A Review of The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry
The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry:
20th-Century Welsh-Language Poetry in Translation,
eds. Menna Elfyn and John Rowlands
The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry has been long-awaited in European literary circles. American readers, on the other hand, have been largely unaware that there was something to anticipate. Despite the last decade’s near-obsession with Celtic culture, Americans have remained oddly ignorant of Welsh literature, particularly Welsh-language literature. Welsh-language literature is the oldest in European, other than Greek and Roman. And today there are approximately a half-million native Welsh speakers, almost as many as all the speakers of the other active Celtic languages (Breton, Irish, and Scots Gaelic) put together. Yet, if asked to name a twentieth-century Welsh poet, most cultured Americans would come up blank after mentioning Dylan Thomas, who wrote in English and never really learned Welsh.
In the wake of this significant publishing event, students of poetry will have no excuse for ignorance of Welsh-language poetry. Editors Elfyn and John Rowlands have created a 448-page anthology so comprehensive that the poetry aficionado will want to return to the volume again and again to learn more about the 92 poets included. Moving through the anthology, the reader can’t help but be struck by the diversity of the verse written in Welsh during the past one hundred years. The Welsh literary scene is rich enough to include both praise poetry and performance poetry, political poetry and pastoral poetry, and the editors have been wise and generous enough to try to encompass it all.
The serious student of poetry will want to buy the anthology just for Rowlands’s fine introduction that distills a wealth of information vital to the readers’ understanding of the poems: the Welsh language’s historical pedigree; the impact on Welsh literature of developments like the Act of Union of Wales with England in 1536 and the 19th-century British empire’s hegemony; the tradition of the Eisteddfod (the oldest continuous literary festival in the world); the parameters of the Eisteddfod’s prestigious prizes, the Chair and the Crown; the political and religious tensions informing twentieth-century Welsh-language poetry; and overviews of the key figures of twentieth-century Welsh poetry. Rowlands even tackles in clear and succinct fashion the four classes of that oh-so mysterious subject — cynghanedd, the extremely complicated system of internal rhyme and alliteration that developed during Welsh poetry’s oral beginnings. As a student of Welsh poetry, who has learned enough to know how little I know, I am grateful for all that Rowlands manages to teach me in so few pages.
The poems, as the subtitle indicates, are presented as English translations, yet the newcomer to Welsh will find enough of the Welsh language to be intrigued by its mysteries. In “Salem,” for example, T. Rowland Hughes offers a Snowdonian rural scene in which the Welsh words sit strange and wondrous on the page before the English-speaking reader:
Siân Owen Ty’n-y-Fawnog’s the old wife Who wears, with borrowed dignity, that shawl, Old woman, plain and strong all her life As Cefncymerau’s rock above their hall, Those country worshippers beyond our sense — Siân Owen, William Siôn and Owen Siôn, And Robert Williams from Cae’r Meddyg once, And Laura Ty’n-y-Buarth — sweet her tune.
In Gwyneth Lewis’s poem “The Final Minutes,” a dying woman hemorrhages not only blood but also a rich assortment of Welsh words — “filth,” forgotten terms, proverbs, plant names:
The end was dreadful. Inside, a dam burst and blood was everywhere. Out of her mouth came torrents of words da yw dant I atal tafod, gogoniannau‘r Tad in scarlet flowers — yn Abercuawg yd ganant gogau… — the blood was black, full of filth, a well that amazed us with its idioms — bola‘n holi, ble mae ‘ngheg? — and always fertile, yes no pwdin llo…
The editors have included a fine sampling of poems like Lewis’s that focus on the language itself. In reading these poems, the reader begins to have an inkling of the complicated relationship the Welsh (and so many post-colonial writers) have with their native language. The Christian Nationalist Gwenallt in his poem “Wales” complains that Welsh is “on our shoulders like a sack,” yet in “Rhydcymerau” he laments that in the industrial Swansea Valley “Where was verse-writing and scripture / is the South’s bastardized English.” In “Welsh and Wales,” Waldo Williams calls Welsh “danger’s daughter,” yet insists that Welsh is the only language fit to capture the untranslatable landscape: “These mountains, only one language can lift them, / Give them their freedom, against a sky of song.” Alan Llwyd sees “The Welsh Language” as a source of strength and continuity yet an endangered one — a chain that “constrains us,” a fort that “guards us from the silent cliffside” yet a rope that “is unraveling, strand by strand.”
