From the Fortunate Isles: New & Selected Poems is, effectively, my tenth collection. It is my selection of those poems written since 1966 and my undergraduate days, through nine individual collections and several pamphlets, including collaborations with photographers and artists.
My early career was greatly assisted by a Gregory Award in 1972 which enabled me to go to the USA for first time. Poems written after that trip then won the Welsh Arts Council’s Young Poets Prize in 1974 and my first collection, Album, was published in that year. I had also moved back to Wales from teaching posts in England and had taken up my first college lecturing post. Seven of those early poems open the present selection, though of course, the later, more mature work forms the core of the book.
In the 1980s, following my MFA studies at Goddard College in Vermont (I was a contemporary of Mark Doty and worked with several leading American poets – Jane Shore, Stephen Dobyns and Thomas Lux) the work deepened and broadened and I had considerable success in the mid decade, winning the National Poetry Competition in 1984 and being short-listed for the Observer/Arvon Prize in 1985. Those poems represented a move from the confessional mode to take on the experiences and voices of others, moving across periods of history and voicing the experiences of both men and women. I had re-visited the poems of Browning and Frost from my early education and had re-read Robert Lowell and absorbed the startling work of the contemporary American Norman Dubie especially.
In 1986 Poetry Wales Press published my first Selected Poems and Story Line Press later that year published in the USA Poems Selected and New. The present book builds on and re-considers those selections so that the last thirty years are evenly and well represented. Poems, individually and collectively, were awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize in 1994, judged by Dannie Abse and Aeronwy Thomas, and a Cholmondley Award in 1997.
I trust that my mature work continues to address those concerns with language, empathy and moral engagement to which commentators and reviewers called attention. Certainly, the subjects of family, the history of the twentieth century, Wales, America and the visual arts persist to the present. The response which I hold most dear is that from the great American painter Andrew Wyeth, quoted on the American Selected Poems and on this book’s cover. In September 2015 I took our original correspondence to the Brandywine Wyeth Museum in Pennsylvania and gave a reading of my Wyeth poems. “Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Hill”, one of the later poems in this selection was written after that visit. Artist friends – Charles Burton, Brendan Burns, David Nash, Alan Salisbury – have been important supporters. The 1986 Selected Poems had an Alan Salisbury painting as its cover and I delighted to have a new painting by him on the cover of this latest book.
In my little memoir My Life With Dylan Thomas (Mulfran Press, 2014) I said that Dylan was like a mountain, you had to go over him or around, you couldn’t ignore him. Any writer from Wales of his or my generation had to recognize that. In common with my great friend and mentor Dannie Abse I had to work through those “loud echoes” of the bard of Cwmdonkin. Dannie’s work and example were central to my writing as were other poets I met and learned from – Leslie Norris, Seamus Heaney, George Macbeth – and my colleagues at the university, among them Gillian Clarke. In my seventieth year to heaven I remain committed to developing my poetry in its scope and focus. Although my selected short stories are to be published by Cinnamon Press in May 2017 and I shall take great pleasure in that, poetry has always been at the core of my writing and my professional life: when I was awarded a personal chair by the University of Glamorgan in 1994 I became Professor of Poetry; it seemed to be the most appropriate title.
Often it is the reading of contemporary poetry that stirs me into action and leads me to new poems – Robin Robertson, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, John Burnside, Don Paterson, David Harsent, George Szirtes. They say: Listen to us – what have you still got to say?
If it is clear that the central themes of my work have remained –Wales, family, art, war – then it should also be seen that these themes are often interrelated and inform each other: poems should talk across collections. So a poem such as “Mapping the World” from Crossing Over, whilst begins on a visit to the Venice Biennale becomes another praise poem for the landscape of Wales. A visit to the Waterloo battleground leads to a celebration of David Jones. Needing to celebrate Dannie Abse’s long life leads to a consideration of other old masters of art and music. Among the considerable group of war poems stretching over four decades comes a later “Pro Patria” which re-considers my relationship with my father and my childhood, subjects from which I felt I’d had to move away in the early eighties following his death. The confessional poems, especially from Preparations, had created a body of work which I was finding too difficult to read in public. In the early eighties, when I had a number of critical successes, I had moved into a strategy of voicing the experiences of others, now through researching family history I was drawn back to a confessional challenge: my father’s sketchy narrative of his war had proven to be a fiction. The involvement of my family in the conflicts of the twentieth century has taken another twist. It is that possibility of surprise and challenge which keeps me writing as a poet, alongside my other work and which underlines the fact that I am essentially a poet and would not wish it to be otherwise.
