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January 12, 2011

Unravelling the title poem of The Secret.

Some students at Cardiff High School are currently reading my first collection The Secret and their teacher, Samantha Williams, has asked me if I could talk a bit more about my use of intertextuality in the title poem of The Secret published in 2007.


The Secret

A peculiar symptom in those poisoned by Belladonna is the complete loss of voice.
— Medical Dictionary

Dyma’r Wyddfa a’i chriw; dyma lymder, a moelni’r tir.
They said: Why do you want to go to that place? There is nothing
to see. And I said: But I like its name. It means “snow” and “death”.
It has something to do with the colours of red and green. So,

they were talking about the war, the table still uncleared
in front of them. Centuries of hate divide the Severn channel
from the Welsh. Far away, dark before the shining exit gates,
some place was waiting, its features unrecognizable.

I was born in the place on a slope few see that falls westwardly
like the feel of a pulse in the dark when I stay up all night.
Its name – how impossible! A piece of grass on the tongue
kidneys slipped from silk or striding the night for speckled eggs.

_But me your work is not the best for–nor your love the best,
nor able to commend the kind of work for love’s sake._
I am a settler East of the River, but back I have come
wintering in a dark without window at the heart of the house.


‘The Secret’ was essentially a poem about Wales, based on T.H. Parry Williams’s poem ‘Hon’. ‘The Secret’ begins with a line from ‘Hon’ written in Cymraeg, the Welsh language; it personifies Mount Snowden (Yr Wyddfa), but compares the mountain’s power with the poverty and bareness of the land below. Parry Williams asks whether it matters that he was born in Wales. Isn’t it just accident or chance that causes one to be born in a particular place? Why does it matter? Why feel any affiliation to that place?

‘The Secret’ is not only an exploration of feelings about place, however. It’s also a manifesto that refers to a number of poets who were important for my poetics when I was writing this poem.


Jon Ash
When I was writing this poem, I was very influenced by Jon Ash, an expatriate British poet and writer. Ash lives in Istanbul in Turkey, a city where I spent a formative summer as a student. He is a surreal, idiosyncratic and witty writer, and in ‘The Secret’, I refer to his book The Anatolikon, a book exploring place and history (see this review).


Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is an American poet who tends to write about what it is to be black and female. When I was a teenager, she really influenced me, simply because she had such a powerful voice. She wasn’t passive but active, not meek but angry and defiant. In ‘The Secret’, I reference her poem ‘London’, in which she describes how


Centuries of hate divide St. George’s
channel and the Gaels


I remember liking the idea in this poem that the English channel is a site of contest between the English and their others: the foreigners in Europe. I related this idea to the Welsh and English and the Severn Channel between them, but I thought too, that for certain kinds of nationalists, it isn’t enough merely to be on the right side of the border. Just living near the border can make you suspect or not Welsh enough. Consequently, the Welsh are not only divided from the English but recoil from the border itself in ‘The Secret’.


Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry is simply some of the most beautiful to ever have been translated into the English language. He was originally from Prague and he led a tumultuous life. Following the philosophies of the German dramatist Henrich von Kleist, Rilke believed that there were three ways of being in the world: superconsciousness (gods, angels, higher powers), having no sense of consciousness (e.g. inanimate objects, animals), or being self-conscious (human beings). Being self-conscious was the most difficult, according to Rilke, because it meant always having doubts and anxieties about one’s life.

In ‘The Secret’, I refer to Rilke’s poem ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes’, which tells the story of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to save his lost love Eurydice. You can read the story from Greek myth here if you don’t know it. The key moment of the story is when, in order for Eurydice to follow Orpheus out of the underworld, Orpheus is instructed that he must never look back. He has to trust that Eurydice is behind him following. Orpheus can’t resist the temptation to look back, however, and when he does, Eurydice disappears. In his version of the tale, Rilke lingers on this moment:


And when suddenly
the god stopped her and, with anguish in his cry,
uttered the words: ‘He has turned round’ –
she comprehended nothing and said softly: ‘Who?’

