All 15 entries tagged Gwyneth Lewis

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August 20, 2010

Jen Hadfield and the Inspiration of Place.

This week I have been working away at writing up a profile of the writer Jen Hadfield for the American publisher Scribners and Sons. I always find it useful to immerse myself in other poets’ work and I usually find that, by the time I reach the surface again, I have learned a great deal. When I was writing my PhD thesis, I devoted myself to the poems of Gwyneth Lewis , Pascale Petit and Deryn Rees-Jones, and I still notice their influence on my writing.

With Hadfield though, I am learning new lessons, particularly in terms of writing about place. Many of Hadfield’s poems devote themselves entirely to reconstituting sense experiences in words. The reviewer Stephen Burt suggested that Hadfield’s aim is to produce sensibilia, sense experiences that are usually beyond the human mind. The detail of Hadfield’s poems is astounding and intimate. It presents us with familiar things in an unfamiliar manner. So a flinching hedgehog becomes a flinching kidney in a frying pan, an image that suggests too the vulnerability of animals in human worlds.

Hadfield lives on the Shetland Isles (specifically West Burra), and in interview, she has talked about how the isolation of the place is nourishing. She enjoys the loneliness, but also the dangers from wind and weather, which remind her of her own mortality every day. This experience of weather is quite unusual in Britain (though the snows last winter gave many people an insight into how Britain would cope with extreme weather: not very well!).

Extreme weather is an everyday feature of the USA. Driving across the States this summer, I encountered incredible heat in the desert; long, winding roads alongside sheer drops in the Rockies; and on the way home in the Mid-West a tornado. Living in Pennsylvania, the winter is intimidating too, the snow snapping power lines, blocking roads, drifting up to stop windows and doors. As Hadfield suggests, however, there is something awe-inspiring about seeing this weather at work: an experience is that both humbling and invigorating. This isn’t an especially new insight, but, having lived in the UK for most of my life, the capricious and indomitable weather in the US has come as a wonderful surprise.

August 06, 2010

Poetry Papers at the CWWN Conference

Writing about web page

A paper that I really enjoyed during the conference was by Jane Dowson , who was one of my external examiners for my PhD. We have many interests in common and I was pleased to see Dowson presenting on Kate Clanchy , Pascale Petit and Gwyneth Lewis . Dowson described these poets as inhabiting a New Confessionalism, which needs to be negotiated carefully. Dowson quoted Clare Pollard who suggested that ‘To revert to confessional mode now might be to reaffirm the cultural image of the “Mad Poetess”,’ and she commented on the hostile critical reception faced by Kate Clanchy on the publication of her collection about motherhood Newborn. Dowson condemns the dismissal of confessional poets and uses her ‘new critical grammar’ to discuss Pascale Petit and Gwyneth Lewis. This means:
• paying attention to ‘the unsayable via symbolism, typography, rhythm, self-reflexivity’;
• ‘building alliance with the reader as eavesdropper, confidant/e, listener-subject’;
• being aware of ‘the pleasure and healing of recognition, shared intimacy, community, imaginative expansion’;
• and paying particular attention to intertextuality.

One of my favourite panels from the conference was “Sexuality, Danger and Money in Three Women Poets”. I went along to this panel because it was on three poets that I do not know quite so well; I had never come across Arielle Greenberg or Katy Lederer but I had read a few books by Anne Carson (e.g. Decreation). Unfortunately, I had a farcical moment in this panel where all of my pens ran out of ink at once, so these notes are just from memory and are not quite as detailed as usual.

Darcy L. Brandel discussed Arielle Greeberg’s negotiations of language and violation. She focussed in particular of Greenberg’s interpretation of Marcel Duchamp’s art installation Étant donnés, which presents the viewer with a wooden door that has a peephole for each eye. Through the peepholes can be seen a naked mannequin and a lush landscape. Brandel discussed the ambiguity of this image: is the naked woman/mannequin powerful or powerless? Is she offering an invitation to the viewer or is she being violated? In her analysis of Greenburg’s poem ‘Given’, Brandel offered detailed analysis of the poet’s experimental use of language and outlined the poet’s condemnation of the artwork’s voyeurism: ‘in the afterlife—-is so accommodating a gift / of gaslight murdered by air’.

