Nationality: British. Born: Glasgow, Scotland, 5 November 1936. Education: Attended Kilmarnock Academy and Glasgow University. Military Service: Royal Air Force. Family: Married Judith Clarke in 1963; two sons. Career: Radio drama producer, Glasgow, then head of Drama (Radio), BBC, Edinburgh, 1962–92. Literary adviser, Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre, 1973–75. Has served on literature and drama panels of the Scottish Arts Council. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1963; Scottish Arts Council poetry prize and publication award, 1968; Poetry Book Society choice awards, 1972, 1978, 1992; Edinburgh Festival Fringe award, for drama, 1981, 1988. Fellow, Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, 1990. Agent: Lemon Unna and Durbridge Ltd., 24–32 Pottery Lane, London W11 4LZ, England.
Thunder in the Air. Preston, Lancashire, Akros, 1976.
The Chinese Tower. Edinburgh, M. Macdonald, 1967.
Stoats in the Sunlight. London, Hutchinson, 1968; as Ambush and Others Poems, New York, Macmillan, 1970.
Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 3, with others, edited by Dannie Abse. London, Corgi, 1971.
An Ear to the Ground. London, Hutchinson, 1972.
Under the Ice. London, Hutchinson, 1978.
In the Kibble Palace: New and Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1987.
The Luncheon of the Boating Party. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1991.
At the Aviary. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.
In the Blood. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.
Stolen Light: Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1999.
Break-Down (produced Glasgow, 1961).
Birds in a Wilderness (produced Edinburgh, 1964).
I Didn't Always Live Here (produced Glasgow, 1967). Included in The Aquarium, The Man in the Green Muffler, I Didn't Always Live Here, 1976.
The King (produced Edinburgh, 1967; London, 1972). Published in New English Dramatists 14, London, Penguin, 1970.
Broche (produced Exeter, 1968).
Fancy Seeing You, Then (produced London, 1974). Published in Playbill Two, edited by Alan Durband, London, Hutchinson, 1969.
Victims (includes The Sword, In Transit, and The Man in the Green Muffler) (produced Edinburgh, 1970). In Transit, published New York, Breakthrough Press, 1972; The Man in the Green Muffler, included in The Aquarium, The Man in the Green Muffler, I Didn't Always Live Here, 1976.
The Burning (produced Edinburgh, 1971). London, Calder and Boyars, 1973.
A Slight Touch of the Sun (produced Edinburgh, 1972).
The Aquarium (produced Edinburgh, 1973). Included in The Aquarium, The Man in the Green Muffler, I Didn't Always Live Here,1976.
Count Your Blessings (produced Pitlochry, Pertshire, 1975).
Thistlewood (produced Edinburgh, 1975). Todmorden, Lancashire, Woodhouse, 1979.
The Aquarium, The Man in the Green Muffler, I Didn't Always Live Here. London, Calder, 1976.
Play Donkey (produced Edinburgh, 1977). Todmorden, Lancashire, Woodhouse, 1980.
Billy Budd, with Stephen Macdonald, adaptation of the novel by Melville (produced Edinburgh, 1978).
Hecuba (produced Edinburgh, 1979; revised version produced Glasgow, 1989).
Herman (produced Edinburgh, 1981; London, 1986).
By the Pool (produced Edinburgh, 1988; London, 1989).
Hugh Miller (produced Edinburgh, 1988).
The Dominion of Fancy (produced Pitlochry, Pershire, 1992).
Mission Boy (produced Grahamstown, South Africa, 1996; Edinburgh, 1998).
Clay Bull (produced Edinburgh, 1998).
Radio Plays: Any Following Spring, 1962; Cadenza for Real, 1963; Song of the Clyde, 1964; The Canary Cage, 1967; Too Late the Phalarope, from the novel by Alan Paton, 1984; Beside the Ocean of Time, from the novel by George Mackay Brown, 1997; Greenvoe, from the novel by George Mackay Brown, 1998.
Radio Broadcast: The Living Poet, 1989.
Television Plays: Wally Dugs Go in Pairs, 1973; The Kite, 1979; Blood Hunt, 1986.
Twelve More Modern Scottish Poets, edited by Charles King and Iain Crichton Smith. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.
Editor, New Poems 1973–74. London, Hutchinson, 1974.
Editor, with Ian McDonough, The Ice Horses. Edinburgh, Scottish Cultural Press, 1996.*
Manuscript Collection: Scottish National Library, Edinburgh.
Critical Studies: Interviews with James Aitchison in Scottish Theatre (Edinburgh), March 1969, Allen Wright in The Scotsman (Edinburgh), 30 October 1971, and Joyce McMillan in Scottish Theatre News (Glasgow), August 1981; "Bound by Necessity" by George Bruce, in Akros, 1979; "Towards the Human," in Towards the Human by Iain Crichton Smith, Edinburgh, MacDonald, 1986.
