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POETRYETC Home

POETRYETC  2001

POETRYETC 2001

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Subject:

A Long Post About Welsh Poetry in English

From:

David Kennedy <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Poetryetc provides a venue for a dialogue relating to poetry and poetics <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 9 Feb 2001 15:58:22 -0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (76 lines)

I thought it might be useful if I posted the relevant section of my review.
[This is a long posting so if you're not following this thread here's your
chance to dump now]

"I began by referring to the brevity of Amy Wack’s introduction. One assumes
that this was done to avoid the trap that lies in wait for all anthology
editors: having the introduction reviewed at the expense of the contents. As
a co-editor of The New Poetry I can certainly sympathise! Nevertheless, even
a short introduction attempts to define how the work anthologised is
presented and how the editor hopes it will be received. In this context,
Wack raises a number of points which I want to examine in detail not because
I disagree with them but because they hint tantalisingly at important, wider
issues which are all concerned with Welshness. Amy Wack recently wrote in
these pages of a new poet that ‘Despite her residence here, Wales appears
only once, in the form of a bunch of daffodils’ but Oxygen does not convey
what is Welsh about its English language poets except birth or later
residence. Wack does try to confound clichéd definitions of nationality, the
sort of thing Duncan Bush once described as a youth running onto the pitch
at Cardiff Arms Park ‘carrying the national emblem: a leek, of felt, as big
as himself.’ However, the book is subtitled ‘new poets from Wales’ and this
inevitably raises expectations in potential readers. I don’t think anyone is
expecting leeks and dragons at the start of the new millennium but I was
expecting more of the uneasy but unavoidable engagement that animates Deryn
Rees-Jones’s poem
‘Connections’ - not included here - which pictures ‘a Welsh mountain I can /
Just remember - mynydd - a word I can’t pronounce too well.’ If, as Wack
argues, the English poets in Oxygen are ‘children of the information age’
whose ‘tastes are sophisticated and rarely plain’ then this is more the kind
of take on identity and origin one would expect.
[...]
Amy Wack goes on to assert that ‘Wales does reasonably well in the
production of poets. We do have some way to go in fostering a cultural
climate as favourable to them as those in Dublin or Edinburgh.’ Leaving
aside the  strangeness of comparing an entire country with two capital
cities, this begs a number of questions. First, few poets seem interested in
following Stephen Knight’s lead in The Sandfields Baudelaire and writing an
Anglo-Welsh dialect equivalent of Kathleen Jamie’s and Bill Herbert’s
energetic Scots poetry. Second, I’ve often wondered why Wales appears to
lack writers comparable to the broadly neo-modernist Irish generation of
Trevor Joyce, Billy Mills, Catherine Walsh, Maurice Scully and Randolph
Healy. Third, there is another missing generation in Wales. It is very easy
to construct a narrative of postwar British poetry in which writers from the
periphery - in terms of class or geography - who were born in the period
1935-45 have gradually occupied the mainstream with work which deals overtly
with issues of class, education and internal colonialism. Three writers who
would group together quite naturally in such a narrative are Douglas Dunn,
Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney but it is difficult to find a Welsh writer
who, as the saying goes, ‘fits the profile’. John Davies - another massively
under-rated poet - has written Harrisonian poems about his relationship with
his father but these form only a small part of his work. Gillian Clarke’s
best work has a comparable historical focus but it real emphasis seems to me
to be on asserting the value of the feminine in a masculine culture and
mythology.
    If this analysis is correct - and I offer it for further debate - then
it suggests that
Anglo-Welsh poetry lacks precisely the things that have made Irish, Scottish
and regional English identities into what might be termed highly tradable
commodities in poetic terms. As a consequence, the most recent generations
of Anglo-Welsh poets lack literary contexts to position themselves in or
react against. But I also want to suggest that the reasons for the apparent
unavailability of Anglo-Welsh poetic identity - both inside and outside
Wales - might actually be historical. In a survey of nationalist movements
in the British Isles between 1900 and 1939, the historian J. H. Grainger
argues that Wales was ‘a country without the institutional bases for
separateness.’ Indeed, after its annexation by England in 1536, Wales had no
governmental institutions that differed significantly from those of England
apart from
the Council of Wales which was abolished in 1689. And because Welsh
distinctiveness was primarily linguistic, Grainger goes on to argue, it
became intrinsically cultural rather than political. [...]  This is crucial
because of the particular absences I mentioned earlier. And this suggests to
me that poetry needs an established and vibrant political culture because it
’s politics that drives all the factions and schools that make other
poetries in English so various, so constantly surprising and so readily
identifiable."

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