April 10, 2010

Babel or Pentecost? Gwyneth Lewis' Poem 'Pentecost'.

In interview with Richard Poole, the poet Gwyneth Lewis describes how the poetic traditions of England and Wales have different tendencies depending on the language in which they were written. She compares the traditional metres of English verse with the lyricism and prosody of poetry in Cymraeg and she suggests that transference of traditional poetic techniques from one language to the other can be beneficial, especially when it offers the remedy of Cymraeg’s music for English poetry’s ‘flat-footedness’ (1995a: 28).

In thinking about Lewis’ vision of language, Angharad Price uses the symbolism of the Biblical story of Babel to describe Lewis’ attitude to poetic language. The story of Babel appears in Genesis and it tells how human beings decide to further their power by building a tower that reaches up to God. God destroys the tower and divides the people by instilling different idioms in different groups:

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build a city. Therefore the name of it is called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11: 8-9)

Themes of the Babel story, such as linguistic division and nostalgia for a protolanguage, are used by Price to describe Lewis’ practice and she notes how Lewis, ‘has described the double-edged venture of that other bilingual creature, the translator, who ignores God’s hand in the creation of the Tower of Babel, as one that is conciliatory and blasphemous at the same time’ (Price 1999: 51). Price suggests that for Lewis, bilingualism has dictated that she, ‘view every individual language as a reflection of the Ursprache, the “Holy Writ” of which Walter Benjamin spoke’ (49). In this view, Lewis is preoccupied with Ursprache, the German word for a protolanguage from which all other languages have derived. As Walter Benjamin states in his essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’ (to which Price refers), while a translation cannot ‘claim permanence,’ it might direct one to ‘the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages’ (Benjamin 1992: 75-76). Price concludes: ‘For a Christian poet such as Gwyneth Lewis, the words of any language are paths leading to God’s original Word’ (Price 1999: 49).

It is not surprising that the Babel metaphor pervades criticism by Price and others, since in Wales, there do seem to be powerful unwritten rules about what you can or cannot do with language and there is a prevailing desire for linguistic purity. Counterparts in Scotland seem to have embraced deterritorialising techniques, for example Hugh Macdiarmid’s synthetic Scots (or Lallands) that blends and combines different versions of Scottish languages, yet not much experimentation of this nature has been recognised in Wales.The focus is on the purity of language, so that to be a poet in Wales, you must write in English or in Cymraeg but not both. Some writers in Cymraeg have even refused even to be translated. Twm Morys states that when writing in Cymraeg, he is, ‘speaking with Welsh-speaking people’ and he adds: ‘If others would like to join in, well they can bloody well learn the language!’ (2003: 55).

Price is right to note that the English idiom and Cymraeg are intimately connected in Lewis’ writing, yet underlying the Babel symbolism is the assumption that diversity of languages is negative and there is a desire to make languages into the same, to create an omniscient protolanguage or even a mother-tongue. The Babel metaphor does not allow room for the notion of glossolalia as a gift or for the creative chaos of deterritorialisation. In searching for a religious metaphor to express Lewis’ practice, A.M. Allchin contrasts Babel with the spirit of Pentecost. Occurring in the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles, the Pentecost story tells how the apostles are visited by the Holy Spirit which enables them to speak in new languages:

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. And when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language. (The Acts of the Apostles 2.3-6)

On one level this story is a pragmatic rendering of the universality in the apostles’ message about Christianity, yet it also celebrates difference of language and culture and allows for each individual to retain that difference. Allchin suggests that Pentecost has more progressive symbolism than Babel because it celebrates a multiplicity of tongues: ‘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’ (1991: 126). 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). As in the metaphor of Pentecost, Lewis celebrates diversity in languages and being bilingual, she is able to appreciate both their similarities and their differences, because any language is ‘only a servant in the project of praising God’ (1995a: 27).

