March 06, 2007

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.

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