Next Paul Crossthwaite spoke about Katy Lederer’s collection The Heaven-sent Leaf, a collection of 45 almost-sonnets. Crossthwaite focussed on how Lederer brings together money and poetry comparing the two as systems with economies, values and currencies. Lederer worked as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in midtown Manhattan, and the book was published at the beginning of the downturn in the world economy. Crossthwaite talked (among other things) about how bringing the language of finance into poetry lends it at times a prosiness that is in tension with the sprung and musical lines elsewhere in the poems.

The final paper was presented by Maya Linden on desire, danger and ambivalence in Anne Carson’s poetic form. Linden talked particularly about Carson’s collection Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband focussing on how Carson approaches femininity, masochism and self-destructiveness. Linden seemed to be suggesting that the ambivalence in Carson’s writing is a problem for more conventional feminisms and that there needs to be a more expansive kind of politics to understand Carson’s work.

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: 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”: 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:

Bell, H.I. (1936) The Development of Welsh Poetry, Oxford: Clarendon Press. See:

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:
—(1995b) ‘On writing poetry in two languages,’ Modern Poetry in Translation 7: 80-83. See:
—(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:

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:

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:

May 21, 2007

Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun

This study on depression and melancholia has proved to be extremely interesting and relevant to a poet to be discussed in my PhD thesis, Gwyneth Lewis. Lewis refers to Black Sun in her own book about depression, Sunbathing in the Rain and she writes how Kristeva demands that the depressed subject faces the void that presents itself like a huge black hole. Proceeding with a psychoanalytical approach, Kristeva certainly describes the absence that seems to be at the heart of depression: ‘Absent from other people’s meaning, alien, accident with respect to naïve happiness, I owe a supreme, metaphysical lucidity to my depression’ (4). As Kristeva makes clear in this comment, there are advantages as well as disadvantages in being depressed. Although it provokes extreme suffering, depression can also offer a specific metaphysical view of the world. For Kristeva this view emerges from a confusion of self and other so that ‘we shall see the shadow cast on the fragile self, hardly dissociated from the other, precisely by the loss of that essential other’ (5).

Drawing on concepts such as ‘the death drive’, Kristeva embarks on her analysis of melancholia and depression using ‘a Freudian point of view ‘ and she tries to discover the general issues concerned with object loss (10). Object loss derives from Freud and Melanie Klein and it describes the oscillation between hate and love in the perception of a lost object of desire and the eventual incorporation of that object within oneself as a means of coping with such a confused state of mind. This often leads to self-loathing fro the shadow self that represents the lost object. Hatred that rails against a lost object becomes self-hatred. Kristeva points towards an extreme version of this object loss in which: ‘The depressed narcissist mourns not an Object but the Thing’ (13). According to Kristeva this Thing is ‘the real that does not lend itself to signification, the center[sic] of attraction and repulsion, seat of sexuality from which the object of desire will become separated’ (13). This is the void, the bottomless lack that extreme depressed subjects mourn over and incorporate into themselves. Kristeva uses a metaphor from Nerval to describe it in poetic fashion as ‘an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time’ (13). In wondering how to approach such a state of being, Kristeva recommends a poetic slant tackling the condition ‘through melody, through rhythm, semantic polyvalency, the so-called poetic form, which decomposes and recomposes signs’ (14). Kristeva concludes: ‘For those who are depressed, the Thing like the self is a downfall that carries them along into the invisible and the unnameable’ (15).

April 13, 2007

Towards a Minor Literature (Article for PN Review)

Not rated

Gwyneth Lewis, Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe, 2006). £9.95.

Creu gwir in these stones
Fel gwydr horizons
O ffwrnais awen sing.

This untitled poem is Gwyneth Lewis’ most prominent, as it appears in carved letters on the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff. The poem is preoccupied with gwir or truth and the difficulty of communicating authentically. The problem of defining place is significant, since stones hold fragile horizons of gwydr (glass). The role of the poet is to melt the transparency of glass or truth in the ffwrnais awen, the furnace of the muse or poetic gift. These themes – communication, home, poetic inspiration – are present in Lewis’ Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, which brings together three collections to create a formidable body of work.