It is no coincidence that the opening poem of Lewis’ first collection, Parables and Faxes, is entitled ‘Pentecost’ and this poem will be analysed in detail as an example of deterritorialisation. The poem is typically idiosyncratic in its use of language and the deterritorialisation of the English idiom can be seen to full effect. As the title indicates, the subject matter taps into Lewis’ spiritual vision of language:

See the poem here: http://www.slope.org/archive/eight/lewis.html Or you can look it up in Lewis’ Chaotic Angels (2005a: 10).

The stanza of ‘Pentecost’ uses a sestet with a regular rhyme pattern with rhymes, half rhymes and proest between: lines one and four; lines two and three; and lines five and six. In addition, lines one and four use the same rhyme in each stanza, a technique reminiscent of verse forms like the awdl and cywydd, in which main rhyme is repeated throughout the poem.

The traces of these strict verse forms are accompanied by use of proest and cynghanedd and all of these techniques combine to reproduce an important characteristic of Cymraeg poetry described by Allchin: ‘One of the qualities which marks the whole Welsh tradition is a desire for a kind of epigrammatic terseness, a desire to say much in little’ (1991; 143). Allchin sees comparisons between Welsh verse forms and the religious icon, since the painter of an icon, ‘forces his lines to practice a certain self denial’ in order to convey universal spiritual messages (144). Similarly, Lewis’ use of cynghanedd is not simply a matter of prosody. J.P. Ward is adamant that cynghanedd is not simply, ‘a matter of ornamentation’ but the form demands ‘that the poet emphasize a certain feeling very deeply by making all the words he chooses practice a certain self-denial in reinforcing that feeling’ (1978: 3). For Ward, the effect is that of feeling that ‘the words are forced into position against their will, and this, paradoxically, makes them strain like bent mental, giving them great tension and power’ (3). Similarly, cynghanedd ‘makes each different line or phrase seem to belong to and be contained by some over-all hidden idea binding it’ (3). The reproduction of these techniques not only evokes Welsh terseness in the English idiom, but also displays a larger vision which comments on catholic acceptance of the gift of languages and the blurring of minor and major idioms.

Nerys Williams notes how the poem, ‘Pentecost,’ ‘alerts us immediately to the gift of languages or “glossolalia”, which enables the speaker’s safe passage through the checkpoints of Europe to Florida’ (2003: 25). Ian Gregson suggests that this gift of more than one language indicates ‘a dialogic […] view of experience’ (2007: 65), and he sees this dialogism evoked via the ‘Christian idea of speaking in tongues’ as potentially problematic for Lewis as it represents ‘speakers’ being ‘invaded by alien voices’ (65). A more positive reading of ‘Pentecost’, however, sees the poem as a celebration of travel, communication and exploration. Lewis’ deterritorialisation might then work not only to promote an ethos of catholicity and a celebration of human difference.

The poem begins as a kind of hymn or sermon (‘The Lord wants me to go to Florida…’ (Lewis 2005a: 10.1)) and in the spirit of Pentecost is a rhapsody of prosody. This kind of poetry would seem to correspond with a general characteristic of Welsh poetry described by H.I. Bell as, ‘a peculiar sensitiveness to the music of words’ (1936: 5). To Bell, this represents, a ‘love of accomplished and eloquent speech’ as in the case of the peculiar speaking manner of the Welsh preacher (labelled with the Cymraeg word, hwyl) (6). The opening line begins with a description of a religious mission and the stress on ‘Lord’ and the first syllable of ‘Florida’ is highlighted as the two stresses resemble a “cynghanedd lusg or drag Harmony”:http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/the_measures_of/ where one syllable in the first half of the line chimes with the penultimate syllable. The rigidity of the form is counter-balanced by the ghostly speaker who can slip through borders much as Lewis slips between the conventions of Welsh and English. Lewis’ metaphor of the “mercury thieves” is telling, since it refers to the drifters that invade Florida when the mercury in the thermometer plunges in the northern states of the US.

