All entries for Tuesday 06 March 2007

March 06, 2007

‘Negotiations’, Extracts from an interview with Gwyneth Lewis by Ian Gregson

As I was seven years old when I started to write, I was probably reading Enid Blyton and books like The Little Wooden Horse! I started to keep my own anthology of best poems in a notebook, which I still do, and seem to remember an I.D. Hooson ballad about two rabbits being a particular favourite. Later, I was mad for science fiction. As to poetry, I was knocked sideways by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and took hours trying to dissect the poems to see how they worked (as you’d dismantle an engine). Oddly enough, I learned a lot about poetry from Latin verse. Because we weren’t fluent speakers, I looked more carefully at how Catallus and Virgil achieved their effects, and was very keen on The Aeneid. Later Milton became a particular enthusiasm, both at school and again in university, when I was lucky enough to undertake a special Milton paper, taught by Geoffrey Hill. As well as opening my mind about seventeenth-century poetry, he also knocked some shape into my essay style, he had a very acerbic way of telling you not to be foolish!

Gwyneth Lewis on Parables and Faxes

I had noticed two strands merging from my writing. One was the straight “I” poems, in which a poetic self was the protagonist, poems which look autobiographical (but which may not be) and a more indirect way of conveying one experience in terms of another. This looks like a parable but can be a more accurate way of describing autobiography in code than the “I” narratives. What I discovered is that neither mode of exploring reality is watertight and that both bleed into each other so that at the end of the sequence I could no longer tell whether any individual poem was a “fax” (a direct copy of my personal experience) or a parable (reality described in the third person). (54-55)

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Negotiations’ (Interview by Ian Gregson). Planet: the Welsh Internationalist. Vol. 173. 50-56.

Ruth McElroy on Gwyneth Lewis

In a recent essay on ‘Contemporary Anglo-Welsh Poetry’, Sam Adams highlighted the cosmopolitan nature of poets whose careers began in and after the 1970s. Having won the Literature Medal in the Urdd Eisteddfod in 1977 and 1978, Lewis is a good example of such a trend. Educated in a Welsh-medium secondary school – a definitive stage in Welsh education policy, of course – and at Cambridge and Oxford, Lewis has lived and travelled in the USA and Australia as well as Europe. She is thus representative of a contemporary generation of women and men whose sense of Welshness emerges from a privileged, educated access to Welsh culture and history, which combines with an intimate knowledge of the limitations and strictures which that can bring, as well as the mundane experience of being Welsh in different parts of the world.

Ruth McElroy. ‘The Rhyming Detective’. Planet: the New Internationalist. 141. 21-26.

Gwyneth Lewis in America, Extracts from an Interview by Kathryn Gray

Writing about web page

New Welsh Review: Americas Special Issue

Gwyneth Lewis On America

We tend to forget that there was a creeping Americanisation of Britain. But it hadn’t actually happened then. There was a tremendous suspicion of America in circles I moved in. So I wanted to go there to look at the future of Europe directly in the eye. Taxi Driver, the film based on Jon Hinckley – who had tried to assassinate Reagan, of course – had just come out, so I was nervous about it. But in fact, by looking at the worst of American cultural excesses, in a strange way I cheered up a lot about it. I came away from America feeling tremendously positive about many of the cultural freedoms that you had there that weren’t maybe visible from Britain. It turned out to be a long-term gift to me – and one I hadn’t expected. (9)

Coming from Wales, from the UK, where the poet had a relatively high cultural position, I suppose, and then to go to America where being a poet was not thought of as an option, where poets found it almost impossible to exist in this so-called ‘free’ society, was chilling. I remember being in Harvard and being very aware of the cost to people like Lowell, Berryman … Bishop, even. You realised that in America it was doubly difficult to survive as a poet. (9)

I knew that it was a survival situation, and it clarified psychological issues for me in relation to working as a poet in a way that would never have happened if I had remained in Wales, in the UK. (9-10)

The ongoing question that I found very difficult was the question of what language I wanted to write in. America helped clarify bilingualism for me but it was immensely painful. (10)

Meeting Joseph [Brodsky]? Well, it was like… a bomb. His seminar was regarded with awe and terror by all the students. He would make us memorise a poem every week and he would pick someone to stand up and recite it… The poems were selected generally from the canon of Auden, Frost, Hardy, but particularly Auden, who he adored. He would (10) then sit there, chain-smoke, generally pontificate and ask great questions. Then he’d insult the American students… Well, not them but the American education system. A lot of people misunderstood. But I realised it was actually a term of endearment. It was a European way of beginning a dialogue with people. (10-11)

Jospeh Brodsky

He [Brodsky] acted like a sort of kind uncle towards me. He knew I was going through a really difficult time. He understood that about being abroad… away from your culture, family, friends. (11)

