Tony Flynn: The Heart Itself

Tony Flynn has published three highly acclaimed volumes of poetry; A Strange Routine (Bloodaxe, 1980); Body Politic (Bloodaxe, 1992); and The Mermaid Chair: New and Selected Poems (Dreamcatcher Books, 2008).He is the recipient of a number of awards for his work, including an Eric Gregory Award; an Arts Council of England Writer’s Award; and an award from the Royal Literary Fund. His poems have appeared widely in leading literary magazines, and he has given readings of his work at a number of literary festivals. He has taught creative writing in schools and universities, and was the Arts Council of Wales Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Bangor, North Wales.


Photograph of Tony Flynn © Davin Alber-Flynn


Interview •  Poems

Readers new to Tony’s work will find below a selection of eight previously unpublished poems, but here he is first talking about his formative years in response to some questions from Steve Barton:


SB. You published your first collection, A Strange Routine,  with Bloodaxe Books in 1980. Then in 1982 you were included in the anthology, also published by Bloodaxe Books, A Rumoured City – with a Foreword from Philip Larkin and an Introduction by Douglas Dunn. Not a bad start! What were the ‘Hull years’ like for you?

TF: Between 1974 and 1976 I was living and breathing poetry on a daily basis. They were my halcyon days. I was supposed to be writing my thesis for a PhD on the impact of Marxism on 20thCentury religious thinking,  but I have to confess, that took something of a back seat.

Of course, the poets included in the Hull anthology were a far looser grouping than the title of the anthology might suggest: some people knew everybody; others knew hardly anybody … I was close to Douglas Dunn (the driving force and seminal influence on much of the poetry that came out of Hull in those years), Tony Griffin (T.F.Griffin), and Ian Gregson. Griffin remained my constant and dearest friend for the next forty years until his death recently. I miss him daily.

SB: Can you tell in what particular ways Dunn influenced you as a developing poet?

TF: Douglas was a hard taskmaster, and reminded me {constantly!) that I had a lot of ‘catching up’ to do – my First Degree was in Philosophical Theology and he never let me forget that I had not read English and was therefore something of a laggard when it came to poetry and indeed literature more generally. A client of the renowned psychotherapist Jacques Lacan described therapy with him as ‘being taken very gently with one hand whilst at the same time being vigorously shaken with the other.’ I think that about sums up how it was with Douglas!

But he was unstinting in the time he devoted to us and the efforts he made to encourage our writing. Not only the more formal sessions in the Brynmor Jones Library, but also the long afternoons and many,many evenings in his small study in the flat on Marlborough Avenue (evenings which Leslie usually tolerated with a wonderful  grace and humour.) We pored over our own poems and the poems we loved of others: why did this poem work? how did it work? and why did this one, which had started so well, finally fail? Hours and hours and hours of it. I feed on these hours even now.

Something came alive in me during those years, something I also witnessed growing in others gathered around Douglas at the time, rarely spoken of directly, it ran like an undercurrent  beneath all the stringent scrutiny of craft and technique: a ‘belief’ in poetry, in the powers of poetry – how poetic language at its most potent and condensed might somehow change things: if not our lives (we were far too radically materialist for that! – Griffin and I were both members of the Socialist Workers Party), then perhaps our ways of being.

I remember showing Douglas a poem, ‘Departure’, I had been working on for weeks, a broken-hearted love poem for a lost love. He cautioned me quietly but in all seriousness: ‘If you plan to show her the poem, be very, very sure you want her to come back to you.’

SB Were you publishing much at that time, before your first book and the anthology?

TF: There was a small pamphlet, Separations published by Proem Pamphlets – a small set up funded by the Arts Council I think. I’d also had poems accepted by Stand and The Honest Ulsterman. Then Douglas introduced me to Ian Hamilton at The New Review. Well, Hamilton was ‘the man’ back then, the undisputed ‘boss’ and I loved his book The Visit , which had a huge impact on my own writing. Before I actually met Hamilton in a Chinese Restaurant in London somewhere near Greek Street, he’d accepted four of my poems which appeared in two separate editions of the New Review. I was walking on air, elated – I still have those copies of the magazine and occasionally leaf through them – the thrill at seeing the poems so beautifully presented on those large white pages has not diminished one jot!

Other poems were accepted by The London Magazine and Stand. Alan Ross continued to be an enormous support to me thereafter for many years. During Douglas’s time in that post, so many leading poets came to Hull to read : Norman MacCaig ; Michael Hamburger and of course Ted Hughes, introduced by Philip Larkin. Can you imagine what it was like for a rag bag band of young poetry aspirants to be in that audience! We were blown away! Particularly Griffin (a lifelong Ted Hughes devotee) who had worn his Oxfam ‘Ted Hughes lookalike’ leather jacket specially for the occasion! (And continued to wear it for decades after, convinced it was imbued with the Mater’s essence. Did he wear it to one of his weddings?)

The place was awash with poets! … Which prompted some cruel hearts to wish the drainage had been better.

I’d also attended workshops run by Peter Porter who had been Poet in Residence at Hull before Douglas. Porter was a very generous reviewer of my work for many years after that.

SB:Who were you reading back then? Who was influencing you?

