Speaking up for Wales

John Osmond reports on the political relevance of a weekend conference that took a backward glance at 1960s Wales:

Those who need confirmation that writing and politics are intertwined in the life of a nation should have been at a lively Academi conference at the Wharf pub in Cardiff Bay over the weekend, a retrospective on ‘It started in the Sixties’.

What, may you ask, started in the Sixties? A lot of things, of course, including flower power, the Beatles, moon landings and, allegedly according to Philip Larkin, in 1963, sex in the wake of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial. But for Wales it was a pivotal decade, the hinge of the 20th Century. Modern Welsh politics began in 1966 with the twin events of Gwynfor Evans’ by-election victory in Carmarthen in June, followed by the Aberfan disaster in October. They were unconnected, of course, but in different ways set in train movements that still reverberate today.

It seems to me no coincidence that Poetry Wales was founded in 1965 and as the decade wore on drew to it a new generation of writers who together produced what its first editor Meic Stephens called the ‘second flowering’ of Anglo-Welsh poetry. It was this period that was being celebrated by the Academi conference.

The key figures were Harri Webb, Raymond Garlick and John Tripp who all, one way or another, returned to Wales from some kind of exile. Following national service in the aftermath of World War II and more than 20 years in a variety of humdrum journalistic jobs in London, John Tripp wrote of his ‘return’ in 1969:

This time when the train pulled in
my ticket wasn’t torn in half.
I’d bought a single back to the beginning
where people live at room temperature
and shop girls call you ‘love’.

‘Return’ in The Province of Belief, 1971

There were, of course, many other poets associated with Poetry Wales, notably Glyn Jones, Gwyn Jones, Leslie Norris, John Ormond and Emyr Humphreys. But it was the first three who deliberately set about deploying English language verse to inject some backbone into Welsh national consciousness. As Harri Webb quipped in one of his salvoes, perhaps more accurately ‘squibs’:

Sing for Wales or shut your trap –
All the rest’s a load of crap.

‘Advice to a young poet’ in A Crown for Branwen, 1974

Webb, as Meic Stephens has noted, described himself as a “poet with only one theme, one preoccupation”, whose writing is “unrepentantly nationalistic”. Raymond Garlick, who returned to Wales in 1967, was more cerebral. But his trilogy of verse collections A Sense of Europe (1968), A Sense of Time (1972) and Incense (1976) describe a nationalist perspective on Wales as an integral part of European civilisation

In political terms John Tripp, whose work was the main focus of the conference’s discussions, was less straightforward. Certainly he had a strong sense of wishing Wales to achieve greater autonomy. But this was tempered by an equally strong socialist sentiment and a feeling that a gross materialism was undermining the essence of what Wales had been and could become. Unlike the others Tripp was not a Welsh speaker (although English Garlick learned Welsh and became a passionate supporter of Cymdeithas yr Iaith).

All three poets were crushed in different ways by the result of the 1979 devolution referendum. Garlick ceased writing at all for many years. Webb announced sometime afterwards that henceforth he would write only in Welsh. For Tripp it was another instance of Wales letting him down. He had returned in 1969 to survive as a freelance writer and barely did so, scraping by on a solitary Arts Council grant, occasional commissions, work as literary editor of Planet magazine during the 1970s, and his increasingly celebrated, sometimes outrageous readings – although he only got drunk after the events.

Despite it all, these three poets, and especially John Tripp, inspired a new generation of poets and other writers, as the weekend conference demonstrated. Tripp remained an indispensable figure during the cultural and political revival of Wales in the 1980s, until his early death at 58 in 1986. His funeral and wake, organised by the Welsh Union of Writers, was a memorable, if somewhat raucous occasion. The Swansea poet Nigel Jenkins, organised it and later produced an excellent short essay on Tripp’s life and work in the Writers of Wales series in 1989.

Jenkins spoke at the weekend, recalling a complex hellraiser of a man who in his private, personal moments with friends could be extraordinarily tender. So did the University of Glamorgan’s Professor of Poetry Tony Curtis who delivered this year’s Gwyn Jones lecture on Tripp, intriguingly titled ‘The Meaning of Apricot Sponge’. You will need to read it to discover the elixir of its meaning. But soon you will be able to, as it will appear as an Introduction to a collection of John Tripp’s prose work that Curtis is collecting.

“I was born in Bargoed in 1927, and I want to know why,” Tripp used to say. He cut a swathe of mordant wit throughout his life in Wales during the ’70s and ’80s with questions such as these. And with Dylan he refused to go gently “into that good night” and did his fair share of raging at “the dying of the light”. Famously he grabbed a few spare bottles of wine at the fag end of a literary party at Dannie Abse’s home in Porthcawl and hissed, “It’s not over yet!”

Signing his Collected Poems to me in 1978 he wrote, “To John O. What is the Welsh problem? Let me know…” The fact that in 2009 we are still asking questions like these owes a great deal to Tripp and the other poets of the 1960s ‘Second Flowering’.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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