He [Brodsky] was not uncritical but he actually had a tremendous love for American sclock – and slang, in particular. He was always coming out with it in a heavy Russian accent. He found American life liberating in ways that he hadn’t expected. Largely, I think, because he relished the throwaway remark, the catch-all in American speech. He loved that in low culture because he recognised that that was where vitality in language is… ‘What rots is what’s alive’, and that life comes out of that. (11)

He [Brodsky] impressed on me the value of tradition. He was a purist about this. He knew very well how poets fall in love with each other verbally, and spoke on from that. He had a direct connection back to Akhmatova and further. I had my Welsh tradition. But I remember him saying to me once, though: ‘You are lucky Gwyneth – you have the English language’. He was totally smitten with English. That made me realise that what I did have I was taking for granted. That one comment did more to help me than anything else. It helped me to think of turning to the English language not as a betrayal of Welsh – but as another love affair. (11)

Well, we’re all obsessed with language. But what I have been trying to do is explore why minority languages are important for people other than those that speak them. Because I think they show us the nature of language in an extreme situation. I think that what can be learned from the decline of the Welsh language is not a minority issue, it’s actually a language issue. And Joseph was always so sharp about why language is important in the grand scheme of things. (12)

New York

What you do lose [when travelling/living abroad] is ideas about yourself […] ideas about what poetry is about, what you’re about, as well as others’ ideas about you. That’s a good thing in a small culture where the influence tends towards all hands on deck and expectations are therefore very strong. (12)

Somebody said to me that if I stayed I would become an American poet. I loved American poetry – and still do – but that didn’t seem right to me. I felt I would be losing my grip on a kind of internal metre, and that would have been bad news. (12)

[Brodsky’s] main self of himself was as a human among humans. There is a lot of rubbish talked about the poetic process. It seems to me that one of the reasons that poets might be of interest to other people is that they know more than most about the chaos of life, about living with incompleteness, with hopelessness, living with the feeling that what you value and cherish most is not valued and cherished by the rest of society. All basic human emotions. Except poets know more about it because we spend more time doing that. Not because we are superior, more sensitive… But because we know what it is to be nobody. (13)

Kathryn Gray on Gwyneth Lewis

Lewis experienced a culture-clash with the preppy, body-beautiful ethos of her fellow students [at Harvard], and one that was the antithesis of the arty, left-field atmosphere of the late seventies, early eighties Cambridge that she had left behind. Lewis was always conscious of her difference; her time in Massachusetts marked a period that proved much less than an unalloyed pleasure. Similarly she saw how the cultural freedoms she was observing were also at odds with the material and psychological lot of poets in American society. (9)

[H]aving completed a year in the English department at Harvard and finding herself unhappy pursuing academic studies in English, she applied to Columbia in New York. […] This year proved to be the defining moment of her creative life. (10)

Brodsky was exiled from the USSR in 1972, and after a spell in Vienna where he was helped by Auden, he emigrated to the US. Like Lewis, he took much – personally and professionally – from an evaluation and enjoyment of the cultural excesses on offer in New York. (11)

For him [Brodsky], language defined the great benchmarks in evolution: what distinguishes the human being from other animals is his facility with language. He reckoned the poet – who pushed language to its limits – is the most evolved of all creatures. (11)

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Gwyneth Lewis in America’ (Interview with Katherine Gray). New Welsh Review. Vo. 70. 8-13.

Nerys Williams on Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis: Taboo and Blasphemy


In this essay, Williams considers the decline of minor languages in relation to Gwyneth Lewis’ desire for a ‘vital intelligence’ (a phrase taken from Lewis’ poem, ‘Welsh Espionage’). To Williams, the term intelligence, suggests, ‘an exchange of ideas, scrutiny and […] even a collective unconscious’ (23). Quoting Ezra Pound on T.S. Eliot, Williams is adamant that within intelligence can also reside emotion: ‘Emotion and intelligence are bedfellows in good writing’ (23). So, in Williams’ notion of intelligence, it is, ‘not merely analytic but must be charged with feeling’ and this is especially the case in Wales where, ‘even the “muscular” emotions of anger and cultural pride threaten to disperse into a torpor of nostalgia’ (23).

Williams demands that Welsh writers learn from Anglo-American Modernism. Yet she admits that Lewis is already aware of the Modernist ‘faultline’ through ‘tradition, technique and addressing an audience’ (23). Williams notes that, the language may change from Welsh to English, but the intelligence persists’ (23) Interestingly though, Williams notes that Lewis’ intelligence, ‘is frequently navigated by humour’, a strategy that has, ‘important informing potential’ (23).

