Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Beauty before Age: on Seán Street, Michael Vince, & Tony Connor

Kevin Gardner

The books reviewed here come from three well established and accomplished poets, whose first collections appeared, respectively, in 1976, 1978, and 1962. Unsurprisingly, all three opt for traditional structures rather than formal ingenuity, and no one is likely to use the word ‘ground-breaking’. Without the distraction of structural variation, however, the words themselves will engage the reader’s attention. There are immense pleasures to be found in these poems, usually arising in the novelty of perspective and inventiveness of the language. Traversing the well-worn holloways of childhood, landscape, and memory, these three poets manage to create new and compelling ways of looking at our own worlds through theirs.


The title poem of Sean’s Street’s latest collection, Journey into Space (Shoestring Press, 2022), recalls an early BBC radio sci-fi serial; broadcast in the 1950s, it may have helped to inspire the poet’s lifelong career in radio broadcasting. Britain’s first professor of radio (and now emeritus at Bournemouth University), Street has worked in radio features production for more than fifty years, while writing and publishing highly regarded poetry for nearly as long. The disciplines of broadcasting and poetry are often intertwined in surprising and pleasing ways, and Street has explored this connection in a number of fascinating prose works, including The Poetry of Radio: The Colour of Sound (Routledge, 2012) and Wild Track: Sound, Text and the Idea of Birdsong (Bloomsbury, 2023). Radio features prominently in much of his poetry, including Radio and Other Poems (Rockingham, 2004) and The Sound Recordist (Maytree, 2021).

It’s therefore unsurprising to find the BBC serial, ‘Journey into Space’, featured so prominently in this, his fourteenth collection, or celebrated as so instrumental in the development of the poet’s childhood imagination. Street’s endnote reminds us of the serial’s extraordinary popularity and its hold over the world’s attention. The poem itself is remarkably effective (and affective), not least in how it delays alluding to the radio programme until nearly the very end. It opens with the poet reflecting on his childhood as a constant exploring of unknown spaces – the “eternal new boy” always moving, changing schools, “learning the rules / of the next exclusive club”. The moves, though the result of his family’s “upward mobility”, came at something of a cost to the child: each upward move also meant “a hostile dialect to unravel” and “migration from familiar worlds as bereavement”.

Such patterns must surely have encouraged more silence than speaking, fostered habits of listening and reading in the future poet, and a kinship with the alienness of radio voices. In the medium of “alternative serial empires […] we were all foreign / together once a week”, and in radio, the child learned “the companionship / of voices conjured by space”. This was a magical world: not only did it temporarily ease the social anxiety of an alien accent, but it may have been the mysterious source of the poetic imagination itself: “the aerial pulled Ariel / and all his quality out of the night, holding the literal at bay”.

The association of Ariel’s world of imagination and play with the aerial’s world of the science of sound transmission points to the intertwining mysteries in both radio technology and the poetic imagination. That phrase “holding the literal at bay” is itself a punning allusion to the sequence of six poems in which ‘Journey into Space’ appears. This sequence is titled ‘Littoral’, meaning the nearshore part of the sea, the space adjacent to the shore, or the shifting boundary between land and sea. Indeed, Street’s whole collection seems to be about liminal spaces, and journeying into and through such spaces, including windows and thresholds, air waves, and shorelines where tides flux.

Take ‘The Pig and Whistle’, for instance: the poem’s title comes from an historic pub in Liverpool’s Covent Garden; it survived a massive bombing during the Blitz and stood, like a rocket ship ready to launch, isolated in a waste ground. It was from this liminal space that Street’s own ship seems to have launched in 1968, with the poet imagining his father watching him “board / toward the next light’s start, flying solo / into the angels’ share on the Bushmills road”. The best of Street’s poems, I think, are unselfconscious weavings of figurative and literal, of poetic flight and earthbound reality.

Another potent technique Street employs is to stack layers of experience and memory, done to great effect in the marvellous poem ‘At the Window’. Here, particular sounds recur with unexpected associations, resulting in “time meeting itself coming back”. The poem begins in the North London street of Well Walk but foregoes the expected allusion to Constable. Instead, an open window emanates with the recorded sounds of an American boogie-woogie pianist, a ticking clock echoes with the steps of Keats, and synaesthetic memories and imagined settings swirl together almost without regard to any identifiable time or place. As Street passes through the streets of Hampstead, an open window is a threshold for the mind’s journey through music and poetry. This concept is expressed most remarkably, I think, in ‘Islandness’:

Which explains how deep a music’s blade
can cut, how a grace note’s ornament
sung as the roof’s storm beat that night, cracked
open then broke the listening heart.