But far off, darkly before the bright exit,
stood someone or other, whose features
were unrecognisable. Who stood and saw
how on the strip of path between meadows,
with mournful look, the god of messages
turned, silently, to follow the figure
already walking back by that same path,
her steps confined by the long grave-cloths,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

(Read the full poem at this link ).


I reference this moment in ‘The Secret’, but instead of a person being unreachable, a place is out of reach.


Thomas Hardy
The novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy have been a huge influence on me. I studied The Return of the Native as a school student, and went on to read Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure, as well as Hardy’s poems. Hardy is wonderful at writing about losses and disappointments. He also gives place, landscape and nature a huge significance, so that the background of the heroes and heroines is like a character itself. ‘The Secret’ references his moving poem, ‘I Found Her Out There’:


I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the salt-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.


The poem was written for Hardy’s wife, Emma, after she had died. It is a moving poem, which the place described again becomes a larger-than-life character witnessing the sombre reflections.

By referencing Hardy, I am admitting my indebtedness to him, but I am also identifying the narrator as one of Hardy’s women. In his novels, Hardy’s female characters (e.g. Tess, Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native, Bathsheba Everdine in Far from the Madding Crowd) are often temperamental, capricious, and emotional. The narrator of ‘The Secret’ is one of Hardy’s women speaking back.


John Burnside
Burnside is a Scottish poet and novelist and I admire his work very much for its intricate description of place and feeling. I reference his poem ‘The Myth of the Twin’, in which he describes how, at night, he has the feeling that someone is awake in his grandfather’s house. The poem is dream-like and surreal like a waking nightmare, and he describes at one point ‘a feel of a pulse in the dark’: someone or something is out there in the darkness. I used this line to describe the narrator’s quest to discover home or place: a sense that something is there waiting if only she could find it.


Marina Tsvetaeva
I have written about the Russian poet Tsvetaeva quite a bit on this blog (see here ), because I admire her work greatly. Tsvetaeva lived through some tumultuous times in Russia in the early twentieth century, but she produced some beautiful love poems including a favourite of mine: the sequence ‘Poem for Blok’, a tribute to the other great Russian poet, Alexander Blok. In the first poem of this sequence, Tsvetaeva tries to define Blok’s name using a display of startling images:


A bird in the hand is your name,
An icicle on the tongue is your name,
One movement of your lips is your name,
Five letters is your name.
A ball caught in the flight it is,
A silver tambourine between the lips,
(Read the full poem here at this link)


I similarly try to define the name of my home country.


Gillian Clarke
The image of kidneys in ‘The Secret’ is a reference to the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke. Clarke often writes about the harshness of farm life in Wales: the slaughtering of animals and the cycles of life. She has been a huge influence on my writing, simply because she writes so clearly and so powerfully about what it is to be a woman and Welsh.


David Morley
David Morley was my tutor at Warwick University and supervised my PhD on Welsh women’s poetry. He is also an acute and sensitive observer of nature and place, and though he is a poet, he began life as a zoologist. The reference to searching for speckled eggs is from Morley’s poetry, especially the way that he negotiates the relationship between the life processes of nature and the needs of human beings.


Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
During the period when I was writing this poem, I had been reading poems by the nineteenth-century English poet, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. The nineteenth century was by no means easy for women in terms of gaining the same opportunities as male writers, but there is some incredible poetry by women like Barett-Browning and Christina Rossetti.

‘The Secret’ refers to Barrett-Browning’s novel-in-verse, Aurora Leigh, which tells of the trials and tribulations of a young woman who wants to be a poet. A key moment is when Aurora rejects a marriage proposal from her suitor Romney; he wants her to give up her poetry and go with him to be a missionary. Aurora refuses and pities women who give up their work for love:


I do not blame such women, though, for love,
They pick much oakum; earth’s fanatics make
Too frequently heaven’s saints. But me your work
Is not the best for,-nor your love the best,
Nor able to commend the kind of work
For love’s sake merely. Ah, you force me, sir,
To be over-bold in speaking of myself,-
I, too, have my vocation,-work to do

(Read the full poem on Google Books )



Li Po
Referencing the Chinese “wandering poet” Li Po seemed important for this poem about seeking home and belonging. The line about being a settler east of the river refers to his poems, but it was also appropriate because at that time I was living east of the Severn in England.


