‘The poet’s task, to seek
in the face of horror.’
Stewart Conn was born in Glasgow on 5 November 1936, a son of the manse. His childhood was mainly spent in Kilmarnock, where his father was minister of St Marnock’s, with holidays in the Ayrshire countryside where relations were farmers. He was educated at Kilmarnock Academy and then at the University of Glasgow. He did his National Service in the Royal Air Force. In 1963 he married Judy Clarke; they have two sons. He worked at the BBC from 1962, first in Glasgow until 1976 and then Edinburgh (moving there from Glasgow to live in 1977) mainly as a radio drama producer, becoming Head of Radio Drama, until he resigned in 1992.
He was appointed Edinburgh’s first Makar, the city’s Poet Laureate, in 2002, a post he held until 2005, doing much to raise the profile of poetry in the area, with competitions, poems, projects (poems on buses, for example) and writing a substantial work, Roull of Corstorphin, on Edinburgh’s earliest poet. He is a Fellow of the The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literature.
Conn received an Eric Gregory Award in 1963 and Scottish Arts Council Awards in 1968 and 1979. His collection An Ear To The Ground was the Poetry Society Choice for Christmas 1972, his selected volume Stolen Light was shortlisted for 2000 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, he was also the first recipient of the Institute for Contemporary Scotland’s Iain Crichton Smith award for services to literature in 2006 and in 2011 he won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Poetry Book of the Year award with The Breakfast Room.
In addition to poet and producer, Conn has a third string to his bow, as playwright – he enjoyed success, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, with varied and powerful plays, including I Didn’t Always Live Here (1967), which envisioned 1930s and 40s Glasgow life from a woman’s perspective, and The Burning (1973) on the seventeenth-century witch trials. Many plays followed, including Thistlewood (1975), Play Donkey (1977), Herman (1981) and Hugh Miller (1988), both Festival Fringe Firsts, By the Pool (1988) and Clay Bull (1998). He was made Literary Adviser to the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh from 1973 to 1975.
According to Alan MacGillivray and Douglas Gifford in Scottish Literature (EUP, 2002), Conn developed a unique way of looking at landscape and people in his poems (with an early nod to Ted Hughes), and in his collections of the 1960s to the 80s,
his perspective on people in country and city … fuses an intensely personal and loving view with disillusionment and regret… with respect to the passing of an older generation and their way of life. His later poetry sensitively balances his position as a vulnerable family man with his perception of potential danger and wildness
for example, in ‘In the Kibble Palace’ and ‘Marriage a Mountain Ridge’.
The critic Alasdair Macrae has written (in The Dark Horse 19) that while Conn’s early style makes use of contrasts in language, the later poems exhibit ‘a more even-paced, more level-toned style, more reticent emotionally’, and makes the point that the experience of the poem is less unique to the poet than a shared one – his poems often move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ (as in ‘Ghosts’). Early use of rhyme gives way to a looser, more discursive, style, using a variety of vowel sounds, cadence, echo and assonance – still ordering and patterning, but perhaps more musically. There is also an increasing interest in art – an exploration of what a picture says to us (sometimes he has it literally talking). If Macrae has a slight criticism, it is that ‘sometimes, for all its humanity, sharpness of observation and justness [the poetry] is too balanced, too uneccentric.’ On the other hand, as the poet and fellow radio producer George Bruce wrote in Contemporary Poets (1980), ‘Such writing, discreet, perceptive, and, above all humane, is a rare achievement.’ ‘There is a recognisable strength in his poems,’ wrote James McGonigal, reviewing the selected poems in Northwords 22 (1999), ‘something trustworthy or tested, which matters all the more in that the world he explores is neither of those.’
Conn’s style may have changed, but his concerns have always been the same: love and loss, regret and disillusionment, wrestled with through that sharp observation of people and places (and art) and the honest baring of his sympathetic soul:
‘I cannot bear
the thought of what loved-ones may suffer.
This is partly what drives me to poetry.’
They give rise to memorable lines, such as [I] ‘who am already a father before / having learned to be a son’ from ‘Afternoon Visit’ [to his mother].
But all is not gloomy – there is always humour and the constant reminder to carpe diem – see ‘Seize the Day’ and ‘End of Season, Drumelzier’ from In the Kibble Palace (1987), and the more recent poem of that title in The Loving-Cup (2007). As he says in the poem, ‘Springtime’: ‘All that is left, is to live lovingly.’