There is something Proustian in Seán Street’s most affecting poems. The taste of ‘Lemon Barley Water’, for instance (one of the ‘Littoral’ poems), opens another window into memory, imagination, and even ethos. The taste of the water a “daybreak tang”, Street opens the poem with a hope that may not be fulfilled, and at the centre of the poem is the reality of promises broken, “when the air’s sleight of hand / tricked hope to believe what might just happen”. But in the greyness of age, the child’s hope returns, “a flavour of what’s seeded” and “a sunrise turns grey to gold”. The taste of lemon barley water is transformed to colour, and “with such a light all’s possible”.

Reading this collection has the effect of standing at a window: one may look inward and away and find darkness, or look outward and be bathed in light. The window invites us to leave the shadows and silence, to journey with the poet into spaces of discovery:

Suddenly there’s an open door, a fold
of time through from another place. Sometimes,
just beyond us but part of us, there’s the hold
light has when it’s shone aslant spare chequered rooms.


The three sections of Michael Vince’s seventh collection, Back to Life (Mica Press, 2023), present seemingly unrelated perspectives, as if the poet is looking out from windows facing different directions. The first section, ‘Lockdown’, contains poems inspired by photos, videos, and books encountered during the pandemic lockdown. In the second section, ‘Greenwich’, the history and people and places of his home neighbourhood near London compel the poet’s gaze. The third section, ‘Mediterranean’, returns to the poet’s ten-plus years in Greece with poems of memory and history. With almost ode-like formality, Vince’s poems restore breath to past lives.

In his best work, Vince makes those past lives matter by permitting us to know and feel and care. ‘A New Translation’, from the ‘Lockdown’ section, is a brilliant illustration of how he makes the universal resonate with the personal. Here, he recounts the memory of studying a photograph of school classmates in East Anglia and imagines the cultural dislocation one student must have experienced – a boy whom he recalls had grown up in Greece and had, with his mother, been abandoned by the father who had taken an academic job in America. Later, “hankering after a lockdown read”, Vince buys a new translation of The Odyssey only to discover that the translator is his classmate’s father. This collision of past and present, startling in itself, takes on deeper import as Vince overlays Odysseus’s experience, “restored / to land and wife, and son who searched for him”, with the translator/abandoning father who “pulls at the ropes and hears no children’s voices, / blocked out by wax, on course in his own direction”.

This poem is a good example of Vince’s easy ability to introduce the familiar into an experience that, to the reader, is otherwise new. Throughout this collection, ordinary objects take on not only meaning but also a kind of emotional heft, the weight of profundity: a British army bayonet, an eighteenth-century Book of Common Prayer, a Kentish marsh landscape. At the height of the pandemic, as silence and stillness descended over cities, the stories told by those objects and places could suddenly be heard. The ‘Lockdown’ section ends as our lockdowns themselves ended – with a return to the noise and detritus of humanity coming ‘Back to Life’. The collection’s title poem ends with a sort of ambivalence about this “blossoming”; the rejuvenation of spring is merely a metaphor, and there’s a hint of nostalgia for the simpler, quieter days of lockdown:

. . . silver
tubes of hippy crack, wrappings
of fried chicken, empty beer bottles
lie in the road, as if dropped
from trees overhanging the pavement,
all discarded with past days,
evenings of sitting quietly at home
with the city outside noiseless,
unmoving, masked in restraint.

One might be forgiven for thinking that it would prove more difficult to connect with Vince’s poems of Greenwich history than with his pandemic lockdown poems, but one need not fear. Take the first poem in this section, ‘A Friendly Call’: Vince creates interest in the life of an Austrian immigrant, Ettore Schmitz, by emphasizing his ultimate unknowability. “Hard to find him at home”, the poem begins; “The house reveals nothing”. Despite the mysteries, his life was quite ordinary, taken up with work, with literary ambitions hidden behind a nom de plume, and the complications of life in England and of dealing with the English. Vince doesn’t quite tell the story of the writer known as Italo Svevo, though he has read Schmitz’s letters to his wife. Instead, Vince shares our experience of not quite knowing all that much about this obscure writer, opening a window not into the biography but into our discomfort with ignorance.

In reading this long middle section of Back to Life, we get both more and less than an encyclopedia of Greenwich lore: this is an eclectic selection of the people and places that define Greenwich, and yet it is also a rich tapestry of its long and fascinating history and geography. Strikingly, the most famous landmark of Greenwich appears only on the cover of the volume, and not in any of the poems. Instead, Vince takes us to Blackheath, Deptford Creek, the Isle of Dogs, and St Alphege’s Church. Unfamiliar names rub elbows with very famous ones: Joseph Conrad, Good Duke Humphrey, the Brunels, and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. I am sure these are poems to which I will return again and again, for their richness of history and lore, voice and description.