If there is a sad fall in the final poems of this selection, the new poems, it is, I hope, not terminal. This poet is only posing as a old man; seventy is the new fifty, and the man across from you on the Tube is not waving, not drowning, not mumbling, but singing, “carrying the music of it through our lives”.
POETRY WALES REVIEW BY JEREMY HOOKER:
Tony Curtis From The Fortunate Isles: New & Selected Poems (Seren, £12. 99)
Tony Curtis: Poet as Painter From the Fortunate Isles,
Tony Curtis’s New & Selected Poems, published to celebrate his 70th birthday, is an ample, various collection. As well as a number of powerful long poems (with long titles), such as ‘The Death of Richard Beattie-Seaman in the Belgian Grand Prix, 1939’, it includes poems such as ‘Letting Go’ which have a delicate lyricism. The epigraph to one poem quotes Dannie Abse: ‘I start with the visible and am startled by the visible’. Curtis too is a highly visual poet. He has a passion for painting – the book contains numerous poems about painters, such as Andrew Wyeth, Graham Sutherland, Gwen John and Ernest Zobole – but his art is more than a picturing. As his poetry develops from an early interest in the photographic, it acquires a rich verbal texture, analogous to vigorous brushstrokes and the expressive density of impasto. He is a muscular poet, as he has described Peter Prendergast as ‘a muscular painter’.
As in the work of painters he admires, Curtis’s seeing becomes the making of aesthetic objects. Tony Conran, in Frontiers in Anglo-Welsh Poetry, said of Curtis: he ‘aims at tragedy. He dares to attempt the vast tragic themes of our times’. The truth of this is borne out by numerous poems about the world wars of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, and other crimes against humanity. From Auden to Ted Hughes and Jon Silkin generations of British poets have been haunted by the wars of the fathers, in which they themselves were too young to fight. Curtis, too, is an appalled witness after the event. He knows that he is living his life on ‘the Fortunate Isles’, with a responsibility to respect and enter sympathetically into the experience of those who have been less fortunate.
In dealing with other people’s experience, Curtis often adopts or constructs ‘voices’ based on written records. It is a technique also used by Roland Mathias and Ruth Bidgood, and it represents the sense of history belonging to the generation of Anglophone Welsh poets with whom Curtis has close affinities. As well as Mathias and Bidgood, these include Abse, Glyn Jones and John Tripp. It is a family resemblance, but what Curtis has to offer is all his own. The epigraph to another poem, ‘Pembrokeshire Seams’, quotes Gwyn A. Williams’s famous affirmation of the construction of Welshness which includes the words: ‘Wales is an artefact which the Welsh produce’. In ‘Thoughts from the Holiday Inn’, his long poem addressed to John Tripp, Curtis writes:
How arbitrary one’s identity is: with voice and gesture we are
Challenged to make sense of where and what we find ourselves.
Curtis is a well-travelled poet – he has written a number of poems set in North America, for example – but the where for him is principally south and west Wales, and the what consists in large part of his people – the Welsh people, and, most intimately, family and ancestry. As in ‘Under the Yew’, a poem about visiting his grandmother’s grave, he is a poet of strong, loving emotion for whom ‘the string is tied back here, as they say –/apron strings, heart strings, a way through the maze’. Far from being a poet of arbitrary identity, a man lost in a maze, Curtis is firmly attached to the familial land of Wales. This sense of attachment has a bearing on what he makes of his painterly imagination. It relates to the muscularity, the transformative energy, which works against melancholia and the potential despair of his often-grim subject matter. He depicts a material world, which he describes in ‘Letting Go’:
The world is plant and animal –
it melts, it dies, it falls.