Theatrical Activities: Director: Radio —many plays, including The Dirt under the Carpet by Rona Munro, 1987; Not about Heroes and In the Summer of 1918 by Stephen MacDonald; Potestad by Eduardo Pavlovsky; Andromache by Douglas Dunn, 1989; Good by C.P. Taylor, 1989; Carver by John Purser, 1991; Yosemite by James Rankin, 1993.* * *
At the age of twenty-six Stewart Conn wrote "Todd," a characterization of an uncle who had a passionate love for horses. In its effect of concentrated intensity it is a remarkable poem. It begins,
My father's white uncle became
Arthritic and testamental in
Lyrical stages …
The "white uncle," at once legendary in its suggestion, almost immediately becomes suffering actuality in "arthritic" before turning Old Testament prophet in "testamental," but this prophet's fires burn in his passion for horses. Yet the horses themselves are "a primal extension of rock and soil," though equally they have "cracked hooves" and are fed on "bowls of porridge." The world of the stable is activated in sounds—"thundered nail"—and in smells—"his own horsey breath"—the uncle's breath, as horse and he are one. The words are charged with meaning as they flow to and fro between the actual and the mythical. The people from Conn's childhood, purposeful and vigorous, become vividly alive in the poems:
From the byre, smack on time
Old Martha comes clattering out,
With buttered bannocks and milk in a pail.
About the same time as Conn was writing poems bred from his community, he wrote laconic dramatic poems dealing with barbarities and evoking in the reader repulsion and nausea. I frequently find these historical or quasi-historical episodes contrived, but they were a genuine endeavor to accept alienation into Conn's oeuvre, a necessary move if his poetry was to respond to contemporary conditions. In any case his domestic themes increasingly committed Conn to deal with suffering. The poem "Crippled Aunt" ends with the poet observing the aunt, who is paralyzed from the waist down, in church:
Watching them wheel you down the aisle, I am humble.
I, who would curse the fate
That has twisted you into what
You are, shudder to hear you say life's ample
For your needs, Christian by such example.
But this situation still belongs to Conn's past. His finer achievement, as in his collection Under the Ice, for the most part uses domestic situations of the present as a means of contemplating contemporary distresses and perplexities. When the horror story is told now, as in "Reawakening," it is no longer an attempt to create a cruel past; it is related to the frightening unguided missile in which we travel through space and time. The only answer that proposes itself to the poet is to be found in love between two people, but no sooner is the idea proposed, as in "Arrivals," than it is questioned:
The plane meets
its reflection on the wet
runway, then crosses
to where I wait
behind plate glass.
with a mixture
of longing and despair
as you re-enter
the real world.
The poet's beloved returns to him, who is at a remove behind glass. She returns to the "real world," but we are left wondering where that is. Conn can now put a fine edge on daily experiences, guiding the reader to recognize the strangeness of existence but not allowing a refuge in simple statements. The ambiguities and perplexities remain but are refined into poetry.
In the books that follow a widening of subjects yields a more relaxed view of communal activities. In the title poem of The Luncheon of the Boating Party, Conn as dramatist-poet enters with gentle humor into the personas of Renoir's painting. Here is an extension of his enjoyment of character drawn from the personal experience of a rural Scottish community, which still plays a significant part in this book and in In the Blood. Conn's peculiar achievement, however, is in recording violations of humanity. When a community is violated, as was Lockerbie by the exploding bomb in the plane, he notes the event in restrained, accurate observation. In the poem "Breach of Privacy" he is in anguish at another violation, that by the media. Conn asks, "How at such a time dare a lens intrude?"
Conn applies his disciplined, economic verse in At the Aviary to his encounter with the cruelty and hatred he experienced in his first visit to South Africa in 1984, setting such exigencies in the context of the beauty of the country and of animal creation. Even so, the situation with the greatest tragic force is that which occurs against the background of ordinary days at home. In "Losing Touch," from In the Blood, he notes of an aging woman,
… the loss of dignity
entailed; her window the wall of an aquarium
hemming her in. With no warning,
a pang of pain spans the space between.
Conn is to be respected for allowing himself to remain vulnerable and so now to accept the full impact of such situations as seen in the context of human failures:
Man cannot render unfit for habitation.
In praising an artist in "Choosing a Drawing" he describes his own achievement:
how in pen and ink or granite, he can impose
such order; through controlled frenzy, convey
the tenderness and terror of his inner eye.
Conn has equipped himself to deal with the widest possible range of subjects. This can be seen, for example, in his response to the social and political situation in South Africa and to the flora and fauna of that country. But his diversity never leads to diffusion, for a concerned and humane mind is always present. In the midst of the hype and sound bites of the present time, perhaps the greatest benefaction the poet can give us are works that demand consideration in their reading.