Sunday, December 27, 2020

Review: The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry, 1966-2018

I first became aware of John Goodby’s scholarly work through his monograph on innovative Irish poets, Irish Poetry since 1950: From Stillness into History (Manchester UP, 2000).  Co-edited by Goodby and the Welsh poet Lyndon Davies, The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry, 1966-2018 (Aquifer/Boiled String, 2018) brings a similar focus to the Welsh scene.  Goodby and Davies’s introduction elaborates a two-pronged attack on the Welsh literary and cultural establishment, critiquing both the narrow form of Welsh nationalism and its related, traditionalist poetics.  The editors, for example, contend that Meic Stephens’s signal 1967 Poetry Wales editorial “propound[ed] an essentialist poetics of belonging which shades into blood and soil atavism” (19) and that Ian Gregson’s 2007 The New Poetry in Wales anthology “bizarrely” (but purposely) overlooks major figures who do not fit his lyrical vision of what he wishes Welsh poetry to be (23).  Goodby and Davies, however, do not merely argue that an experimental minority deserve their place in the sun, which was the thrust of Goodby’s critical writing on Irish poetry — where the Irish Celtic Twilight model did indeed overshadow its more innovative wing for many decades.  Instead, the editors of this anthology point out that Wales’s avant-garde or modernist poetry was in fact up until recently the predominant mode, but that it has been subverted by the reactionary impulses of those whose agenda it is to make Welsh poetry companionable to the English mainstream.  As the twenty-first century has rolled along, the editors write, the phony “establishment routine still maunders on, whereby a few personable but reliably undemanding practitioners are puffed and buffed up to be the face of poetry for the nation” (31).  This introductory essay is spirited reading, appropriately setting the tone for the poets whose work then appears in relief to such “undemanding practitioners.”

One way that Goodby and Davies counter the Welsh version of narrow Celtic Twilight nationalism is to broaden the parameters of what qualifies one as a Welsh poet in the first place, including a number of those born in England (for example) who came to Wales later in life, or some who have family connections to Wales but were raised or have long resided elsewhere.  Some of these end up being among the most interesting — such as Heather Dohollau (born and raised in Wales but moved to Brittany and wrote in French).  Dohollau’s “Thomas Jones” combines the philosophical or abstract with concrete, imagistic detail to make comment on the nature of art and perception.  Chris Torrance (born in Edinburgh, raised in London, moved to Wales in his late 20s) combines an American Beat sensibility with gestures toward Welsh history and mythology to produce poems awash in energy.  Angela Gardner, who grew up in Cardiff, now lives in Australia but seems to identify more as an international migrant; her interest in visual art and visuality, however, means she has much in common with Wales-resident poets like Tilla Brading, Peter Finch, and Zoe Skoulding.  The inclusion of poets Niall Quinn, Nick Macias, Elisabeth Bletsoe, et al. testifies to the sense of new possibility that “blow-ins” sometimes offer to a local or national poetry scene, potentially becoming catalysts at key centres or moments.

There is, still, a Welsh nationalism of other sorts that inheres in the work of some of the poets included in The Edge of Necessary, but these are quite different from that of the “blood and soil” variety mentioned above, or from the less dramatic but still useless, parochial version of nationalism that the editors also decry.  Wendy Mulford’s “The A.B.C. of Writing” affirms but complicates a Welsh identity, engaging with the ways in which such conceptions are constructed: “Wales. / backwards. / is a writing of the self a writing of writing?” (79).  In this section of the poem, the Welsh valleys are “ours” but also peopled by “nobody at all” (79).  Mulford thus critiques nationalism itself as illusory, foregrounding instead gender and class.  One thing that Irish Celtic Twilight poetry has the distinction of, though, is that it provided the intellectual framework for a successful national independence movement, which Wales has not yet been able to effect.  In that regard, for its time, it worked.  The problem was that the Irish revolution, like the Welsh non-revolution, was coopted by a conservative counter-movement that the Twilight hangover continued to provide succor for.  In Wales, this kind of poetry cannot even be said to be the intellectual backdrop for the country’s devolution.  As Goodby and Davies point out, the mainstream poets whom a number of recent anthologies vaunt as the voices of devolution “had [in fact] all found their voices before devolution” (23).  In contrast, the political work that the innovative poetry favored here is capable of doing is to embody the “linguistic radicalism necessary to offer [a] serious challenge to the settled language of power” (20), and this is what poets like Mulford and even Finch offer. Skoulding, originally from England, embraces the complexity of writing in “English in a bilingual country, and I know that this context makes me see English as a provisional circumstance . . . my national identity as a writer is therefore a set of negotiations rather than a fixed point within clearly defined national boundaries” (255).

Though Welsh-language poetry falls outside of the scope of The Edge of Necessary, a number of recent poets mix English and Welsh in their work, occasionally creating a kind of macaronic language that floats back and forth between the two (e.g. Rhys Trimble) or transliterates the phonemes of Welsh into some new version of sound poetry (shades of Zukofsky’s transliterations of Catullus, perhaps).  In the latter mode is Steven Hitchins, whose “Gododdin Versions” go in more for sound than literal sense, while Rhea Seren Phillips utilizes Welsh prosodic forms and metres for her English-language poems, resulting in for example such evocative cyhydedd-naw-ban-style lines as, “muttering the language in shadows, / psyche swept in its vitriolic storm / of British patriotism-bird / cage of the clover, the daffodil” (317).  David Annwn’s “Bela Fawr’s Cabaret” is a Joycean (Wakean) wordscape that mixes languages (including Welsh) and personae in order to (among other things) analogize native Welsh and Native American histories.  “I see you in that mirror out of me / far out dancing in your druid shirt” (183), Annwn concludes.

Also radical in their own way are some of the more recent poets, like Chris Paul, whose bio points out that he is “a believer in Welsh independence for socialist reasons” and who has stood for election as a Plaid Cymru candidate (290).  Paul’s work is seemingly Language Poetry-influenced and plays around with typography to produce poetic comment on commodity culture and the commodification of human relationships.  Nerys Williams is something of a personal favorite (I’ve read and written about her 2017 collection Cabaret), and including her “Capel Celyn Telyneg” (among others) was a good choice.  That poem takes up the deliberate destruction of the Welsh-speaking village Capel Celyn and surrounding area of Bala in 1965 to create a reservoir which supplied industry in the English city of Liverpool.  “Is language here?” Williams asks, “In the water? / Under the bridge? // Does it seep through space?” (270).

The term “innovative,” in this anthology anyway, includes a tremendous amount of variety of different poetries, not all of which easily connect to the questions about Welsh poetic (and political) nationalism that the editors centralize; but one does not have to do so in order to realize their own brilliant poetic work.  In closing, I will say that John James’s poetry was a happy revelation to me, verging between the conversational and the surreal, always making the unexpected move, as in “The Conversation,” which not only also references the flooding of Bala but, despite such discouraging blows, focuses in on a “strange radiance” that flows “through my floating head the sky & motion of the cloud / no light above the level of the mist & biting hail. . . . / I see the millions I catch the language / which is this world of all of us” (77).  Numerous other such finds are included in this book, and I’m sorry that I have not the wherewithal to discuss all of them in a review such as this.

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