TF: Ian Hamilton as I have mentioned. I also found the work of Michael Fried (published by The Review) very, very exciting.  I was reading Lowell (who also read at Hull a couple of times), especially Life Studies and Plath’s Ariel was very, very important to me and still is.

Something which hasn’t always been accorded the notice it deserves was the work John Osborne, then lecturer in the American Studies Department, was doing: not only as editor of the magazine Bete Noire, but also his organising of readings by leading American poets. I heard Carl Rakosi read and later the wonderful Ed Dorn – the latter strutting around the students’ union bar wearing cowboy boots and hat together with a fringed leather jacket, standing, it seemed to me then, about 6ft 5ins tall! I started to read the Black Mountain Poets and the early work of Robert Creeley was very important ; then George Oppen.  Oppen’s work   – the poems and the Notebooks, proffered the possibility of engaging with serious thinking (for him Heidegger and Simone Weil) and crafting that into the poems in a way that was integral to what the poem was saying.

I think Douglas Dunn regarded all this increasing interest in American poetry as not far short of deviant! However, Ian Gregson was an ally.

By way of Ted Hughes, I found the work of the Catholic Hungarian poet, Janos Pilinszky. His poems speak to me in a unique way – someone else deeply engaged with Simone Weil who was able to help me find the confidence and requisite poetic strategies to explore my own rather complex and hesitant path of faith and religious understanding. The latter very much a work in progress! Very, very slow progress! At times almost impossible progress!

SB: Your output has been, shall we say, on the lean side over the years. Does that bother you?

TF: Only when people draw my attention (and others’) to it!! I am (half?) joking.

I take solace from Ian Hamilton’s own deliberations in this regard: ‘In certain moods I used to crave expansiveness and bulk…’ only to conclude that he would stop thinking ‘like a poetry pro’ and simply ‘ wait for poetry to happen rather than force myself to go in search of it.’

This notion of a necessary waiting resonates with Simone Weil’s concept of ‘attentive waiting’. The attention and the waiting are, it seems, an integral part of what writing poetry is for me. I wait for the rare, but always somehow finally there, ‘subtle heart-breaking gestures of speech woven and positioned so exactly in a poem – a very very few…‘

And when this waiting is rewarded, ‘… the striving to communicate the merest wink of torment or sudden drench of sweetness is as though one were talking to God.’ (W.S. Graham)

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Steve Barton has also written a brief introduction to poetry selected below which you can read here:  Steve Barton on the poetry of Tony  Flynn


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Tony Flynn: Eight Poems


There are places in the heart which do not yet exist;
suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.
Leon Bloy

Who knows…? At any rate, I’d gladly stick
with my constricted heart for all this not
to enter in… A late sun flares

through sepia blinds,
flames these golds into the room –
… the very colour of your hair.

Rilke tells of Gaspara Stampa:
one whose unrequited love was yet
her path to God.

My German’s poor.
I have it only in translation; lines
which though they speak to me will never sing.

Interminable days, and the mind become
a burning-glass turned in upon
itself: nothing,

it seems, that doesn’t allude,
little that isn’t brought to bear:
so this, on how we fall

from grace –
‘… not a distance we create, but
letting our gaze be drawn in the wrong

Dear God, how many times did I
turn away from what I knew was true in you.

You’ve much in common,
you and Him –: near-
and-far – hard to grasp – resolute in your silences.

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani

I miss him, my old god, my god-of-the-gaps;
the one it was okay to beg
for things – who’d put stuff right,

or maybe would…
Forsaken, we hang
from each last thread of breath, suffused

in time
with all that ever was,
or will be, all that is:

such deaths as certain
galaxies enjoy – how orphan-stars are lost
entirely in light.


Boundless light

the unimaginable
breaks cover in her

more brilliant
than her blood-
red hair, its
blaze of contradiction
flamed to gold

whose opposites
the infinite space
between them, make
manifest what is, all
held in taut
composure, un-

and the Shekinah
sweetens to wonder thus

after Rimbaud

Our two-year-old sleeps through it all.
Straddling me and riding hard, each
small, full breast

lets down
its drizzled thread of tiny pearls . . .
O lucent joy! Sweet rosary!


The world is everything that is the case.

The shock of the wholly other,
amazing the course of an ordinary
day. The Annunciation was like this,
and you (no less of a virgin

as far as men go) stepping
out of the shower and into my arms.
Against the odds, the world at once
what is and what is more.

after Catullus


The age of consent is not in question.
Young enough – yes – to be my daughter,
but as far as I know there’s no suggestion
that anyone’s leading this lamb to slaughter.


That was then … From bad to worse,
the years distil their bitter curse.
Where now, the heady days of wanton verse?
Not his muse he cries out for, but a nurse.

for T.F. Griffin

You know the way you walk
into a room, and switch the light on
without thinking, knowing all the while

the bulb has gone; so I
reach for you constantly,
hard-wired as I am that you’ll be there.

It jolts the mind.
The darkness there, though
somehow yet unrealised; then

real, as if
for the first time, over and over.
A sudden darkness. Now. Again.

i.m. Paul Celan

Keeper of the holy ark of all
that can and can’t

be said; mother
of the broken

word once
set in stone,

slit the throat

of any songbird fool enough
to babble the sublime’s unfettered call.


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