales section of the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). Collections include The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions), Nocturne In Blue (Lapwing Publications). His selected poems appeared in 2018 (Bilingual: English/Romanian – published by Bibliotecha Universalis/Collectiile/ Revistei “Orizont Literar Contemporan”, translations by Dr Monica Manolachi, University of Bucharest).

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