Whether translation strengthens the Welsh rope or contributes to its unraveling has been a source of contention in the Welsh literary world, as it has been among the authors of many post-colonial cultures. One only has to look at the controversy surrounding Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer of Gikuyu descent, and his renunciation of English in his 1986 Decolonising the Mind to see how impassioned a debate this can be, a debate with compelling arguments on each side. In his introduction, Rowlands points out that Twm Morys (the son of English-language travel writer Jan Morris) refused the editors permission to include his poems in translation in the volume and “adamantly regards translation as an aberration.” Yet Elfyn, in an interview for BBC’s On Show, provides a persuasive apologia for this English-translation anthology: “This book is for the world, it’s for a world readership. It’s certainly for people who don’t speak Welsh, who don’t read Welsh, but are genuinely interested in Welsh poetry. In the past, Welsh poetry has been the greatest secret in Europe because we’ve always kept it to ourselves, and it’s high time we shared that richness.”
As any good translator will tell you, translation is an almost impossible task because of the tension that always exists between fidelity to the poem’s meaning and allegiance to the poem’s music and prosody. Of course, in the case of Welsh, with its distinctive consonances, rhymes, and cadences, the challenge is even greater, especially with poets who write in cynghanedd and strict metres. Yet, as Rowlands notes, the translators of those poems “have made brave attempts.” Certainly in Joseph Clancy’s translation of Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s poem “The Man on the Horizon” the message comes across as clear and compelling: Wales needed a new kind of hero to rally it in the face of the newly-invested “Prince of Wales.” Yet Clancy manages in some of the lines (“Not frail, while’s man, all frailty” and “On his face a dream’s traces”) to achieve cynghanedd lusg’s pattern of having a syllable in the first half of the line rhyme with the line’s penultimate syllable.
Some of the poets in the volume, such as Gwyneth Lewis and Emyr Lewis have chosen to translate many of their poems themselves. Others prefer to turn their poems over to someone else for translation, often in hopes of extending the creative process. Elfyn in a 2002 interview for the Asheville Poetry Review explained how she enjoys the way her “words take on new meaning” when she allows translators like Elin ap Hwyel all kinds of “risk-taking” so that they can “almost reinvent my poem.” The list of translators with whom these poets have entrusted their words is as impressive as the catalogue of poets themselves. Many of Wales’s best English-language poets, like R.S. Thomas, Tony Conran, Gillian Clarke, and Nigel Jenkins, have been selected for their combined Welsh sensibilities and their mastery of the musical possibilities of English. And often these translators seem especially well-paired with the poems they have been assigned. Jenkins’s own work with earthy and political subjects and his command of an English line that is wiry and hard-hitting make him especially well-suited to deliver Iorwerth Peate’s angry lines about the encroachment of “Airstrip St Athan”: “And the gracious Vale, from Barry to Porthcawl, / is raw meat to greedy hell’s mechanic sprawl.” And who but Gillian Clarke, experienced in her own graceful verse, could manage to convey the multi-layered world of Elfyn’s “Cell Angel” with such a light and limpid touch, as evidenced in the following two stanzas:
I would give quotas on angels, ban seraphic sopranos from high-church places where stars play their flutes in glided choirs of angelic boys, their voices clean as glass between marble and echo.
A compromise for the editors might have been a bi-lingual edition. Certainly the anthology will send readers searching for the Welsh originals or for bilingual editions of books by their favorite newly-discovered poets. (Elfyn’s own bilingual editions from Gomer Press and Bloodaxe Books certainly belong on the top shelf of any collection of twentieth-century world poetry.) The editors’ decision not to include poems in Welsh, of course, was driven by their desire for comprehensiveness. Given that they were committed to publishing “the first definitive anthology of 20th century Welsh-language poetry in English translation,” they could not afford to cut the number of poems in half in order to create a bilingual edition. Their choice seems the right one for the critical niche the anthology will fill. Many fine earlier anthologies, such as Conran’s The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse (1962), were published too early to encompass the entire century’s poetry. And, while other recent anthologies of Welsh poetry have elected to focus on a region or on women poets (Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan’s First Bilingual Anthology of Welsh Women’s Poetry) or on a select number of contemporary poets (Robert Minhinnick’s The Adulterer’s Tongue, an Anthology of Welsh Poetry), this anthology attempts to be inclusive in a way that seems almost staggering.