Sylvia Plath
The final line is a reference to Plath’s poem ‘Wintering’ (read it here ).

June 11, 2007

Kenneth R. Smith on ‘The Portrait Poem: Reproduction of Mothering’

Mother and Child

Smith begins by noting the link between national mythologies and national identities and he suggests that ‘these archetypes, these symbols of the nation, tend to abstract the culture beyond the access of individual experience, and to certain extent beyond tangible understanding’ (48). In contrast Smith sets up the ‘portrait poem’ as a mode that deals with individual human experience. The portrait poem is similar to a parise poem in its ‘remembering, portraying, exemplifying’, but the praise poem only deals with ‘legendary figures or with the dead’ (48). While praise poems are ‘extraordinary, beyond reality pr life, and are aimed at social memory’, portrait poems are ‘critical or satirical, they deal with the ordinary, and are aimed at social reproduction’ (48).

Smith refers to R.S. Thomas’ demand for the ‘winnowing of the people’ and to Caradog Evans’ ironic stories and poems. Smith describes the purpose of such poetics as ‘meant to reveal the impurities and feelings of inferiority which are stifling in the true expression of national character (48). While the praise poem looks back to an ‘irretrievable past’, the portrait poem offers images of ‘portending cultural demise’ (48). Yet in each mode of writing, the representation of the culture and community is all important:

The poet, as a representative of the people, adopted from the bardic tradition, uses imagination to recreate the reality of the people’s existence in a way which they can understand. Even though at times this may take the form of poetic or mythopoetic thought, Thomas would maintain that these are representations of the true national character […] (48)

Sometimes reproduction of nation in portrait poems is done for political purposes in the hope of changing the status quo. Smith suggests that this is the case in Sally Roberts-Jones’ collection Turning Away. Roberts-Jones uses the English sonnet form to present portraits of politicians. Smith notes that while the verse form signals ‘the confinement of office’, it also ‘offers a form which can carry a moral message or cynical twist in the final couplet’ (48). The subject of Roberts-Jones’ poems is often forgotten or silenced parts or subjects in Wales and Smith offers analysis of ‘Dic Sion Dafydd Returns to the Valley’, a poem about lost community and the lack of opportunity for new generations.

Roberts-Jones’ collection, Relative Values, sticks to notions of lineage and heritage. Smith notes that in this collection, the grandmother plays a significant role as the gatekeeper of the family memory. In poems such as ‘Not a Tolpuddle Martyr’, ‘The Painting’ and ‘Dressmaker in the Nineties’ (earlier poem), the grandmother ‘reproduces in her grandchildren the memories of the family, much as the poet passes on those of the society’ (50).

Smith compares the grandmother-grandchild relationship to the mother-child relationship and he suggests that the grandmother’s distance from the child allows her a special bond with the child. The mother-child relationship is quite problematic for Welsh writers and Smith sees it as being influenced by Nancy Chodorow’s book, The Reproduction of Mothering. Smith quotes Chodorow who suggests that mothering is passed on from mother to daughter. The representation of mothering in Welsh poetry unfolds in two ways according to Smith, ‘as the poet tries to portray her own mother, or a daughter’s view of a mother, and as she tries to represent the mother’s view, or herself as a mother’ (50). Smith describes this as the ‘winnowing’ of mothers.

Smith turns to Ruth Bidgood’s sequence, ‘Seven Found Poems’, and to the particular poem, ‘Grievance’, which takes the form of a letter written in 1712 from Alice Owen to her mother. The poem reveals how the narrator has always been expected to be second best in the family: ‘the prerequisite of a good mother’ as Smith notes sarcastically. Bidgood’s poem, ‘Letter’, also portrays a woman who must give up her own wants and desires for the good of the family. Through Tony Curtis’ analysis, Smith finds similarities in Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a collection of letter-poems which in some places examine the subjugation of women by husband and family.

