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March 06, 2007

Gwyneth Lewis in America, Extracts from an Interview by Kathryn Gray

Writing about web page

New Welsh Review: Americas Special Issue

Gwyneth Lewis On America

We tend to forget that there was a creeping Americanisation of Britain. But it hadn’t actually happened then. There was a tremendous suspicion of America in circles I moved in. So I wanted to go there to look at the future of Europe directly in the eye. Taxi Driver, the film based on Jon Hinckley – who had tried to assassinate Reagan, of course – had just come out, so I was nervous about it. But in fact, by looking at the worst of American cultural excesses, in a strange way I cheered up a lot about it. 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. It turned out to be a long-term gift to me – and one I hadn’t expected. (9)

Coming from Wales, from the UK, where the poet had a relatively high cultural position, I suppose, and then to go to America where being a poet was not thought of as an option, where poets found it almost impossible to exist in this so-called ‘free’ society, was chilling. I remember being in Harvard and being very aware of the cost to people like Lowell, Berryman … Bishop, even. You realised that in America it was doubly difficult to survive as a poet. (9)

I knew that it was a survival situation, and it clarified psychological issues for me in relation to working as a poet in a way that would never have happened if I had remained in Wales, in the UK. (9-10)

The ongoing question that I found very difficult was the question of what language I wanted to write in. America helped clarify bilingualism for me but it was immensely painful. (10)

Meeting Joseph [Brodsky]? Well, it was like… a bomb. His seminar was regarded with awe and terror by all the students. He would make us memorise a poem every week and he would pick someone to stand up and recite it… The poems were selected generally from the canon of Auden, Frost, Hardy, but particularly Auden, who he adored. He would (10) then sit there, chain-smoke, generally pontificate and ask great questions. Then he’d insult the American students… Well, not them but the American education system. A lot of people misunderstood. But I realised it was actually a term of endearment. It was a European way of beginning a dialogue with people. (10-11)

Jospeh Brodsky

He [Brodsky] acted like a sort of kind uncle towards me. He knew I was going through a really difficult time. He understood that about being abroad… away from your culture, family, friends. (11)

He [Brodsky] was not uncritical but he actually had a tremendous love for American sclock – and slang, in particular. He was always coming out with it in a heavy Russian accent. He found American life liberating in ways that he hadn’t expected. Largely, I think, because he relished the throwaway remark, the catch-all in American speech. He loved that in low culture because he recognised that that was where vitality in language is… ‘What rots is what’s alive’, and that life comes out of that. (11)

He [Brodsky] impressed on me the value of tradition. He was a purist about this. He knew very well how poets fall in love with each other verbally, and spoke on from that. He had a direct connection back to Akhmatova and further. I had my Welsh tradition. But I remember him saying to me once, though: ‘You are lucky Gwyneth – you have the English language’. He was totally smitten with English. That made me realise that what I did have I was taking for granted. That one comment did more to help me than anything else. It helped me to think of turning to the English language not as a betrayal of Welsh – but as another love affair. (11)

Well, we’re all obsessed with language. But what I have been trying to do is explore why minority languages are important for people other than those that speak them. Because I think they show us the nature of language in an extreme situation. I think that what can be learned from the decline of the Welsh language is not a minority issue, it’s actually a language issue. And Joseph was always so sharp about why language is important in the grand scheme of things. (12)

New York

What you do lose [when travelling/living abroad] is ideas about yourself […] ideas about what poetry is about, what you’re about, as well as others’ ideas about you. That’s a good thing in a small culture where the influence tends towards all hands on deck and expectations are therefore very strong. (12)

Somebody said to me that if I stayed I would become an American poet. I loved American poetry – and still do – but that didn’t seem right to me. I felt I would be losing my grip on a kind of internal metre, and that would have been bad news. (12)

[Brodsky’s] main self of himself was as a human among humans. There is a lot of rubbish talked about the poetic process. It seems to me that one of the reasons that poets might be of interest to other people is that they know more than most about the chaos of life, about living with incompleteness, with hopelessness, living with the feeling that what you value and cherish most is not valued and cherished by the rest of society. All basic human emotions. Except poets know more about it because we spend more time doing that. Not because we are superior, more sensitive… But because we know what it is to be nobody. (13)

Kathryn Gray on Gwyneth Lewis

Lewis experienced a culture-clash with the preppy, body-beautiful ethos of her fellow students [at Harvard], and one that was the antithesis of the arty, left-field atmosphere of the late seventies, early eighties Cambridge that she had left behind. Lewis was always conscious of her difference; her time in Massachusetts marked a period that proved much less than an unalloyed pleasure. Similarly she saw how the cultural freedoms she was observing were also at odds with the material and psychological lot of poets in American society. (9)

[H]aving completed a year in the English department at Harvard and finding herself unhappy pursuing academic studies in English, she applied to Columbia in New York. […] This year proved to be the defining moment of her creative life. (10)

Brodsky was exiled from the USSR in 1972, and after a spell in Vienna where he was helped by Auden, he emigrated to the US. Like Lewis, he took much – personally and professionally – from an evaluation and enjoyment of the cultural excesses on offer in New York. (11)

For him [Brodsky], language defined the great benchmarks in evolution: what distinguishes the human being from other animals is his facility with language. He reckoned the poet – who pushed language to its limits – is the most evolved of all creatures. (11)

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Gwyneth Lewis in America’ (Interview with Katherine Gray). New Welsh Review. Vo. 70. 8-13.