Unexpectedly, Vince turns in an impressively realised dramatic monologue, ‘Gardener’s Walk’, in the voice of Tom, a gardener to diarist John Evelyn. I’m not entirely sure how he does it, but Vince manages to capture the feel of seventeenth-century prose without ever aping it in any annoyingly slavish manner. The opening line – “Up and about at four I set off along the roads for Wotton” – did briefly put me in mind of those pernicious Pepys parodies so pervasive in the pandemic. But those are quickly forgotten; Tom’s voice is clearly his own, if perhaps more educated-sounding than we would expect, and through it Vince gives us a fully realised portrait of Evelyn and a clear sense of a seventeenth-century worldview: “he strolls as some mightier Adam / about his garden, and sees that it is good, and so indeed / my work there appears to me, as one fortunate having / a good master and caring for such a fine place.”

Tom the gardener has a literate voice and a cultured ethos, but rather than attempting historical accuracy in the dramatic monologue Vince has made a good choice. His own poems are full of formal cadences and polished turns, and he is clearly at home in the traditions of English poetry of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. If his next collection were to contain odes and epistles, I would not be entirely surprised. The final brief Mediterranean section of Back to Life sustains the book’s pattern of resuscitating old scenes and memories and history, even in the most personal of poems:

Things that moved past me, fields, villages,
now make up a reverse history
of the world, from dead city outskirts
to this deep forest, they slow down and
stop finally. . .
there’s something there, but I can’t quite see,
and next time I look it has vanished.
The road leads me, and so I follow.


Tony Connor’s chapbook, A Century of Childhoods (Kin Press, 2022), does not take its title from the poet’s age, though it’s a pleasure to read new work from the 92-year-old (at time of publication) author of eight collections and a very full ‘selected’, Things Unsaid (Anvil Press, 2006). The ‘Century’ of Connor’s title harks back to Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, but it also resonates with Connor’s lifelong passion for cricket: if he never quite scored a hundred runs, at least he could produce a century of verse. Where Traherne’s Centuries is primarily a work of religious meditation, however, Connor’s Century is largely a work of autobiography.

As a tangent, I might venture to assert that Tony Connor is perhaps the most successful of contemporary autobiographical poets, in that he has done what few others have managed: to write without self-aggrandisement and the excesses of confessionalism. Like Traherne, he captures the guileless joy of the child’s perspective on the world and expresses a rapture and wonder at the world he occupies. A Century of Childhoods is certainly worth reading in its own right, but it should also encourage the reader to seek out Connor’s earlier collections with their fuller realisations of a Northern English childhood.

Though intended to be read sequentially and in one sitting, Connor’s centuries can nonetheless be read individually or randomly, and once you’ve read enough of them they will form an endlessly fascinating kaleidoscope of memory and thought. The book consists in a hundred poetic fragments, or centuries, of four lines each. Some are directly autobiographical shards, enticing the reader to plead for more details: “The stout corpse of Mrs. Bates / laid out in the front parlour, / air heavy with lily-stink, / a cloth covering her face”. Some are ominous, perhaps vaguely menacing: “Presences haunting our house, / anonymous, mute, unseen, / beside me in the kitchen, / on guard at my bedroom door”.

Some of the centuries have an inscrutably introspective quality, lacking the external grounding of autobiography but touching instead on human universals: “What could not be completed / after being well-begun; / something referred to proudly, / but with hints of self-contempt”. Some entice the reader with fragments of worlds long gone, or worlds not our own: “Streets, alleys, crofts and ginnels / shifting position nightly / to trick unwary walkers / in my night after night dream”. Others seem to penetrate our own dreamworld haze of memory: “A blackbird’s trill at twilight / when I lay ill one summer – / like a song recollected / many years hence in old age”.

The best of them have a gemstone, haiku quality: a fragment of insight or wisdom, sparkling with pale light amidst darkness: “A lonely lake at nightfall, / glitter-wake of a moorhen / on sombre, silent water. / Houselights shining through the trees”. Read singly, these are intriguing and delightful little poems; together, they form a coherent whole, a truly impressive, substantial poem. A Century of Childhoods is not merely a new perspective on Connor’s childhood, though it might feel slightly familiar to readers who already know his poetry well; more profoundly, this mosaic is a meditation on the nature of memory itself. As Connor concludes, “Everything clearly named / yet everything secret, / hidden within its name. / A world without understanding”.