Chaotic Angels covers ten years of Lewis’ writing in English encompassing her early collection Parables and Faxes (1995), the playful Zero Gravity (1998) and the pinnacle of her achievement, Keeping Mum (2003). For the first time, the reader is able to map her journey towards the role that Lewis played as the National Poet of Wales. The book suggests the importance of Lewis’ English-language work, yet she is also a poet of Cymraeg (the Welsh language) who describes bilingualism as a feeling that ‘not everyone understands the whole of your personal speech’. One cannot help wondering why a volume mapping the trajectory of Lewis’ work does not include her poetry in Cymraeg, even if we admit the difficulties of co-operation between publishers. (Barddas publishes Lewis’ poetry in Cymraeg.) Yet this choice would seem to fit with Lewis’ poetics when she writes how remaining within one’s native tongue ‘will only take you so far along the route of your experiential journey’.

In their definition of a minor literature, Delueze and Guattari suggest that in order for a minor culture to represent itself it must subvert a major language by de-territorializing that language and making it their own. Lewis’ style is certainly idiosyncratic in its use of the English language, as she synthesises conversational banter and paradoxical sounding maxims. The form looks orderly on the page often in regular stanzas, yet the line breaks often disrupt a train of thought. The metre works to a tune of its own, part influenced by the rhythms of cynghanedd and part devoted to the colloquial dialects that dominate the South Wales Valleys.

The garrulous gossip of English speakers and the ancient rhythms of Cymraeg are often pitted against one another as in ‘Her End’ where Cymraeg is figured as a dying matriarch:

The end was dreadful. Inside a dam burst
and blood was everywhere. Out of her mouth
came torrents of words, da yw dant
i atal tafod, gogiannau’r Tad
in scarlet flower – yn Abercuawg
yd ganant gogau – the blood was black,
full of filth, a well that amazed
with its vivid idioms – bola’n holi ble mae ’ngheg?

The gossipy tone falls into a fairly regular rhythm, but the placing of ‘everywhere’ in the second line induces a pause to contemplate the profusion of the image, of the blood. The expectant line-break after ‘Out of her mouth’ propels us on to the inclusion of the expunged and bloodied language. The phrases in Cymraeg are emphatic (‘good are the teeth to stop the tongue’), avowed (‘the glories of the Father’) and nostalgic (‘in Abercuawg sing the cuckoos’). In contrast, the English-language is associated with examination, description and fascination and cannot build up a similar rhythm. The more cadenced monosyllabic words are broken up when the English speaker becomes self-conscious about language using the word ‘idioms’. The beat of Cymraeg continues even if the message is confused (‘the stomach asks where the mouth is?’). This juxtaposition sets two languages at odds. The English language maintains distance and detachment, while Welsh is inconsistent, confused and elliptic. It is not that Lewis prefers one language over the other, but she displays the extent to which language defines one’s thoughts and identity. The gwir or ‘truth’ desired by Lewis exists in the fragile relationship between minor and major languages.

Like many Welsh poets, Lewis has an ambivalent relationship to home. In ‘Hedge’, the speaker fails to escape her origins; rather she has only ‘pulled up a country’ which is ‘still round my shoulders, with its tell-tale scent’. Yet Lewis will not be bounded by nationality. To Lewis, ‘voracity is a sign of plenitude’ and Lewis is voracious. From the arid culture of the early sequence, ‘Illinois Idylls’ to the perambulatory poems of ‘Parables and Faxes’, Lewis demands new material for Welsh poetry and this desire propels her into the cosmos in ‘Zero Gravity’. Subtitling the sequence, ‘A Space Requiem’, Lewis confounds the journey of her astronaut cousin into space with the death of her sister-in-law: ‘Out of sight? Out of mind? / On her inward journey / she’s travelled beyond…’ Here Lewis is concerned with the invisible and the unseen. The line-break after ‘beyond’ teases and it is never clear what freedom the unknown will bring. Lewis synthesises the macrocosmic and microcosmic so that a journey into outer space becomes a voyage into inner space, yet the outcome of such an experience is nothingness and silence.