This visit, however, is not simply an unauthorised plundering of Florida sunshine, but a mission from God revealing Lewis’ spiritual vision of language. The journey to Florida has been foretold recounted not only by ancient prophecies but via the modern fax: a bathetic twist to the religious mystery. The speaker’s guardian angel, too, belongs to a mundane East European checkpoint rather than a mystical vision. Creatures of everyday life, like birds, appear as heavenly messengers and helpers sent to distract the guards. These accomplice birds are described as uniformed, but the distracted guards are not. This confusion is emphasised by the proest between ‘birds’ and ‘guards,’ which seems to indicate that the two are interchangeable or at least that the birds have as much force in their uniforms as the guards do. When the speaker does describe the bird’s behaviour, the prosody is reminiscent of cynghanedd with the chiming of the word ‘act,’ the second syllable of ‘natural’ and the second syllable of ‘distract.’ There is a kind of uncanniness about the reappearance of familiar sounds that creates a sense of fatefulness, while the adherence to strict rules indicates the poet’s self denial as described by Allchin and Ward. The expression, ‘to act unnatural,’ is characteristic of South Walean dialects when in colloquial practice adverbs are replaced with adjectives. In the spirit of the title, ‘Pentecost,’ to act unnaturally might refer to the act of writing in complicated forms and to the kind of linguistic play in which Lewis engages here.

The speaker of ‘Pentecost’ passes ‘unhindered’ through the border thanks to this linguistic play and she describes how her glossolalia, the possibility of speaking spontaneously in an unknown language, is stamped on her passport. What is on the speaker’s tongue though, is not a fiery flame but rather ‘the tang / of travel on the atlas of my tongue’ (2005a: 10.8-9). In this example, ‘tang’ chimes with ‘tongue,’ ‘shall’ chimes with the second syllable of ‘travel,’ while ‘taste’ and ‘atlas’ echo each other too. One effect of this prosody is to escape into a sound-world, where the sensual experience of language is paramount and where prosody even supersedes the speaker’s persona.

This speaker is only ‘a slip of a girl,’ a colloquial expression that indicates frailty, but it is her gift of tongues that translates her into ‘a standing flame,’ a servant of God whose purpose is to convey a spiritual message that praises linguistic difference (10.13-14). The speaker refers to the Bulgarian city of Sofia where ‘thousands converted’, gesturing to the city’s movement from Byzantine to Ottoman rule, while her description of ‘hundreds slain/ […] along the Seine’ recalls the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris (10.17-18). The imagery recalls the violent imagery of Babel, but in spite of these images of miscommunication, the narrator’s religious mission iis not without hope.

Possibilities are available in the linguistic experimentation with the English idiom in the US. Lewis explains how during a period of study in the US, she spent much time, ‘looking at the worst of American cultural excesses,’ but she finally realised that the US was a site of both restriction and freedom: ‘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’ (Lewis 2005b: 9). In ‘Pentecost,’ the possibilities of language in the US seem fruitful, when, in another cynghanedd-like rhapsody, the speaker calls on Florida to ‘prepare your perpetual Pentecost’ (Lewis 2005a: 10.21). This religious experience is not mystically rendered but constructed by mundane objects of consumer culture, perhaps the excesses that Lewis complains of in interview. Deryn Rees-Jones reads the US context of the poem negatively and she states: ‘Such speaking in tongues is to be admired, and works as a metaphor for secular many-tonguedness, but such abilities are simultaneously seen less positively in the context of European war and American capitalism and globalisation’ (Rees-Jones 2005: 191). Rees-Jones is right to point out that Lewis sometimes feels ambiguously about the effect of linguistic and hence cultural separation, but I would like to unpack the lines that follow Lewis’ indictment of consumer culture.

