Welsh poets writing in English

Jon Gower praises a poetry collection that takes us through the last century of upheaval in Wales

Poetry 1900-2000 is a cornucopia that offers up the harvest of a century’s worth of versifying by a hundred poets, running from W.H. Davies, born in 1871 to Owen Sheers, born in 1974.  It also stands as yet another testament to the Stakhanovite energies of its editor, the indefatigable and boundlessly productive Meic Stephens, who has produced, by now, not just one but two whole centuries of books – they now number over two hundred titles.

This anthology, with its elegant potted histories of the poets, shot through with Stephens’ perceptive take on their work, can stand proudly on the bookshelf next to the Companion to Welsh Literature and the various Artist in Wales compendia and the bite sized Corgi poets series and so on. It offers a judicious selection from an art form that is deeply in ingrained in the Welsh consciousness, indeed some go as far as suggest it has been pivotal in shaping it…

In the incisive preface to the volume Dafydd Elis-Thomas, referring to the Library of Wales project, suggests provocatively that “without something called poetry existing and associated with and naming a place called Wales during the last century this very series and the political process which led to it would not have happened. Without poetry, even perhaps without Poetry Wales, Wales at least as we know it, would not have come about.’” Elis-Thomas goes on to note how in “overactive imagination as found in poetry” has its own role in ‘the imagined communities’ which help make nations.

Poetry 1900-2000 is a weighty tome, running to almost 900 pages, and containing the work of mainly living poets (a third of the contributors are dead, the other two thirds hopefully vibrantly alive). Reading it in long sittings made my wrists ache from holding it. But it made my brain fizz, too, and register many a joy as I reacquainted myself with some magnificent poetry, such as the Amazonian phantasmagoria and father-cursing of Pascale Petit, the work of that homo faber, that making man David Jones and John Barnie’s ecological and bird-haunted musings.

But, of course, I also came across poets that were new to me, or ones I’d forgotten reading before, such as John Pook, Douglas Phillips, Daniel Huws and Robert Walton.  I laughed heartily, again, at Harri Webb’s piss-taking ‘Synopsis of the Anglo-Welsh Novel’ with its concluding image of ‘daft Ianto reciting the Complete Works of Sir Lewis Morris before throwing himself over the edge of the abandoned quarry.’

As one would expect the book is freighted with lines that can stop you in your tracks, or stop you dead in your tracks with “a silence like Bedwellty cemetery” such as the one that settles over, or rather in Patrick Jones’ railing and angry ‘verse of commemoration’ called ‘Demonstrations for Existence’. These Demonstrations articulate the hurt anger of Valleys’ communities entirely shafted by an Iron Lady’s neo-liberalism. The machine gun staccato of his sloganeering sits a tad awkwardly next to more mitered poems of Anna Wigley and Samantha Wynne Rhydderch, but it affects no less for being slightly out of control. That’s probably the point.

Naturally a reader brings his own interests to bear on a volume such as this, so as a birdwatcher my attention was often drawn to anything flying through. I hadn’t really expected to find one of my favourite avian descriptions in the work of the modernist poet Lynette Roberts, when she describes a moorhen in the poem of the same name:

Timely jerks purling through

Grisailles of rain – shocking the air

With scarlet bill and garter.

Roberts also wins my prize for the best list in the collection, a lush botanical litany far removed from a simple found poem:

Corymb of coriander: each ray frosted

Incandescent: by square stem held, hispid,

And purple spotted.  Twice pinnate with fronds

Of chrome.  Laid higher than the exulted hedge;

By pure collated disc of this daisy glittering

White on a red powdered stem.  By cusp of leaves

Held low to the ground; this coriander cane,

Colonnade of angelica, chevril, fennel,

Parsley, aniseed, caraway, yarrow,

All kitchen’s frescade culled and tied away.


By this eyelet and low fieldfare herbs are

Accentuated; engraved and brought to light:

To green cymes of guelder rose and flax blue

Meadows of Pembrey sedge.  To men allergic,

Gunners: Bogrush, Pricklesedge, Stinking Goosefoot,

Foetid Hawk’s-beard, Black Horehound, Bloody-veined

Dock, Blue Broomrape, and Bastard Toadflax on dank

Plain of mud cough like Kerberus in midsummer lanes.

There are great vignettes in this volume, from Jon Dressel’s Dai, “clean as dirt” and “too whipped to shuck that/wind-grey coat, every button gone” through John Davies’s Dai Williams (as viewed through the filter of Kyffin Williams) to Duncan Bush’s dipsomaniacal ‘Caroline’.

Wales, of course, is often the subjects of these poets’ work, and Stephens posits that such regard and examination starts with A.G. Prys Jones, “the first poet writing in English in the 20th Century for whom Welsh nationality was a source of pride and inspiration.”

The proofing of the volume could have been more attentive, especially when a typo makes a poet such as R. S. Thomas seem to pay more attention to heaven than earth when the ‘sea of clods’ in ‘A Peasant’ mistakenly becomes a sea of clouds. Elsewhere we have Empereor for Emperor, inocent, philiosophy,  and so on.

Talking of R. S. Thomas it’s interesting to follow other poets’s reactions, or abreactions to him as charted in this volume, from T. Harri Jones through Bryn Griffiths to Jon Dressel. Similarly Dylan Thomas makes his presence felt in poems other than his own, such as Leslie Norris’s ‘Autumn Elegy’.

This beautifully packaged volume, with its cover art by Ceri Richards, charts interactions and influences as well as showcasing a hundred years’ worth of poetic endeavour. It is a grand selection and we should put up a statue to Stephens in Whitchurch for his enormous contribution to our understanding of Welsh culture.  And, in the spirit of Harri Webb, get a pigeon scarer while we’re at it. To keep his mighty head clean.

Jon Gower is a writer and broadcaster. This article was originally published by the online Wales Arts Review. Poetry 1900-2000, edited by Meic Stephens, is published by Parthian in its Library of Wales series, at 15.99.

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