The people’s poet

Lara Catrin remembers Gwyn Thomas, former National Poet of Wales, who died last week

When I heard of his passing, I sought out his books, sandwiched on the shelves between his namesakes, Dylan and R.S. I opened one of his earliest anthologies, Y Pethau Diwethaf a Phethau Eraill (1975). It was my mother’s copy, and written inside was the message ‘Penblwydd Hapus Llinos gan Bethan’ – it was an 18th birthday gift from her sister in 1979.

From his very early works Gwyn Thomas was able to communicate through his poetry in a modern way that had rarely been seen in Welsh. He wrote about contemporary life through a very clear pair of eyes, using direct language and a lot of humour. His work was relevant, appealing, and accessible to a wider audience. He had a gift that people loved to share.

Most youngsters studying for their Welsh GCSE would be familiar with his name; his work has been a mainstay of the Welsh curriculum over the last couple of decades. It was at this time that I first learnt to appreciate his gift. I recall sitting on the bus, returning from school one day when an elderly man sat by my side. His head was held higher than most – in order to see, not just to look. You could sense that the youthful urge to assimilate wasn’t lost in his wrinkles. I followed his lead, and tried to see what was around me. Then it dawned on me. This old man was – him. The man who’d produced the poem ‘Y Ffatri’n Cau’ which I’d just been reading. I turned to him with that nonchalant confidence we all possess as teenagers and said ‘You’re Gwyn Thomas, aren’t you?’ He didn’t vocalise his reply, just nodded and smiled. It was that smile that I remember.

He was a highly respected academic and spent nearly four decades in the Welsh department at Bangor University, where he became professor of Welsh and head of department. My mother often commented that Gwyn Tom’s lectures were magical, and were always full to capacity. He possessed the ability to turn mundane day-to-day experiences into powerful images. Little wonder that he helped pioneer techniques to combine poetry and film. One early example of this was his tribute to Martin Luther King, ‘Cadwynau yn y Meddwl’ (Shackles in the Mind, 1976). He published numerous volumes of poetry, was a literary and cultural critic and also translated the mythical Mabinogion stories into English. A selection of his poems has been translated into English by Joseph P Clancy.

In 2006, Gwyn Thomas was appointed National Poet of Wales and released his autobiography Bywyd Bach (Small World) the same year. As Welsh National Poet, he was commissioned to write five stanzas celebrating the opening in June of 2009 of Hafod Eryri, the new summit building at the top of Snowdon. Inscribed on the buildings and windows, they read:

The summit of Snowdon, here you are nearer to heaven

 The rocks record the aeons of creation

 It’s our duty to guard this glory

 Here you will see tempests and tranquillity

 All around us are the grandeur and the anguish of an old, old nation

His contribution to Welsh literature was immense. He was pioneering and original, and will surely be remembered as one of Wales’ most important poets of the second half of the 20th century. A vehement whisper through the decades, he was truly a people’s poet.

When I recall that chance encounter with Gwyn Thomas on the bus from Bangor I think of his inquisitive eyes searching through the window for his next poem. Gwyn Thomas’ work opened windows you never knew existed, and as I read his work, even now I can sense his smile on every page.

Gwyn Thomas leaves a wife Jennifer and three children Rhodri, Ceredig and Heledd and their families.

After living in Paris for the past few years, Lara has returned to Wales to present Pwy Geith y Gig? for S4C and is currently working on her first book.

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