5 Poets in Poetry Wales

5 Poets in Poetry Wales

It’s difficult to be enthusiastic about Poetry Wales, which publishes unsentimental reflections on things not made poetry by craft, treatment or inherent subject matter. The outlet makes the usual claims:

Founded in 1965, Poetry Wales is a quarterly magazine with an international reputation for excellent poems, features and reviews from Wales and beyond. Emerging from a rich bilingual culture, Poetry Wales explores the diverse perspectives of Welsh poetry in English and its international relationships.

Only three issues are available online at the London Poetry Library (the latest being 1993), the two recent specimen poems (by Damian Walford Davies and Emily Toder) are pious pretense, and the website archives give reviews only of poetry collections — conscientious no doubt, but not making us rush off an order for the works in question.

Let me try to say what I mean by these acerbic remarks in considering some of the least bad in the 1993 collection.
Robert Cole’s Remains (http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13454) is about pre-Columbian America. It opens film-like with a wide vista:

These are cloudlands or snowfields,
rain comes with devils of dust
scattered in fire, blistering to chill

Which then shifts to archeological details:

Down the gallery of the dead
to the Palace of the Moon, her brain
within a crystal skull, the shifting face

To end with:

Proud Indian faces,
black clay skulls; replicas
that cheapjacks now palm off
on the uninitiated…

What the poem really means to say, I suspect, is that we have lost the capacity to enter into this Aztec (pre-Aztec, to be more precise: Teotihuacan) world. Instead we have a dull catalogue of statements followed by a trite, flat comment on the tourist industry. I’d have thought there were at least two ways of avoiding such disasters. One would be to heighten the contrast between that earlier world and today, with correspondingly different tones. The other would be to act as the cultural historian and bring this dead world alive. Both call for a more vivid and emotion-saturated language than what’s employed here, and indeed generally on Poetry Wales.

Martin Bennett’s El Mina (1482-1982) is on a similar theme, a mine worked by slave labour, as too many were in the Americas. First a pedantic point. Mina is feminine: La Mina, something that poet or editor might have checked. Secondly, only three of the thirty-odd lines deal with the real subject matter, the sheer hell and injustice of these operations. The lines are:

Quick profits, quick deaths.

After a long description of the tourist scene. And then, after more description of the coastal scene, we get a very muted comment:

From generation to generation
Haunted thunder of the waves’ salt drum.
Now the trouble is this:  besides evading the issue, (don’t poets read history any more?) the local setting is not, as laid out, particularly interesting:
Out on the motel patio we quaff beer,
Idly watch the sandwhite and palmfringed beach,
Silverfish gilding the Atlantic blue,
A motorised canoe painted many colours,
Fitful swoop of swifts.

Etc. Open with this in a novel or travel article and the editor will reach for her blue pencil. Where’s this going? How does it raise tension, or lead into the subject matter? It doesn’t of course. Material could have been better handled had the poet been not so keen to show off with unneeded cleverness:

Part-primary-school with whitewashed walls
Peeled to a quincentennial eczema;
Instead of fluttering tricolour or cross
A coconut tree provides its standard.
Shadows fester within window sockets.

The poem is at: http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13455

Steve Griffiths’ Ciudadela, 1991 at http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13460
is a travelogue, anecdotal observations jotted down but, like the previous piece, not going anywhere:

Under the stretched skin of the houses,
under the whitewash
facing the sharp sun over the rocks,
under the sheet binding the jawbone
the dreams are obscured.
The televisions are off
like cagebirds with blankets over them.

The poem shifts to the tourist themselves

Wakers turn to reach
familiar points
of reassurance and pleasure
where they are to be found.

And back to the scene, after a rather portentous:

Aimless hymns are gathered into the sky
from streets deep in shadow

with sounds and smells and the glitter off the sea, the holiday room, to end with the bald:

A couple are up to their shoulders
in the bay: the other sea
explores their limbs
fast together
as tongues in secret explore each other.

These are personal snapshots, those artless things we put up on Facebook. Poetry, someone please tell the editor, is something else.

The 1993 issue is devoted to R.S. Thomas and his poetry, and John Davies’ piece, simply entitled R.S. Thomas (http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13463)
starts off well, evoking the loneliness of the poet’s life, doubly so in R.S. Thomas’ case.

Some comfortable harbour, say,
     tugs a boat like its own
     from the sea. Moored,
     strangeness brings the storm.
      Nights flicker.
      And there is the manse’s attic
      blown, one curtain,
      a lighthouse marvelling
      at the bouncing moon.

(if we ignore the silliness of ‘bouncing’) The key line is the strangeness bringing on a storm. We want to know more, but the second stanza shifts to explore the foreign nature of Thomas’ language, cultivated English among the rural Welsh, and ends with the disputable:

Rage kept him reinforced –
     until, falling short
     of himself, in the light
     that language cannot span,
     he saw a rimless world
     extend the gifted heart’s idea
     of self, which is poetry.

I doubt if poetry is anything like the heart’s idea of self, but, moving on, the third stanza is much less successful, saying things which are manifestly untrue:

He is our capital of echoes.

And finally (with ‘skewering’ a rather odd metaphor for their appearance):
Waking, our harvest beyond
     pylons skewering the hills,
     was new land opened.

I wouldn’t want to underestimate the difficulty of tribute poems, particularly where their subject is still alive, but the old way was to read poetry and criticism (Barbara Hardy’s essay in this issue is well worth thinking over) until the matter was clear, jot down the key points and develop them in appropriate language. Thought as poetry can ramble into insights, of course, but also needs the critical faculty to remove the absurd. The poem ends, in fact, where it should begin: in what way is R.S. Thomas’s rather narrow view of rural Welsh life still relevant? And why did the talent peter out, if it did?

The trouble with Bryan Aspden’s Travellers In The Dream Trade (http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13467) is quite different. The language  is tough, alert, contemporary and many other good things, but prose – as we see by stringing together the first two stanzas:

Silent; not for getting anywhere? No, they’re for going full pelt on, nose bent
by Northern cobbles, guzzling miles through the day’s gruel, hunts and time trials. In the Cafe Mec waiting for rain to stop, curtained by fug, the runny window frames a dumbshow of poets, cyclists, painters — culture’s hardmen pickled in Bock.

Does this matter? It depends what we want to do. Here the Tour de France narrative ends in a quieter reflection, which I’ll lay out as prose again:

Was the winning post a dead end? Better not finish the race whose prize
is to stop riding? Trees like men waiting give this inkling in the cold: growth is to come. White-flagged, the square surrenders to winter. Cars are overtaken by the bread queue. In the cafe’s din sore heads thicken the stew. It’s 19 —  — The Winter Circus begins.

The scene dissolves into the winter square, the Depression years, which we have left behind. A double flash forward, therefore, to the brevity of human achievement, which the jaunty tone doesn’t properly handle.

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