Welsh Modernism

For some people modernism ends with The Waste Land and a handful of extracts from the Cantos, after which poetry returns to its proper course via the Movement, Hughes, Heaney, the New Generation and onwards to today’s dominant voices.

The counter-position is that modernism never went away, and that (often at a distance from literary London) it produced some of the most powerful work of the past century: MacDiarmid in Scotland, Bunting in Northumbria, Hill & Prynne in their different orbits around Cambridge.

This counter-narrative is even stronger in the English-language Welsh tradition. Lynette Roberts is gaining a wider readership in the wake of Carcanet’s 2005 edition, and once we venture beyond the anthology-bait of “Poem from Llanybri” we find some of the finest examples of UK mid-century modernism (including the strange and remarkable Gods with Stainless Ears). If we can shut out the clamour of myth-makers and tourist boards, Dylan Thomas is firmly in the modernist tradition: no TV producer was going to ask Michael Sheen to read “Altarwise by Owl-light” rather than “Fern Hill” on BBC Wales during the 2014 centenary celebrations, but the former is nothing if not a modernist exploration of the denotative limits of language (and of the semantic function of liturgy in a secular society).

Definitions of Welshness are notoriously fluid, but so is literary influence. In his thorough and enormously helpful Reading David Jones, Thomas Dilworth points out:

His father was native to north Wales…[and] he felt a strong affinity with his father’s nation. He enlisted in a London-Welsh regiment…made extended visits to Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains…read deeply in the history and early literature of Wales…[and in] rugby games, he rooted for Wales. But he was not a Welshman.

Fair enough if we’re concerned with taxonomies of national identity (my father is from Pembrokeshire not north Wales and I’ve never enlisted in anything, but aside from that I fit a similar profile). But in terms of poetic influence David Jones is at minimum parallel with the Anglo-Welsh tradition and arguably central to it – both for his work’s complex dialogue with Welsh literature and culture, and for his importance to later generations of Welsh writers. In any case, the passage of time is making it increasingly clear that Jones is one of the most significant writers of the last century, and his engagement with myth and meaning pushed the boundaries of the modernist experiment into new and hazardous territory.

We can speculate about why 20th century Anglo-Welsh literature was so receptive to modernism: a heightened sense of the otherness of language; modernism’s affinity for myth and enriched diction at a time when mainstream poetics were busy banishing adornment; random influence patterns between individual writers; none of the above. But it’s interesting that something similar is happening today.

Without arguing the boundaries between “late modernist”, “experimental”, “linguistically innovative” and other labels for non-mainstream poetry, it’s alive and thriving in Wales. Under Zoë Skoulding’s and now Nia Davies’s editorships, Poetry Wales has become a standard-bearer and a showcase for high-quality innovative writing. At the same time, Skoulding’s and Davies’s own writing exemplifies the vibrancy and energy of contemporary Welsh modernism. Here’s an extract from Skoulding’s “Columns” (from 2008’s Remains of a Future City – the original text is block-justified but I haven’t worked out how to do that here):

daily on street corners this is
still the news shouting from
column inches in whatever
might be left of public space as
statues missing an arm here or
there a leg in such glorious
causes sing across the square he
maps the idle thoughts of her
journey she is a gateway to
marketing opportunities sun
skimming over traffic mud
gathering in gutters the width
of a finger the body text runs
to its margins while the city’s
edge runs ragged

And here’s the ending of Nia Davies’s “the day started well enough” (which you can read in full here):

a back to lean a cheek on
too perfect to write yicky,
especially poems about,
too easily gone in think,
layers of salt gathering, the bottom
of morning to be dropped
out somewhere and I think
of how birds arrive
at their disheveled destinations
and that there’s too much signage
in the way and all that lucky to be alive,
we’re just paddling in a torrent.

As a non-Welsh-speaker I’m fascinated by the mutating and transformational power of the Welsh language as a shadowy off-stage presence in a lot of contemporary English-language poetry from Wales (again, the shade of David Jones lurking in the wings). But something genuinely unsettling happens when bilingual writers in the modernist tradition allow the two languages to collide. In their very different ways, Meirion Jordan and Rhys Trimble both generate an uncanny energy from the interplay of Welsh and English.

I’ve enthused about Jordan’s Regeneration before. Most of the poems in the book are wholly in English, but “Bryneich” is something else entirely. Here’s the ending:

in the empty fort
.             watching for owls                yes, rwy’ just about mynd
.                                                                      i’r gwely
the fort sits like an eye
.                      on the hill       na, byddai’n wneud hi yfory
and it is full of owls                                                        tomorrow
.                    I can’t sleep because
the owls are cold
.                    and they                 na, s’dim ots
are                                          I only brought
.          clean clothes
.                                   watching

I’ve been reading Rhys Trimble’s Hexerisk for about a month now and need to stop because it’s starting to mess with my brain. It’s a truly stunning book, dissolving linguistic and conceptual certainties into a polyglot explosion of pure verbal energy. You really need to read the whole thing to get a sense of its scale and cumulative effect, but a couple of extracts can give a sense of what you’re in for (I can’t replicate the spacing exactly but have done my best to give an impression):

cawdor                                             cawell

cywain                                              cywarch

ciwed                                                cewyn

cawio                                                caewr

cwcwyo                                             cywydd


minimanual of the urban guerilla




pulled        from

same   old

blueprint                      redprint




farming: profession of sudden



.                                /world


at afon

twitch lick clochydd

distrained mamon

a line of posts

purblind & ALLEY

I’m not trying to ignore the fact that innovative, late modernist writing is thriving across the UK at the moment (any view of the contemporary landscape that ignored Andrea Brady or Emily Critchley or Peter Hughes’s versions of Petrarch would be not just parochial but misleading, and the writers mentioned here are clearly part of that wider context). But it’s nonetheless a rewarding thought-experiment to look at the current surge of poetic innovation in (and around) Wales in the light of its modernist predecessors.

A quick aside about the excellent Devolved Voices project, where you can find interviews with and readings by several of the poets mentioned here as well as a wide and growing list of others. There’s a wealth of material and it’s well worth taking time to explore the project.

Lynette Roberts, Collected Poems, Carcanet, 2005
Thomas Dilworth, Reading David Jones, University of Wales Press, 2008
Zoë Skoulding, Remains of a Future City, Seren, 2008
Meirion Jordan, Regeneration, Seren, 2012
Rhys Trimble, Hexerisk, Knives Forks and Spoons, 2014
Poetry Wales

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