The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry: 20th Century Welsh Poetry

The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry
Menna Elfyn and John Rowlands, editors
Bloodaxe Books
29 May 2003

Welsh poetry has a long and honorable pedigree, providing some of the key foundational texts of Medieval English literature (such as the Mabinogion, sourcebook for the Arthurian legends) and, according to the introduction to this new anthology, the oldest extant European poetry (dating from the sixth century) outside of Latin and Greek. This makes Welsh literature fundamental to linguistic and cultural histories of Europe, a heritage that might be a heavy burden for contemporary Welsh-language writers.

Menna Elfyn and John Rowlands have collected together a representative sample of 20th century poetry written in Welsh and rendered in English by a variety of translators, some of whom (like Emyr Lewis) translate their own work, some of whom (Gillian Clarke) are poets in the English language in their own right. The consequence is a survey of modern Welsh-language poetry that is variable in quality but consistently interesting in the political histories it maps out in potted biographies and in the introductory essay, which announces the book as “the first definitive anthology of 20th century Welsh-language poetry in English translation”.

The issue of the variable quality is accountable firstly to questions of translation. As John Rowlands’ introduction clearly points out, Welsh poetic forms depend upon notions of musicality and metrical rhythm that are unfamiliar to English linguistic structures, and are therefore both difficult to reproduce and hard to find equivalents for in English. One consequence of this is a tendency for translations to sound forced or archaic in English, where we must assume that the original Welsh poem doesn’t.

Take for example a poem called ‘Cricket’ by the namesake of one of the editors, Daffyd Rowlands. The English version opens thus:

Today at Lords the second test began between England and Pakistan
and the magic names sweeten the summer once again:
Salim Malik and Mushtaq, Javed and Wasim Akram,
names that drip from the tongue like honey.

So far so average; the counterpoint between the Welsh language and the Pakistani cricketers’ names is wholly (and inevitably) lost in Meic Stephens’ translation, as is the implicit irony of the Englishness of cricket and its post-colonial subversion. From here on, however, the poem abandons its potential political critique to offer instead a rather nostalgic reminiscence of events “In the year One Thousand Nine Hundred and Forty-Six”, a portentous and surely unnecessary lexicalisation.

However the same combination of poet and translator can produce a poem like ‘Schutzstaffeln 45326’ (referring to Adolf Eichmann’s SS number), which exploits form, pattern and a dimension of religiousness to rather more powerful effect:

Let the number be learnt like a verse from Scripture:
four, five, three, two, six;
and in the salty repentance of its ugly saying
let us see
the toys destroyed in the gas chambers.

Non-English words are again prominent in the poem’s title, and the number is again lexicalised, but with a bit more effect; “the toys destroyed in the gas chambers” is perhaps loosely ambiguous as a symbol (surely the point is that not only toys were destroyed) but the force of the poem remains long after one has read it.

The big guns in this anthology, Saunders Lewis, R Williams-Parry and T H Parry-Williams (the latter two were cousins: as J Hillis Miller once noted of Wuthering Heights, there aren’t enough names to go round in Wales), provide the Modernist backdrop against which more recent Welsh poetry can be assessed. Lewis and Parry-Williams are poets of history, locating their specific experiences in a geography that is recognizably European and is therefore comparable to the best writers in English of their generation.

European experience comes, in turn, partly from the Welsh experience of fighting in the World Wars (see I D Hooson’s ‘The Red Poppy’ and the extracts from T Gwynn Jones’ ‘Pro Patria’), although it’s noticeable from this anthology that Welsh poetry didn’t suffer a decimation of its ranks like that of English poetry in the First World War.

The potted biographies of each writer emphasize the ritual centrality of bardic practice to Welsh culture, again differentiating it from English literary culture. Many of the poets here have won National Eisteddfod Chairs and Crowns, suggesting a structure of institutional recognition of poetry, and a method of assessing relative merits, largely unfamiliar to English readers. One also finds some wonderful nuggets of information, such as the fact that T James Jones, himself an Eisteddfod winner, has also translated Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood into Welsh.

The overriding sense from reading this anthology is of a national poetry constantly seeking its own position in a wider world. Several of the poems here allude to or refer to other poets (R Gerralt Jones writes poems to Ewan McLachlan and Derek Walcott; Siôn Eirian writes of ‘My Dad versus Ginsberg’, concluding rather wistfully that “between him and my respectable father from Wales . . . there’s an ocean”); many deal with the massive historical events of the twentieth century; a few are concerned with the specific struggles of Welsh nationalism, particularly those by Saunders Lewis, a founding member of the Welsh Nationalist Party in 1925.

John Rowlands’ introduction provides an excellent brief history and a useful guide to the poetics of Welsh poetry. He notes also that male voices dominate the tradition; the last word, however, is given to a woman, Mererid Puw Davies, a lecturer in German whose work summarises some of the themes of this Anthology. Her poem ‘A Poet on ‘Poets on Poets’: And Other Poems’ acknowledges the French modernist poet Francis Ponge, and offers its own thoughts on Welsh poetry and European traditions:

And isn’t every painting, isn’t every poem, a statement on what’s before it,
what went before, what lies before it?
The creator’s response is a critic’s response.