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.

February 27, 2007

Catriona O' Reilly on Gwyneth Lewis

“Gwyneth Lewis’s ‘Zero Gravity opens with a remarkably distinguished sixteen-part title sequence. The poem is subtitled ‘A Space Requiem’ and commemorates three events, the space-voyage of an astronaut cousin, the arrival and departure of a comet, and the death of a close relative. Lewis’s formal skill is in evidence as she brings these occurrences into a meditative tension in which the astronaut’s still-miraculous endeavour is compared to the unkowability of a woman’s death:

Her voyage is inwards.

Now looking back

is a matter of passing events.

She makes for the dark

of not being human.

“The poem’s strength lies in its intelligence and unflinching emotional honesty, which is too rigorous to permit easy consolations. In Section 11 Lewis writes:

Its vapour trails

mimicked our voyage along ourselves,

our fire with each other, the endless cold

which surrounds that burning. Don’t be fooled

by fireworks. Its no accident that leave

fails but still tries to rhyme with love.

“Among the many impressive features of Lewis’s work is a directness which is tempered by instinctive formal ability and an engaging quirkiness of vision. Her unsentimental animal poems are a fine example of this, particularly the unassuming but remarkable little poem ‘Prayer for Bandy’ which in its impact must rival anything Theodore Roethke produced. Lewis is unafraid to deploy a whole spectrum of feeling and has all of the technical gifts to do it. Her wit in such poems as ‘Will and the Wall’ is sophisticated and immensely enjoyable, as is her frequent use of the couplet, employed to fine effect in the satirical ‘hermits’:

It drives me wild,

so crowded are these blessed isles

with would-be saints who all deny

the flesh in more outrageous ways.

I want to be indifferent as stone.

I demand to be holy all on my own.

“Zero Gravity is a worthy successor to Lewis’s first English-language collection, Parables and Faxes. We await her third with impatience.”

From O’Reilly, Caitriona: ‘Reviews: Possibilities of Vision’. PN Review (Manchester) (25:4) [March-April 1999] , p.79-80. Literature Online.

Bibliography – Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis

Evans, Geraint: “Crossing the Border: National and Linguistic Boundaries in Twentieth-Century Welsh Writing” Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays , (9), 2004, 123-35. (2004)

Lewis, Gwyneth. Gwyneth Lewis in America (Interview with Katherine Gray). New Welsh Review. Vol. 70. 8-13.

Lewis, Gwyneth. Negotiations (Interview by Ian Gregson). Planet: the Welsh Internationalist. Vol. 173. 50-56.

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

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

Lewis, Gwyneth.: “Remembering R. S. Thomas.” Times Literary Supplement, 6 Oct. 2000, 29. (2000

Lloyd, David: “English - Parables & Faxes by Gwyneth Lewis” World Literature Today (70:2) Spring 1996, 408-409. (1996)

McElroy, Ruth.: ”’For a mothertongue is a treasure but not a God’: Gwyneth Lewis and the dynamics of language in contemporary Welsh poetry.” Journal for the Study of British Cultures (12:1) 2005, 39-53. (2005)

O’Reilly, Caitriona: Reviews: Possibilities of Vision PN Review (25:4) March-April 1999, 79-80. (1999)

Poole, Richard.: “Gwyneth Lewis in conversation.” PN Review (23:3) 1997, 50-5. (1997)

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

Price, Angharad: “Travelling on the Word-Bus: Gwyneth Lewis’s Welsh Poetry” PN Review (25:5) May-June 1999, 49-51. (1999)

Rees-Jones, Deryn. Editorial (on Welshness and Englishness). Poetry Wales. Vol. 32.1 (October 1996).

Rhydderch, Francesca: ”’Cur dwbl [y] galon’ (The Double Beat of the Heart)” New Welsh Review: Wales’s Literary Magazine in English , (11:1 [41]), 1998 Summer, 18-20. (1998)

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

Williams, Nerys.: Gwyneth Lewis: taboo and blasphemy Poetry Wales (38:3) 2002, 23-8. (2002)

Web Resources on Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis

General Information
Contemporary Writers
Poetry Book Society
Welsh Literature Abroad

A Wooden Spoon for the WRU
Field Visits
Happy Flamingo
Nervous Breakdowns
What’s in a Name?

Articles by Gwyneth Lewis
A giant of poetry
Beating the Black Dog
Caught Between Two Cultures: An Article in The Guardian
I can never know if I did the right thing
The Cruel Sea

Gwyneth Lewis

Articles About Gwyneth Lewis
Ruth McElroy on Gwyneth Lewis for Planet
Swept Away

How to Knit a Poem
Not England
Poetry Please
Reading from Two in a Boat on BBC Radio
The Verb
Twenty Minutes
Word of Mouth

Poems In Literature Online
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