In the preface to Keeping Mum, Lewis writes how ‘wordlessness is usually a clue that something more truthful than our account of the world is being approached’. The summit of Keeping Mum and its poetics of silence is the sequence, ‘Chaotic Angels’, from which this new volume derives its name. Lewis creates a new order of divine beings concerned with the invisible, the minor, the silent. ‘Pagan Angel’ transforms the compact muscle of the heart into ‘a chamber whose broody dead / stage pagan rituals’ while the invisible breath of wind creates an Aeolian Harp from ‘stone lintels, making a tune / about absent bodies’. When the question is asked, ‘Where’s the angel acoustic?’, Lewis must answer enigmatically and elliptically: ‘My dear, the curlew. The quickening rain.’

March 07, 2007

Tenuous and Precarious: the Comic Muse

Tom and Jerry

Gwyneth Lewis comments here on the escapology of poetry and the joke. She writes that there are similarities between the joke and the poem:

Both require an unusually masochistic degree of self-revelation or, even, exhibitionism. A certain universality of subject matter is necessary for broad appeal. Topicality helps, but with reliance on older archetypes behind the occasion for satire. The joker must have an ear for common speech. Timing is everything. (17)

Memory is another factor mentioned by Lewis as is a convincing story and characters. Lewis tells a riddle which, she thinks, captures the trick of the joke or poem aptly:

You’re in a sealed room with nothing in it but a table and a mirror. How do you get out? The answer is: You look in the mirror, see what you saw. Take the saw, cut the table in half. Put the two into a whole. Escape through the hole. This kind of wit is an effort to loosen the buckles on the straight-jacket of ordinary thinking. It’s a punning Houdini trick. You could argue that such a play on words is a tautology but I’d say grappling with slightly different spellings of the same word gives you that little half-inch that can change your perspective and allow you to effect an escape from isolation into hilarity. (17)

Rhyme can be an important part of humour in poems and Lewis describes it as, ‘a divining rod straight into our unconscious fears and obsessions’, which is often used as, ‘an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world’ (17, 18). Jokes and poems can, ‘deal with tricky subjects so that the mind can grasp solutions way out to the left of its normal field of vision’ (18).

Lewis compares the relationship of pain and poetry to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which the pair have to play/dance together: ‘The minute the music stops the two are mortal enemies again’ (18). Lewis adds: ‘Miserable poets don’t make better art, but writing can have a therapeutic effect on neurosis if we’re given the safety of rhythm, metre and rhyme to pacify the potentially destructive side-effects of introspection’ (18).

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Tenuous and Precarious: The Comic Muse’. Poetry Review (Fanfare for the Comic Muse). 88.3 (Autumn 1998). 17-19.

Extracts from an Interview with Gwyneth Lewis by Richard Poole

*Lewis on Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill*

I went to the Philippines first on a visit with James Fenton, for whom I was house-sitting while he was being Far East Correspondent for The Independent. While I was there we were asked to be godparents to a friend’s child, who’d been conceived during the momentous events of the People Power uprising which ahs toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. […] The title sequence of Sonedau Redsa was my christening gift to my god-daughter, a sequence of twenty-five sonnets giving a very simple outline of the history of the Philippines up to the Revolution. (25)

Lewis on the role of the Poet

The awareness of the public role of a poet is perhaps inherited from the tradition of Welsh poetry, and does inform my work in both languages. I tend not to be interested in subject matter that’s merely personal. I’m fascinated by history, politics and goings-on out there in the world – and I think this shows in the rest of my work. (25)

Lewis on Poetry and Science

I don’t know that I see poetry and science as diametrically opposed. In fact, they’re both provisional ways of describing a creation which is more than both, so they’re partners in the world. The discarded metaphors of science are of great use to a poet. (25)

Lewis on Saxons versus Celts, the Line versus the Circle

I used the geometric images as shorthand for the values ion two very different cultures – their history is, after all, why different nations have widely varying aesthetics. The heavily elaborated swirls of Celtic art are a reflection of a whole system of religious and political values which have been and are still alien to the more hierarchical Anglo-Saxon model. (26)