Good jokes and poetry both allow us to think laterally about touchy subjects so that the mind can grasp solutions way out to the left of its normal field of vision… comedy permits us to deal with painful subjects in a therapeutic way. The taboo needs to be broken the blasphemy spoken. (qtd. in Williams, 23)

Williams sees a link to Freud’s ‘tendentious jokes’ which enable repressed thoughts to escape. This kind of humour is very different to irony, which Lewis, according to Williams, ‘can […] act as armour against articulating explicit meaning’ (23). Other kind of humour are more ‘generous’ because it offers a way of, ‘ enticing if not reeling the reader into a sustained engagement (23-24). Williams is quick to note however that Lewis’ use of humour is not ‘vaudeville’ and neither does it limit the range of her work which includes ‘elegiac and devotional meditations’ and ‘extended lyric sequences’ (24). Williams’ aim to consider how humour and bilingualism work together.

Williams lists Lewis’ poetry collections and she notes that Keeping Mum offers poems ‘mined from the Welsh [poems]’ as revisions of her Welsh collection, Y Llofrudd Iaith, but Lewis recommends that these poems are read, ‘as departures from the original, if not new explorations’ (24). In ‘Whose Coat is that Jacket? Whose Hat is that Cap?’, Lewis describes how after initially ‘smuggling […] familiar material from one language to another’, she decided to become a ‘full English language poet’, and, ‘not just a translator of material which might not work in Welsh’ (qtd. Williams, 24).

Williams now turns to ‘Pentecost, the first poem in Lewis’ collection, Parables and Faxes, and according to Williams, this poem, ‘alerts us immediately to the gift of languages or “glossolalia”, which enables the speaker’s safe passage through the checkpoints of Europe to Florida’ (25). Williams connects Lewis’ use of language to, ‘the erotic and tactile’, although the quest for languages in Williams’ view is, ‘not far from Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of a child’s initiation into language as a manifestation of lack; language offers a symbolic order that enables the subject to represent desire and thus be constituted’ (25). Williams notes how Lewis’ own comments about infancy in Sunbathing in the Rain echo Lacan’s theory and in Lewis’ poetry, Williams sees a, tension between linguistic multiplicity and a unified order’ (25).

Next, Williams focuses on the sequence, ‘Welsh Espionage’, in which a small child is secretly taught English words and the scene has struck many critics as being reminiscent of representations of child abuse. Williams seems uncertain about this reading, but she is sure that, ‘where the two languages intersect is the body’ and that ‘both languages are jostling […] for ascendancy and power’ (26). Williams quotes Lewis’ account of the poem which reads as follows:

I suspect that this sinister suggestion was a way for me to explore the discomfort I felt at being born between two cultures. Early on I had an acute sense of the cultural clash between the social values tied up in both languages. I suppose, that in some way, I still feel guilty about being Daddy’s girl and writing in English at all. (qtd. in Williams, 26)

Williams pauses for a moment to consider how other poets might cope with this culture clash. She notes that English speaking poets might, examine idiomatic possibilities, or how dialect can give a certain texture to the poetry, giving it a regional identity’ or they might consider, the adaptation of technical feats such as proest and strains of cynghanedd in the writing’ (26). Williams quotes Deryn Rees-Jones who in thinking about Welshness and Englishness suggests that the reconciliation of binary oppositions might be a successful strategy. Like Rees-Jones, Lewis is not so interested in nationalism and Williams quotes Lewis as saying, ‘Nationalism seems to me like a distraction for the poet’ (26). Williams suggest though that, ‘our context of bilingualism complicates further this reading of exchange or interrogation between identities and differences’ (26).

Williams focuses on a statement by Lewis to exampling her train of thought. Lewis states: ‘If you’re truly bilingual it’s not that there are two languages in your world, but that not everybody understands the whole of your personal speech’ (qtd. in Williams, 27). Williams denies that what Lewis is talking about is ‘neologisms or grammatical deviancy’; rather bilingualism becomes, ‘a sort of simultaneity’ (27). This simultaneity does not refer to synthetic poems (where words from one language are inserted into a poem in another idiom), but it refers to Tzvetan Todorov’s idea of bilingualism involving, ‘the simultaneous existence of more than one cultural model’ which creates ‘dialogism’ (27). According to Williams, Lewis enjoins this model with humour which, ‘liberates anxiety, releases pleasure and importantly in Lewis’ poetry allows her to celebrate the multiple identities that different cultural models exert’ (27). For example, in ‘Oxford Booklicker’, where the narrator imagines, ‘multiple languages, texts and even a metropolis of inhabitants’ which emerge from her after she consumes the books in the library.

Williams, Nerys. ‘Gwyneth Lewis: Taboo and Blasphemy’. Poetry Wales. Vol. 38.3 (Winter 2003). 23-28.