The following line reads: ‘So we make of it art’. Against the downward drag of his sense of mortality, Curtis lifts his spirits (and the reader’s) with his celebration of the aesthetic sense. As I implied earlier, this involves more than a love of painterly surfaces. It has a moral dimension, in art’s capacity to collaborate with cruelty, as shown in ‘William Orpen & Yvonne Aubicq in the Rue Dannon’. More often, Curtis depicts the positive relationship between artistic making and experience, with which painter and poet establish a place in the world. ‘Quartet for Two Painters’ provides a good example. The first part, ‘Prendergast’s Quarry’, is an elegy for Peter Prendergast, which ends:
In your last wicker bed
you lie, Peter, and one by one
we sprinkle our fingers of earth on you.
You chose this landscape and it takes you in.
The tone is properly elegiac, a tribute to a dead friend. But the lines say more than that the painter is buried in the earth of north Wales. The language of the poem – the impasto effect I referred to earlier – depicts a landscape seen in terms of the painter’s art, so that ‘takes you in’ suggests a sense of deep belonging. In choosing the landscape, Prendergast helped to ‘make’ it, to render it as imaginative vision. This is what Curtis’s poetry at its best does.
Another fine example is ‘Lines at Barry’. Like many of Curtis’s poems, this is compact with history. Beginning ‘Morning light steely and sharp on the docks-water’, the poem describes ‘your greatgrandfather’s vision’ as, an emigrant, he arrived in South Wales in 1898. The story of the poem – ‘not a unique story’ – relates the subsequent family experience to the larger history, and concludes:
Three lifetimes, two wars running to this moment –
and none of this is unique, this telling,
this drawing from memory of lines
where, steely-silver, what we are now
touches everything that made us,
and is dangerous, and shines.
The surface realism of the poem contains a richly metaphorical use of the word ‘lines’. This is at once compositional – the ‘lines’ of the poem – and suggestive of other meanings, such as sight-lines and life-lines and lines in which people stand, or march. This is poet’s work, which shows an affinity to the art of certain painters. Its object is the disclosure of meaning in a depth of human experience, visible in and below history’s many dark or colourful surfaces.
This is, effectively, my selected stories, with work from the last forty years and much more recent work. Many of these stories have been published and/or broadcast. Order from Cinnamon Press.
My Life with Dylan Thomas
Tony Curtis was born in Carmarthen in 1946 and so for seven years shared that town with Dylan Thomas, his family and friends, for whom it was the main railway station and watering-hole on their way from Laugharne to the rest of the world. Wales’s first Professor of Poetry describes being taught, as an undergraduate, by Vernon Watkins at Swansea University in 1967 and he goes on to trace Dylan’s influence on his own writing and the experiences of other writers and artists, including Dannie Abse, Jonah Jones, John Pudney, John Ormond, Glyn Jones, Aeronwy Thomas and Ceri Richards. Tony Curtis has published over thirty books, including eight collections of poetry and has won the Western Mail’s Dylan Thomas Prize and the Dylan Thomas Award for Spoken Poetry, judged by Dannie Abse and Dylan’s daughter Aeronwy.
Alchemy of Water
Here are some reviews of the book….
“This collaborative collection of beautiful photos and poems focuses on Wales andits endless connection to water in all its many forms. The stunning photography throughout the book comes from Carl Ryan and Mari Owen who have captured some of the most beautiful areas of Wales as it comes into contact with water. The images are matched by some short haiku-style poems from Grahame Davies and Tony Curtis which adds narrative depth to create an altogether a pleasant and enjoyable coffee-table book.”
GL. Buzz magazine, July 2013.
“In her famous critical study, On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag explores the nature and implications of photography as an art form. Among her simplest and most profound observations in this work is the idea that: To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
“It is interesting that Sontag understands and deconstructs photography here through the imagery of water: in terms of ‘freezing’ and ‘melting’. It is as if the protean character of water captures precisely the very ‘mutability’ in which, Sontag suggests, the photograph inevitably participates.
“Gomer’s collaborative book-project, Alchemy of Water | Alcemi Dwr, explores the dialogue between water and photography further in a stunning series of images that reflect the ubiquity and fluidity of this element in the Welsh landscape.
