Poem of the week: Jasper by Tony Conran

A wedding gift in verse, this is a warm celebration of art and craft, friendship and Welshness

for John Jones the potter

Waxwork of a crag, a model of sea rock
In gleaming maroon –
Hear the waves break on it, see the fish fly
Under the moon!

A piece of witch-stone, jasper,
Red chalcedony
With a tidewash of grey quartz still ebbing
Back like the sea.

I was given it, it has lain in my hearth
Nearly a year
To give peace by arbitrary charm
To fingerers here.

Each hand that stroked it, gave to and took
Power out of it:
Love warmed it with whitsun, it knew
Fire-tonguing wit.

It felt stillness in half-light, it learned
Like a wild foal
To stand calm in a crowdful of noise
In its deep quartz soul.

It is Welsh rock, John. A vein of it runs
In the nape
Of the hanging coast where the oaktrees
Knot the Straits into shape.

Earth, water and fire! and a girl’s hand that gave it
Dearer to me
Than gold! – I send you this shard from the wheel
Of the Welsh sea.

Your potter’s eyes found glazes in red grit –
You made them yours,
The piebald debris of metallic earths,
Ragbag of ores.

We finger a pebble for luck, or chance
Magic try –
But your fingers have lived with luck so long
They must have it, or die.

And your hands chance no amateur magic:
The wheel must turn,
The wet grey clay must rise like a genie
To teapot or urn.

Yet now, because you have left Wales, and sold
Kiln and wheel
And because your cottage sinks down to its knees
In an overgrown field,

And the racks in your front room shop
No longer fill
Quietly, quietly with the cups and jugs
Of your fingers’ skill

And because now, though the potter’s gone
And the clay dries dead,
We are glad that the love of a bride
Has graced your bed –

That ancient, amateur magic of hands,
A love and a luck
Richer than even from clay
Ever was struck –

Because of all this, on your wedding day
I send
All the power in a stone I can
To make and mend:

A piece of witch-stone, jasper,
Red chalcedony
With a tidewash of grey quartz still ebbing
Back to the sea.

This week’s poem is by the wide-ranging poet, critic and translator, Tony Conran (1931-2013). His 1998 collection, Eros Proposes a Toast: Collected Public Poems and Gifts, testifies to a further talent, often rare in that rivalrous breed called poet: the talent of friendship. This book is a celebration of “the heart’s affections” and that heart’s larger community. It’s unusual to read a collection in English of poems in which other lives are so integral to the text and the texture of feeling. But the spirit of the book is Welsh, of course, and in Wales the idea of a sociable poetry does not run counter to the cultural grain. Dedications, often informal, head most of these poems: they may consist only of first names, or describe the occasion of composition. As here, the poems themselves may include fragments of the life story and glimmers of the personality of the recipient, drawing him or her into the firelight of its generous utterance.

The occasion of this poem’s gift is the marriage of “John Jones the potter”. Jones, it seems, has already left Wales, where he lived and worked, and so the poem folds melancholy into its celebration as it travels long-distance, accompanying the piece of jasper from the poet’s own hearth. The stone is special, indeed sacred, because it has been the focal point or witness of human connectivity : “Love warmed it with whitsun, it knew/ Fire-tonguing wit.” The lower-case “w” of “whitsun” alerts us to a sacred calendar not of the church, and the brilliant abbreviation of “fire-tonguing wit” gives a human face to the miracle of Pentecost.

In the llatai (“messenger”) genre of Welsh poetry, the speaker despatches a creature or object to bear his words of desire to the beloved – see Dafydd ap Gwilym’s The Seagull, recited in Welsh and English here. Conran’s “message” is for an absent friend, not a lover, but the tone is nonetheless impassioned. Personal celebration is interwoven with emotive ideas about art and nationhood.

Importantly, the poet’s friend is a fellow artist. The poem makes no distinction between art and craft: as the narrative evolves, it becomes clear that the same rules, the same unpredictable “magic”, operate for the craftsman and the poet alike. The potter uses the wheel that defines him as a professional: the poet, in Bardic tradition, has the discipline of the rhymed, stanzaic forms in which he composes. The potter’s eye is close to the ground, where he discovers his materials and ideas: “glazes in red grit” and “(T)he piebald debris of metallic earths,/ Ragbag of ores”. Similarly, the poet’s words strive for tangibility and texture, their edges and harmonies no less earthed than clay.

Swiftly, the speaker moves beyond imagism, with continuous, small, renewing surges of narrative energy in the form of stanzas that are like a series of waves. One rises, breaks and falls, and, after a brief lull, another rises, breaks and falls. In the alternating long/short lineation, there’s a tidal sense of coming and going, giving and taking, gaining and losing, ending and beginning. The potter’s wheel is identified with the sea in stanza four. The poem, too, is a wheel and a sea.

Right at the start the reader could be misled into thinking the speaker had begun to apostrophise the jasper itself. We soon realise this is not the case, but that hint of an invocation lingers: “Waxwork of a crag, a model of sea rock / In gleaming maroon… ” This is a piece of real rock, of course, but “a model” in its representative potential. A direct appeal to the reader-recipient’s historical and poetic imagination leads the way: “Hear the waves break on it, see the fish fly / Under the moon!”