Cywydd and Cynghanedd


In this chapter, Allchin considers the strict traditional Welsh metres. He mentions in oarticular the cywydd, ‘the vehicle of much of the finest writing of the golden age of Welsh poetry’ (1350 – 1500) used by poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym (143). Allchin describes it as, ‘ a new metre, free from the heroic associations of older forms used by the poets of the princes before the fall of the last Welsh prince of Wales in 1282’ (143). The content of the cywydd was preoccupied with, ‘lighter and more personal themes, the vicissitudes of love, the celebration of nature, petitions to a patron, elegies for the departed’ (143). Allchin adds: ‘One of the qualities which marls the whole Welsh tradition is a desire for a kind of epigrammatic terseness, a desire to say much in little’ (143). This is intensified in the cywydd due to its short lines (7 syllables) and its use of cynghanedd. Allchin here quotes J.P. Ward commenting on cynghanedd:

The tight form used successfully, seems to be insisting that the poet emphasise a certain feeling very deeply by making all the words he chooses practice a certain self-denial in reinforcing that feeling. It is almost as though – and this does not at all deny the tremendous facility with which some poets do this – the words are forced into position against their will, and this, paradoxically, makes the strain like bent mental, giving them great tension and power. It makes each different line or phrase seem to belong to and be contained by some over-all hidden idea binding it. (qtd. in Allchin, 143-144)

Allchin sees comparisons between the cywydd and the icon, since the painter of an icon, ‘forces his lines to practice a certain self denial , so that the whole picture may become the vehicle of some “overall hidden idea binding it” ’ (144). Of course, the cywydd is not always used to represent religious content, but Allchin is aware that, ‘[t]he liturgical function is there is the background, and the whole way in which the poet’s work is understood in Wales to this day, as a public, as well as personal act, as being in some sense a service to a whole people, has an unmistakably liturgical flavour to it’ (145).

A.M. Allchin. Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.

Diversity of Tongues: curse of Babel or gift of Pentecost


In this chapter, Allchin uses two religious metaphors to represent two kinds of attitudes towards poetry and language; the story of Babel is associated with a negative feeling about language and the difficulty of communication, while Pentecost celebrates a multiplicity of tongues. Allchin is aware that Pentecost is the more progressive metaphor, since: ‘The unity which the Spirit brings is thus seen as a unity in difference, a unity in freedom, which brings out rather than suppresses the multiplicity, the richness of the universe which God has made’ (126). This vision occurs in the hymns and sermons of N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783 -1872), a Danish theologian who had a great effect on the early leaders of Welsh nationalism. According to Allchin, Grundtvig’s Pentecost is, ‘not […] an isolated wonder, nor […] something altogether without precedent in human history, but rather [it is] the totally unmerited fulfilment of a divine activity which despite the fall has never ceased throughout creation’ (128).

But can different languages co-exist and if so, how? Allchin recommends an appreciation of different languages which emerges from, ‘a vision of the world as made by God in diversity as well as unity, from a vision of a qualitative catholicity of life, which respects and does not destroy human differences and variety’ (138). One answer, according to Allchin, might be to extend a multilingual language policy not only in Wales, but in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. The fact that English people have ignored minor languages to a great extent signal to Allchin, ‘a degree of blindness which is disabling indeed, an unwillingness to recognize the existence of the other and to let him speak in his own terms, which, while it is universal in our fallen humanity, is yet a special affliction of peoples with an imperial past’ (139).

A.M. Allchin. Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.

Praise Poetry in the Welsh Tradition


A.M. Allchin’s study, Praise Above All, is a fascinating study of spirituality and poetry in the Welsh literary tradition. Interestingly Allchin sees poetry as, ‘ultimately a religious act, a sacred act’ (4). For him the roles of priest and poet overlap since: ‘Both are called, in different ways to bless; and to bless (bendicere) in its original meaning is to speak good things, to declare the goodness which is latent in the world around us’ (6). Allchin quotes Les Murray at this point and he agrees with Murray’s suggestion that the creation of art is radiant.

The study focuses on a number of poets significant to Welsh literary history. It discusses Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320 – 70) and his poetry in praise of nature. Allchin notes also that Dafydd ap Gwilym, ‘holds together within the same poem the language of praise and satire’ (18). Allchin also analyses poems by Edward Prys (1543/4 – 1623), a poet influenced by Welsh and English poetic traditions. According to Allchin, the achievements of these earlier poets were carried forward by religious writers of Wales, such as a leader of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, Thomas Jones of Denbigh (1756 – 1820). Writers like Jones carried on the complicated metrical forms used by Dafydd ap Gwilym and others.

The twentieth century brought new Welsh religious poets such as Saunders Lewis (1893 – 1985), Waldo Williams(1904 – 1971), Gwenallt (1899 – 1968) and Euros Bowen (1904-89).. Allchin associates these poets with the Welsh word synhwyrus which he goes on to explain in detail:

It is an adjective which means ‘perceived by the senses’. It is not sensitive, for that has a gentle almost feeble sound to it in English, and synhwyrus is strong and active.

A.M. Allchin. Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.


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