“The photographs, by Mari Owen and Carl Ryan, encompass a wide range of subjects and geographical locations: from the glassy surface of Llyn Gwynant in Snowdonia, to a rapid, swollen river in the Vale of Neath; icicles glittering on the branches of a petrified tree in the Brecon Beacons, to grey and coral clouds amassing over Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station in Gwynedd; a boat stranded at low tide on the sand at Mumbles, Swansea, to shelves of smooth wet slate catching the light at Cwmorthin quarry, Blaenau Ffestiniog.
“Each image testifies to the transformative, capricious character of water and to its vital, ‘alchemical’ presence and influence within the natural, social and historical topographies of Wales. According to Sontag, photography’s ‘participation in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’ makes it an essentially ‘elegiac art’. And, certainly, a number of the photographs in Alchemy of Water | Alcemi Dwr, such as the images of Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station and of rain clouds above a ruined slate mill in Porthmadog, are, in Sontag’s words, ‘touched with pathos’. Just as, in Sontag’s analysis, photography is absorbed into the creative and critical discourse of poetry – of the elegy – moreover, Alchemy of Water | Alcemi Dwr represents an artistic space where the boundaries between photography and poetry are permeable.
“Accompanying and responding independently to each photograph in the book are short, distinct poems in both English and Welsh by Tony Curtis and Grahame Davies, respectively. Each combination of verse and photograph constitutes a site of overlapping – of alchemically interacting – ‘images’, in Ezra Pound’s sense of the word. ‘An “Image”’, Pound argued in Imagisme, ‘presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time’. Although Pound was referring explicitly to the poetic image here, his analysis seems equally applicable to the kind of skilled and ‘intellectually’ and aesthetically considered photography exhibited in Alchemy of Water | Alcemi Dwr. Indeed, in his introduction (Davies also provides an introduction in Welsh), Curtis identifies the ‘imagist poem’ as a ‘reference point’ for the poetry in the book, along with the traditional Welsh-language poetic form, the englyn; folk verse [and] haiku’.
“In response to a photograph of mountains mirrored in the still water of Llyn Dinas, Berddgelert, Snowdonia, at dawn, for example, Curtis writes: As morning’s mist lifts and flies, water and light contrive to double the world. An image of slate in Cwmorthin quarry, on the other hand, prompts the following response: In the land of slate-blue, slate-black, slate-brown, slate-green, these hands of low cloud bearing a platter of light. Grahame Davies’s Welsh-language poem accompanying the Cwmorthin quarry image demonstrates the added alchemy of language – the creative exchange between Welsh-language culture and English-language culture – that bubbles up like a spring in this porous artistic space.
“I have only a partial knowledge of Welsh; and yet in hearing and translating (albeit perhaps, at times, crudely) this and Davies’s other Welsh-language poems, I sensed that I myself was participating, in a unique way, in the overall (to cite the book’s definition of ‘alchemy’) ‘magical process of transformation, creation or combination’: Yng ngwlad y llechen las a’r llechen frown, ar lethrau’r llechen werdd, a’r llechen ddu, ar ddirwnod pan f’or awyr lwyd yn drwm, mae’r glaw yn addo’i arian byw i mi. Alchemy of Water | Alcemi Dwr, then, is an engaging, often beautiful, and innovative exploration of the relationships between water and landscape and word and image. It is also a celebration of Wales and Welsh culture and of the creativity that they inspire. And while I personally felt the relative lack of ‘images’ of South-East Wales in the book, I am heartened by Curtis’s observation that THERE IS NO CORNER WATER CANNOT TURN NO DARKNESS WATER CANNOT LIGHTEN.
Laura Wainwright, Wales Arts Review, Issue 14.
‘This book celebrates the landscape and the people of Wales through poems and photographs. It shows us how water transforms the land, feeds our eyes and illuminates our lives.’
“Photos from forty locations are included in this bilingual publication accompanied by short, enigmatic, verses in English by Tony Curtis and in Welsh by Grahame Davies. The bilingual reader is twice blessed because the Welsh and English verses are not mirror images – although it is interesting how both poets have grabbed the same flight of fancy on some occasions when reacting to the photos. As Curtis has it, ‘Grahame and I decided that we would respond to the landscape rather than to each other’s writing.