Drawing on Tillie Olsen’s Silences, Smith suggests that Welsh women writers are preoccupied with having to put others first and the repression that this practice causes. He quotes from Jean Earle’s poem, ‘Time’, a silent woman serves a group of men, yet she comes to understand time through her silent observation of the world. Similarly, Earle’s poem, ‘Summer’, suggests, according to Smith, ‘that women have an instinct for the natural order which they are privileged to through self-sacrifice’ (52). Chiming with Chodorow’s theorising, Earle seems to believe that women’s views are hugely influenced by their role as carers and mothers. The reproduction of mothering is obvious in Earle’s poem, ‘Daughters’ Houses I and II’ in which she imagines her daughters as mothers. Smith concludes that the role of mother is seen as ‘a natural, inevitable, [sic] situation fro women, without questioning the imposition of mothering, that is nurturing, maintenance, education, and entertainment of children, upon childbearers’ (51).

While women writing in Wales do not seem to have embraced radical changes in the structure of the family, they are very much concerned with the relationship between mothers and children. Smith quotes Nan Bauer Maglin who suggests that there are five aspects in portraits of mothers:
1. The collective speaking voice of the daughter-poet who speaks beyond her individual concerns.
2. Admiration for the mother’s strength.
3. The telling of the matrilineage or women’s familial history.
4. Maintaining a balance between sympathising with the mother and addressing conflicts.
5. The expression of anger and grief at the silence between mother and daughter.

Smith suggests that while the first three elements can be seen in Roberts-Jones, Bidgood and Earle, to address the other aspects, he needs to turn to other poets.

One of these is Gillian Clarke who offer portrait poems that are ‘significantly different […] because they show motherhood from a personal, self-revealing stance which initiates the reader into the conflicts of a woman tied to her children and the hostilities between a mother and daughter’ (52). In Clarke’s poems, the view is far less nostalgic and children sometimes appear in poems to interrupt the thoughts of the narrator as in ‘St Thomas’s Day’. Other poems such as ‘Community’ consider how ‘[a] dependence is established in which the mother satisfies the needs of the family’, while ‘Sundial’ describes the mother caged by concern for her sick child (52). In poems like these, the mother must sacrifice her own needs for those of others, but in other poems, such as ‘Letter from a Far Country’, this is challenged.

Clarke’s poems about mothers and daughters are particularly highly charged and Smith associates them with factors 4 and 5 in Maglin’s account of mother-portraits. In poems like ‘Sunshine’, ‘Catrin’ and ‘Ice Queen’, the daughter rebels against the silence inherited by the mother from her own mother and the mother responds by feeling both hurt and glad for her daughter. The chain in the reproduction of mothering is broken.

I can remember you, our first
Fierce confrontation, the tight
Red rope of love which we both fought
over …
(From Clarke’s poem ‘Catrin’).

Gillian Clarke on ‘Beginning with Bendigeidfran’

Gillian Clarke begins her essay with reference to the mythical character of the giant, Bendigeidfran: ‘It seems to have begun with Bendigeidfran, his rhythmic syllables, the imprint of his huge foot on the shore, and the rocking stone of the headland that had been the apple in the giant’s pocket’ (287). The land and poetic language seem to have a close relationship in Clarke’s vision as even stones ‘bear messages that seem to be coded or in languages I could not understand’ (287).

In her poetics, Clarke draws on Seamus Heaney and a poetic imagination that is rooted in childhood and she suggests that ‘this rich source of poetry is especially available for women’ (286). The reasoning behind this is that girls start to read earlier and consequently advance in language sooner. Clarke’s fear seems to revolve around the Welsh tongue which ‘took on the nature of a forbidden tongue, a language of secrets from which I at first felt merely excluded, and later learned to value as something stored’ (289). In poems like ‘Dw^r’, Clarke began to use Welsh language words and so to enrich her poetry further.

Our Sister’s Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales. Ed. Jane Aaron, Teresa Rees, Sandra Betts and Moira Vincentelli. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994. (287-293).


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