These lines turn to a site of nature, the Florida orange groves, and it is here that the speaker finds the flame of Pentecost. Just as orange groves are generated from sunlight, so the graves described seem to hold the possibility of sweet fruit for a future. Proest is used once again to emphasise this point through the chiming between ‘groves’ and ‘graves’ and through using a kind of gair cyrch or an echo: ‘groves’ and ‘graves’ have a proest-like chiming with the word ‘hives’ in the first line of the next stanza. The emphasis on ‘groves,’ ‘graves’ and ‘hives’ signals a movement from fruitfulness to death to a new productivity and this again reflects the spirit of Pentecost, which represents the new age following the resurrection of Christ. The language of the US is celebrated here for its plainness (‘spelt plainly’), its explosive energy (‘hand grenades’) and for what makes it different to the treatise which deals with a particular subject systematically and formally, rather than creatively.

Like her mentor at University of Columbia, Joseph Brodsky, Lewis retains a love for the power of American linguistic experimentation. Lewis describes Brodsky’s feeling of admiration for ‘the throwaway remark, the catch-all in American speech’ and she suggests that that, ‘he recognised that [popular culture] was where vitality in language is,’ quoting him as saying: ‘What rots is what’s alive’ (Lewis 2005b: 11). In Lewis’ view, Brodsky equates decomposition with linguistic energy and growth and this seems to be the hidden meaning of the equivalent ‘groves,’ ‘graves’ and ‘hives.’ Lewis refers not only to separate languages but also to languages that run into one another, languages that are decomposing and languages that evolve. The gift of tongues as it exists in the US is celebrated and in the final line, God closes the gap between Europe and the US: ‘He shifts his continent: / Atlantic closes’ (Lewis 2005a: 10.36-36).It is no surprise that in interview, Lewis is adamant that it was her reading and experience in the US that began encouraging her to write in English, ‘showing me that it was possible to do that’ (2005b: 11).

To conclude, while ‘Pentecost’ praises the experimentation with language that occurs in the US, Lewis performs that very linguistic play using her own experience of Cymraeg to subvert the English idiom. Behind the epigrammatic terseness, the chiming of cynghaned and proest, Lewis is spelling out a serious message about languages and identity. Like the painter of icons who conveys a spiritual truth, Lewis’ poetic mechanics are working in a state of decreation. The rigours of Cymraeg’s poetic forms recreate a spiritual vision that undermines the notion of major versus minor languages, and instead allows all languages and versions of languages equal importance.

The protolanguage of Babel is a fallacy for Lewis, because the myth of purity is restrictive for the poet. Deterritorialisation is ruled by chaos, deconstruction and the unravelling of ‘proper language.’ This is the gift of glossolalia, because the Pentecost story emerges from a spirit that celebrates diversity and to ignore such a message indicates, according 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’ (1991: 139). To allow for difference in language or for different versions of languages represents an act that rises above what Allchin calls our ‘fallen humanity’ gesturing towards spiritual states of salvation, mercy and grace.



Allchin, A.M. (1991) Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/diversity_of_tongues/

Bell, H.I. (1936) The Development of Welsh Poetry, Oxford: Clarendon Press. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/general_characteristics_of/

Benjamin, Walter (1992) ‘The Task of the Translator’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana: 70-82.

Lewis, Gwyneth (1995a) ‘Gwyneth Lewis talks to Richard Poole’, Poetry Wales 31:2: 24-29. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/extracts_from_an/
—(1995b) ‘On writing poetry in two languages,’ Modern Poetry in Translation 7: 80-83. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/rivers/
—(2005a) Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe.
—(2005b), ‘Gwyneth Lewis in America,’ Interview with Katherine Gray, New Welsh Review 70: 8-13. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/gwyneth_lewis_in/

Morys, Twm (2003), ‘A Refusal to be Translated’ Poetry Wales 38.3: 55.

Price, Angharad (1999), ‘Travelling on the Word-Bus: Gwyneth Lewis’s Welsh Poetry’, PN Review 25.5: 49-51. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/angharad_price_travelling/

Rees-Jones, Deryn (2005) Consorting With Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets, Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe.

Ward, JP. (1978) Editorial, Poetry Wales 14.1: 3-4.

Williams, Nerys (2003), ‘Gwyneth Lewis: Taboo and Blasphemy’, Poetry Wales 38.3: 23-28. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/nerys_williams_on/

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