“Of course, some poems are close in theme, mood and implied narrative as they draw on the specific moments captured by the camera. At other times we went on quite individual journeys from the same starting place.’ He could have said ‘same staring place’ because these photos invite contemplation. Anyhow, the bilingual reader has the added bonus of watching both fancies in flight.
“Both poets have also contributed their own personal introduction to the book. In his, Grahame Davies grapples with the transformative nature of alchemy, be it changing base metal into gold or knowledge into wisdom and mortality into immortality, enabling the common elements of human life to become mystical. Within the common theme we have water in various guises, sometimes beautiful, sometimes reflective, sometimes moody, even overflowing. Sometimes as threatening clouds and other times as silver shafts ripping the land.
“Photographers and poets have avoided scenes of the occassional deluge that sometimes flows through communities sweeping before it homes, lives and aspirations. Maybe this was not considered suitable for what is essentially a coffee table publication more in tune with Thomas Hood’s ‘gentle streamlet’ than those television images of flooded homes and communities. But what are included are some really arresting photos offlowing brooks, heavy rain clouds, the countryside reflected in the mirror of a lake as the camera halts, as Davies has it, not only the motion of clouds but time itself. Much as Hood had said, ‘The water that was here is gone, But those green shadows do not change.’
“One thing that I did find a little strange in a book that promises to celebrate the landscape ‘and the people’ of Wales is the complete absence of human presence. Discounting the photographer, there are no people in these scenes although, it must be said, that the works of man are evidenced in a number of them in the form of a cromlech, a bridge, a castle, a stranded boat, Trawsfynydd’s ‘blockhouse headstones’, and a graveyard alongside which ‘the river runs brimful of life’. So, yes, there is much to admire in the photos and much to contemplate in the verses.”
Glyn Evans, review on www.gwales.com with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Tokens for the Foundlings
Tokens for the Foundlings is an anthology of poetry about childhood published for the benefit of the Foundlings Museum in London, with royalties paid to it. The museum, established by tradesman and ship owner Thomas Coram in 1739 with the support of Hogarth and Handel, was both the first orphanage in Britain and the first public art gallery. It has an ongoing programme of art exhibitions and other events, an educational programme and has an art collection which includes Hogarth and Gainsborough (another supporter) and a collection of manuscripts, books and libretti by Handel.
The book is divided into three sections concerning orphans and foundlings, infancy, and early childhood and include poems by Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Stephen Knight, Don Paterson, Elaine Feinstein, Dannie Abse, Seamus Heaney, David Harsent, Carol Rumens, Kate Bingham, Michael Longley and George Szirtes among many other, all of whom have donated their work.
Childhood and parenting are enduring themes for poets and Tokens of the Foundlings offers a unique entry into these subjects through moving and beautiful poems. The foreword is by author and journalist Daisy Goodwin, and the book’s cover features a Foundlings museum artwork by Tracey Emin. This book is to be launched at the museum, and events are planned at a number of literary festivals around Britain.
Real South Pembrokeshire
Poet, and past resident and frequent visitor Tony Curtis roams south Pembrokeshire, from costal resorts of Tenby and Saundersfoot, west to the surfers of Stackpole and Barafundle and north to the Landsker, the cultural boundary between English speaking south Pembs and the Welsh speaking north. On his tour round half-county Curtis takes in many contrasts, from Pembrokshire’s famous new potatoes to the oil refineries of Angle, from farmworkers to immigrant artists, from the excited tourism of Folly Farm and Oakwood Park to the tranquillity of Bosherston Ponds and timeless beauty of Broadhaven beach.
In keeping with the series Curtis views his area through the eyes of a local and as a visitor, digging into his own Pembrokeshire backstory – and deeper into its history- but also observing keenly the Pembrokeshire of the new century. The mix of new and old, of memoir, anecdote and history gives us new insights into patters and the vivacity of life in one of the most beautiful places in Britain.