In the volume, the editors have managed to provide generous selections of works by canonical poets like R. Williams Parry, T.H. Parry-Williams, Saunders Lewis, Gwenallt, Waldo Williams, and Bobi Jones and reasonable representation for Minhinnick’s six contemporary poets (Elfyn, Bobi Jones, Iwan Llwyd, Emyr Lewis, Gwyneth Lewis, and Elin ap Hywel), while still offering a sampling of poems from a dizzingly diverse group — Marxist poets, performance poets, religious poets, Nonconformist poets, rock-musician troubadours, modernist poets, academic poets, gay poets, shepherd poets, Welsh Nationalist poets, and cynghanedd bards. In the anthology, poets from less-likely regions like the Gower, the Rhondda Valley, and the Swansea Valley find themselves side-by-side with poets from more traditional Welsh-speaking places like Aberystwyth, Bangor, and the Llyn Peninsula. By including powerful contemporary female poets like Elfyn, Lewis, ap Hywel, Nesta Wyn Jones, Einir Jones, and Mererid Hopwood, the volume manages a reasonable balance of men and women despite Rowlands’s concession that “Welsh poetry has traditionally been very much a male domain.”
The organization of an anthology is a tacit statement of the editors’ particular worldview or political ideology, or so Russian anthologist Dmitry Golynko-Volfson claimed at the 2001 Summer Literary Seminar in St. Petersburg. Rowlands and Elfyn have elected to organize their anthology chronologically with poets arranged by birth dates. The beauty of this chronological order is that we not only see the “broad sweep of Welsh poetry” as it progresses, seamless and interconnected, through time; we also are encouraged to notice the dissonances — the poetic, political, and religious tensions that arise between poets writing as contemporaries. In “The Women at the Pit-head,” Bobi Jones uses a lyrical, almost elegiac voice to make the reader linger on the women waiting at the mouth of the mine shaft “furnishing the ground around it with their shawls,” women who are “Dab hands at washing bodies and dressing them for coffins.” These women are his mothers, he tells us: “There is nothing of me that hasn’t come from this row.” He saves his quiet indictment of the system that causes their suffering until the very end of the poem:
This row is only a mechanism for giving birth that will go on waiting through gap-in-the-bed nights for children who might sometimes have a bit of schooling to tune a talent for crying plague on capitalists. Waiting for the coming day — from the bottom of their hope’s pit — of a little less despair, that will stumble out to the light… with ousting in its fists.
It’s fascinating to finish Jones’s poem (and the somewhat similar “Portrait of an Overpopulated Woman”) and then turn a few pages and find his contemporary Dafydd Rowlands (born two years later) writing a very different kind of social commentary addressed to the poet Gwenallt about “The Village” of Pontardawe in the Swansea Valley, a commentary much more direct and colloquial:
You know, of course, about the Leisure Centre;
there, on its outside wall,
on a grey-blue slate set in a fountain
is your name —
poet ‘of this mechanized and industrial life’.
Don’t worry about the Coke cans and the empty condom packets
that float silently like leaves of the water-lily
on the calm surface of the immortals’ pool;
it’s no insult to you and your kind
that kids piss into the water.
Of course a chronological arrangement was not the only option for Rowlands and Elfyn. Some other equally ambitious anthologies of national poetry have elected to organize their writers into schools or traditions. Readers often rely on such scholarly constructs as mental categories to help them sort through a flood of new information. Those longing for what Golynko-Volfson calls “maps of literary space” can find overviews of the various traditions in Rowlands’s introduction. Such classifications, however, can lead to reductionism, and this pair of editors seems to want to discourage oversimplified readings of these authors. In fact, the biographical headnotes point toward the complexities and self-contradictions of individual poets. We find out, for example, that Gwenallt, raised as a Nonconformist, was an atheistic Marxist before finally becoming a Christian nationalist.
Yeats claims that “Out of quarrels with ourselves we make poetry,” and the poems in this anthology often show individual poets arguing with themselves. Emyr Lewis, we discover from the headnote, has won both the Chair and Crown at the national Eisteddfod (and is, thus, a master of both cynghanedd and non-cynghanedd metres), yet “his work has an ironic twist which often lifts his work from the traditional mould.” In Lewis’s poem “A Once-in-a-lifetime, Never-to-be-repeated Cywydd in English following a chance meeting with the late Allen Ginsberg,” Lewis’s own ambivalence (as well as that of the contemporary Welsh poetry world) comes into play. On the one hand, he seems to mock Ginsberg’s perception of cynghanedd as “crazy little crosswords” and the way Ginsberg reduces their discussion of cywydd to the two words he writes in his notebook: “cow with.” Yet the poem ends with a lyrical description of the way the breath-led, free-verse guru
took a breath, through lips that were bright as only in the sunlight lips can be that see and sing. And once had sung like dancing in love and, fearful, heavy, told tales of mortality.
Elfyn and Rowlands want us to understand twentieth-century Welsh poetry as a subject complex and rich enough to warrant serious and sustained study. Clearly, they have succeeded.