So this potter’s wheel of a poem gathers images and takes fluidly evolving shape in front of our eyes. Sometimes, what might be a Welsh-language-inspired verbal pattern adds an extra volt of rhythmic electricity (eg the inversion in “We finger a pebble for luck, or chance / Magic try… ” or the complex interchange in the first two lines of stanza four). The poem functions by both accumulation and repetition. Its tactile quality is emphasised by the recurrent images of hands and “fingerers”.

The theme of magic is first sounded in the “witch-stone” of stanza two and taken up in the “genie” comparison in 10. Significantly, this is “arbitrary charm” and “chance magic”. The poem spells for us the irrational element in creation. An artist’s power is not always locatable. “Your hands chance no amateur magic” declares the poet, knowing very well that “chance” will still play its small but vital part in the potter’s success.

The word “amateur” (originally meaning “lover of”) heralds the appearance of Eros among the makers, and stanza 13’s compensatory gladness that, in the marriage bed, another kind of magic, “ancient and amateur”, will be set in motion. Although “bed” is rhymed with “dead”, the moment of imagined sterility is soon absorbed. Hands will act again to create something greater than “teapot or urn”: to make love and life itself. The poet-speaker doesn’t set art above Eros. Eros wins the day. We might infer, from the emotional resonance of stanza seven (“A girl’s hand … dearer than gold”) that the stone is already a love-gift, cherished for that extra meaning – a meaning now to be passed on as the stone travels into the new bridegroom’s hands.

While the Welshness of the jasper “crag” is emphasised – and this small piece of rock is somehow Wales in miniature – the poem is culturally connected and contains possibilities for broader readings. You might be reminded of the potter’s-shop stanzas in Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam or the ekphrastic passages in Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. Classical, Islamic and pre-Christian Celtic “worlds” press close together, without conflict.

Still, many memorable images and transformations evoke a specific North Wales landscape. The jasper has learned to stand firm amid human bustle “like a wild foal”, oak-trees “Knot the Straits into shape”, the abandoned cottage “sinks down to its knees / In an overgrown field.” That last image turns the poem towards a synecdoche of departure and decline: “And the racks in your front room shop / No longer fill / Quietly, quietly with he cups and jugs / Of your fingers’ skill …” Boarded shops lining a high street, a village’s single village-shop with its fading “Am Werth” (For Sale) sign – both sadly familiar views are evoked by the potter’s departure.

Three Symphonies by Tony Conran
Three Symphonies by Tony Conran Photograph: Agenda Poetry

But the syntax places these clauses on a trajectory that rises optimistically to the wedding day, and the stone’s hoped-for power “to make and mend”. In a beautifully judged conclusion, the second stanza now returns as the last, restoring our vision of the gift object, standing stubbornly self-contained and beautiful beyond its symbolic possibilities.

Three years after his death, Tony Conran is honoured and remembered by numberless friends and colleagues, and his memory cherished in Bangor and far beyond. But this is understatement: he is alive in ways that terms like “remembered” and “memory” simply cannot encompass. He was never a colleague of mine (he retired many years before I arrived at Bangor) but I met him, and I have always considered him not only a marvellous poet but, incidentally, the most generous, kindly, eloquent host I ever encountered at an “after-the-poetry-reading” party. His final collection, Three Symphonies, consisting largely of previously unpublished work, will be published by Agenda Editions at the end of May 2016.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Poem of the week: Old Poem by Anonymous, translated by Arthur Waley
The bare scene that greets an old soldier returning from long service is understated but deeply affecting

Carol Rumens

07, May, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Cob by Fiona Sampson
These flowing, musical verses evoke both a deep past and a very modern sense of spirituality

Carol Rumens

12, Jun, 2017 @9:04 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Wedding by Alice Oswald
Skilfully moving through changing similes, this outstanding modern sonnet pays tribute to the balancing act of love

Carol Rumens

22, May, 2017 @11:24 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Ifs by Caroline Norton
A wry, pastoral fantasy aimed at romantic types, this all-but forgotten poem irresistibly recalls one of the most famous. And arguably outdoes it

Carol Rumens

08, Aug, 2016 @10:56 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Tourists by Ruth Bidgood
A warm pastiche of an 18th-century travelogue, this is a touching portrait of the tourist’s comical but sincere search for exaltation in Wales

Carol Rumens

20, Jun, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Reformation by Fred D’Aguiar
A compact glimpse of an exploited, despoiled world, this small work offers very large resonances

Carol Rumens

24, Sep, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Manhattan by Lola Ridge
An intensely dynamic vision of New York City in the early 20th century raises questions about its gilded allure

Carol Rumens

15, Oct, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Yangtze by Sarah Howe
An elliptical account of a journey down the Chinese river subtly registers the impact of massive environmental damage

Carol Rumens

02, May, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Smog by David Tait
An increasingly anxious speaker is pained by both systemic homophobia and pollution in the air, in this breathless poem by a Lancastrian living in China

Carol Rumens

12, Nov, 2018 @11:59 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Us by Zaffar Kunial
An only apparently informal riff on an only apparently straightforward concept of identity finds some sparky complications

Carol Rumens

02, Jul, 2018 @9:00 AM