The Meaning of Apricot Sponge
“John Tripp and Dylan Thomas swam in the same sea. He may not have been as famous as his elder compatriot but in terms of volume his output was similar. He had a voice that was good on the ear, drank gallons, had the same kind of difficulties with money. ”
John Tripp had a chameleon genius which enlivened the literary life of Wales for nearly three decades. Poet, short story writer and journalist, he was an outspoken and often controversial writer whose passion and vigour often spilled over the pages he wrote and into his life. Charming, abrasive, lyrical and satirical, The Meaning of Apricot Sponge is essential reading for anyone concerned with Wales and the roots of its contemporary identity. His wit and sharply observed social and political comments enriched debate, publications and broadcasts at that most crucial time in the struggle for self-rule in Wales.
The Meaning of Apricot Sponge is the first publication of Tripp’s work to represent his poetry, fiction, journalism and creative non-fiction. This is a generous, fully annotated selection across these genres with an illuminating Introduction by Tony Curtis and a Foreword by Peter Finch, two of Tripp’s friends and collaborators. Both writers also contribute poems dedicated to John Tripp.
Here at last in one volume is the opportunity to enjoy the depth and scope of an unforgettable character –
His art was blunt inside its shattering glove,
his spleen well thrust against a failure of the heart.
He offered no quarter to the grubbing merchants of cant.
and a remarkable writer –
Mark him, young poets in the city.
He has much to teach, against the clock,
packing beauty into the murk.
After the First Death: An Anthology
This anthology contains writing by many of the greatest authors of Wales. From Wilfred Owen and David Jones, Dylan Thomas and Dannie Abse to Christopher Meredith and Gillian Clarke, it spans a century which saw both the barbarism of mechanised warfare and the development of mass communication, mass literacy and a flourishing of creative endeavour.
After the First Death draws on the experience of those who have faced death on the battlefield, and on others who have sought to put into words the complex philosophical, political and emotional responses that military action demands. Including poetry, extracts from fiction, memoirs, letters and biography, the book moves from World War One via the ideological battleground of the 1930s into the Second World War, then through the Cold War, Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf wars.
Tony Curtis’ wide-ranging interests in visual art, the impact of war and the nature of friendship coallese in his latest collection, “Crossing Over”. A number of the poems take their inspiration from great artists, from early religious icons to expressionist canvasses, from a ‘buttery girl’ in a Flemish Landscape to the chainsaw sculptures of David Nash. This book includes two thoughtful and beautiful war poems, including the title piece, a moving tribute to World War Two Veterans on a D-Day memorial excursion. There are also a series of sumptuous poems about travelling, including “Postcards from Tuscany” where the lush beauty of the landscape contrasts with the poet’s mood, saddened by the death of a friend. There are several succinct sonnets about California, on subjects as various as vagrants in San Francisco and the stunning cliff-face walls in Yosemite National Park. A sonnet about his granddaughter opens this varied and striking collection which shows a poet writing at the top of his game.
Wales at War: Critical Essays on Literature and Art
Great literature and art have been an unintended consequence of war. The writings and images of those caught up in conflict or reflecting on its experience are embedded in our national consciousness. Wales has played its part in British battles over the past century, and in “Wales at War”, its finest critics consider how, amidst the turmoil and trauma, creativity has flourished. From the trenches of the First World War came Wilfred Owen, Hedd Wyn, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves and David Jones. The ideological battles of the 1930s tested consciences and saw writers develop an overtly political message, particularly in support of the anti-fascist struggle in Spain. Dylan Thomas wrote propaganda and some of his finest poetry in response to war, while his contemporary Alun Lewis is celebrated as one of Britain’s finest writers, despite his early death in Burma. Away from the fighting, novelists like Lily Tobias, Sian James and Stevie Davies have written of life on the home front and the impact of war on the lives of those left behind. In the visual arts, conflict has informed the work of Augustus John, David Jones, John Piper, Ceri Richards, John Petts, Brenda Chamberlain and others. Art historian Eric Rowan offers an essay from the opposite direction: on how government and the art establishment want war commemorated by Welsh and other artists.
Tony has had poems published in a number of anthologies. Here are some of the most recent:
A Room to Live In (Salt)
Another Country: Hauku from Wales (Gomer Press)
Evan Walters: Moments of Vision (Seren)
Kaleidoscope (Cinnamon Press)
Thinking Continental ed. Lynch, Maher, Wall and Wltzien , (University of Nebraska Press).