Lewis on her Development as a Poet

The big leap forward came for me when I realised that I was primarily a religious poet. This was a tremendous liberation in relation to language because it means that the values which are most important to me reside not in any one language, but beyond language itself. To me language is only a servant in the project of praising God, and can never be an end in itself. Of course I delight in language endlessly, but if you regard it as a wonderful carriage that can only take you part of the way towards expressing what you want, then you don’t get too attached to it or too annoyed when you finally have to get out and walk. (27)

Lewis on Faith

Faith is a gift, which I enjoy to the full when I have it, and I do think that praise is perhaps the most important stance a poet can take, because it puts the rest of the world into perspective. (26)

Lewis on writing in English and Welsh

What is different is the cultural and literary background against which you write, and these are very distinct in Welsh and English. For example, the poetic line in English in always dragging you towards a pentameter or a tetrameter, whereas this isn’t such a familiar sound in Welsh, a fact which can be exploited for the sake of novelty. This principle extends far beyond prosody, because poetry, if it’s any good, always gives us new information – cultural, emotional or spiritual. What’s new is different in Welsh and English, because what’s gone before in both cases is very distinct. Whereas lyricism and the music of words are nothing new in Welsh-language poetry (in fact, an excess of music has been a problem for it), they are new in English verse, which has been suffering to my mind, from a dull flat-footedness in some quarters for quite a while. (28)

Poole, Richard.: “Gwyneth Lewis talks to Richard Poole.” Poetry Wales. Vol. 31:2 (1995), 24-9.



On Writing Poetry in Two Languages
Lewis begins by explaining that she is bilingual (Welsh and English) and that she is interested in how her languages work together

Lewis begins by explaining that she is bilingual (Welsh and English) and that she is interested in how her languages work together. Initially being bilingual was very difficult for Lewis, but eventually she began to create her own set of poetics:

I have become less and less interested in literal translation, more keen to write totally separate poems in both languages. This is bound to be the case because I rely totally on rhyme and scansion (the most difficult elements of poetry to translate) to lead me through the poem. I see rhyme as the tracer bullets in the battle to capture a passable poem – it shows me where I should be shooting, where I’m wide of the mark and how to be accurate in the gloom of the battlefield. I find the labour of translation far less interesting than writing itself, that pleasure of riding meaning like a wave, not quite knowing if you’re surfing for shore or heading for an embarrassing tumble on the beach in front of a crowd of girls in bikinis. (81)

Lewis tells that she is not interested in ‘self-translation’ and she adds that translation by another poet can create the most extraordinary results:

Milton’s Latinate English, James Macpherson’s Hebrew-sounding Ossian poetry, the stark surrealism of postwar Polish poetry have all added new tones to the palette of English verse. Behind these new rhythms lie new philosophies and visions as well, whose substance is given formal expression in prosody, and these ideas may be translated. In its essence poetry is a translation of an experience into words. The feeling that the finished poem never quite catches the original insight or emotion would support this, as if poetry were, in itself, a kind of algebraic language or logarithm which had its own proportional relationship both with the emotions of the poet and the ear of the listener. (81)

Having said all this, Lewis is aware that the signification of certain words have deep resonances in a language. She notes the example of the Welsh word for grace, gras, which also refers to, ‘fully-aired clothes’ (82). In Lewis’ mind the word gras will always be associated with the putting on clean clothes.

Yet Lewis is aware that languages are not always as separate as it might appear at first glance. Between Welsh and English, Lewis senses, ‘a complex underground system of seepage and mutual irrigation […], subtle connections which make the whole literary landscape between them fertile and pleasant to inhabit’ (82). English and Welsh work, ‘a kind of magnetic attraction and repulsion’ (82). For Lewis, there are, ‘two linguistic rhythms’, which work in, ‘syncopation’: cynghanedd in Welsh and euphony in English, the half-rhyme proest in Welsh and English (82).

Taken together they are both one language to me – I know them both so intimately that they are often transparent to me, so that I’m aware not of hearing Welsh or English but of understanding the thoughts of another person speaking. They flow through my dreams like rivers. (82)

Lewis, Gwyneth.: “On writing poetry in two languages.” Modern Poetry in Translation (7) 1995, 80-3. (1995)

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.


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