February 08, 2005

Opening the Door (As Published in Acumen)

Writing about web page http://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/

4 out of 5 stars

Welsh poetry has a history spanning 14 centuries, from Taliesin in the 6th century to the poets who compete to be bardd at the Royal National Eisteddfodau of Wales every year. This new anthology of 20th century Welsh poets in translation collects the most acclaimed Welsh-language poets in an anthology with enough space to prove their quality and diversity. The collection progresses from the nature lyrics of I.D. Hooson to the parables of Nesta Wyn Jones, from Second World War poet, Hedd Wyn, to the strict metre of Allan Llwyd. Welsh publishing houses like Seren, Honno and Gomer have laboured to promote these Welsh-language poets, but it is a unique event for this anthology to be published by Bloodaxe, an English press. At last, Welsh literature may cultivate a readership outside its national boundaries and perhaps even internationally. John Rowlands' informative, if dry, introduction announces, "my audience is not necessarily an English one, but an English reading one".

This is a very admirable project, but one dissenting voice questions its validity – that of poet and musician, Twm Morys. Morys refused to contribute to the anthology, since he proclaims, "I'm speaking with Welsh-speaking people – if others want to join in, well they can bloody well learn the language." Rowlands tries to deflate this anxiety by highlighting the global audience who now have access to these poets, but Twm Morys' protest reverberates silently in the absence of the Welsh originals, which were not included alongside the English translations. Morys' view is extreme and exclusive, but his comment illustrates a fundamental Welsh anxiety that exists between the binaries of inclusive versus exclusive, tradition versus modernity, Welsh versus English. Most Welsh poets exist in a no man’s land between opposing forces.

This collection has a great deal of support from Welsh writers and further afield. The anthology is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation and translators include the most prominent members of the Welsh literary scene, including Gillian Clarke, Tony Conran, Robert Minhinnick and Peter Finch. Most of the translations are faithful and innovative, but there are a few instances where the translator’s motives eclipse the depth of the poet's content. For example, 'Hon' by T.H. Parry-Williams is translated by Emyr Humphreys as 'This One', ignoring the feminine construction of the Welsh word. The feminine emphasis of Parry Williams’ title is crucial, because it invokes the trope of the femme fatale – his country is a woman with inescapable charms.

The female body is traditionally a great source of anxiety for Welsh male poets. “Dy wallt aur I dwyllo dyn”, writes an anonymous poet of the 15th century. Perhaps this tension explains the absence of women in Welsh-language poetry. Three quarters of the writers in this anthology are male. This is not a fault of the editors, but an unavoidable resonance of Welsh history. The women writers who do appear are outstanding; writers like Gwyneth Lewis, Mererid Hopwood and Elin Llwyd Morgan, who address the problem of writing in a language and literary form dominated by men. Elin Llwyd Morgan’s poem, ‘The Contemporary Jezebel’, interrogates traditional tropes of womanhood. Llwyd Morgan’s response is defiant describing “a switchblade in her beauty” and “the murderer in her eyes”. The excess of imagery mounts to a crescendo in which the woman becomes omnipotent, yet Llwyd Morgan presents the male suppliant with the very thing he cannot face – the woman’s humanity:

[…] for there’s no comfort
in knowing,
in his blackest hour,
that the contemporary Jezebel
owns a conscience.

Llwyd Morgan liberates the stereotypical muse of Welsh male poets by injecting the ‘Jezebel’ with a dose of humanity. The woman is not a detached force plotting the entrapment of men, but a vulnerable human subject equal in her sensations to men.

Modern Welsh-language poets are pioneering and subversive in sculpting the future of poetry with the demand that it should leap beyond its own conventions and culture. This anthology allows the traditional epiphanic, imagistic verse to stand alongside modern poetry that extends itself beyond the limits of its nationality. There is no better example of a modern, global Welsh-language poet than the editor, Menna Elfyn, whose poems are included. Elfyn's project is to reinvent the Welsh language as an active political agent capable of investigating the contemporary world. For example, ‘Broadway Morning’ observes a welcoming bore da from the mouth of an Iraqi.

Wales boasts one of the oldest poetic traditions in the world, but its Welsh-language poetry has been ignored beyond the limits of its language. This anthology is a great achievement. Its diverse collection gives a taste of the riches that remain in Wales and the Welsh language. For too long Wales has shut its doors on the rest of the world. This anthology is successful in its aim to make Welsh-language poetry more accessible to wider audience. As Gwyneth Lewis states, "Only rich cultures are hungry for news of the outside world – paradoxically, voracity is a sign of plenitude."

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