A Short History of Poetry in Wales

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Poetry is the lifeblood of Wales. It always has been.

And while poetry in Wales has fluctuated, has had adapt to the many cultural, industrial, and linguistic shifts throughout its history; in these acts of survival it has also thrived.

Originally of course, poetry in Wales was written in Welsh. Aneirin and Taliesin are among the first early Welsh poets known to us. They were highly respected figures, providing an important cultural service as part of a bardic tradition, in which poetry was composed and performed orally, often in courts, sometimes to music, to elegize heroic events. It was almost never written down; remembered only in the mind and on the tongue.

The first known Welsh poem written in English came much later– ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, by Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdwal, around 1470. Despite this, Welsh poetry in English did not gain prominence till the beginning of the 20th century, when the number of Welsh speakers was declining; when the Welsh language was increasingly aligned with the nonconformist faith and the ‘traditional’ Wales, perceived at odds with its promising industrial future.

Somewhat problematically, Welsh poetry in English flourished as a result, particularly within industrial South Wales. This first wave, or ‘flowering’, included Idris Davies, coal miner turned teacher, whose poem ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ was also turned into a popular folk song. Implicitly, the origins of Welsh poetry, and its close relationship with music, were still being recalled; even during a period when the language was suffering cultural erosion.

The genre began to regard the Welsh language more sympathetically in the aftermath of WW1. During this period R.S. Thomas, though he wrote poetry in English, advocated for the Welsh language to be made the country’s first language. For him, and many others, poetry was a tool of survival for Welsh identity. In his poem ‘Welsh Poetry’, Thomas refers to the Welsh people’s ‘ultimate stand/In the thick woods, declaiming verse’.

And as Wales moved later into the 20th century and found itself in an industrial crisis, it witnessed an upswing in Welsh nationalism, and a cultural push towards maintaining its identify. And, as it had in the past, Wales relied on its culture – poetry in particular – to do so. As Gillian Clarke asserts, ‘It is in the Welsh tradition for a poet to be “the voice of the tribe”.’

So in 1946, Arts Council Wales was founded, with many other Welsh publishers following, including Honno press, which focussed on promoting female writers in Wales. The late 20th century also saw a huge swelling in the ranks of Welsh poets writing in English; Robert Minhinnick, Harri Webb, Tony Curtis, and Tony Conran numbering among many important names. Notably, Conran’s elegy for Welsh soldiers killed in the Falklands is modelled on Y Gododdin, a poem attributed to Aneirin.

Indeed, whilst the majority of Welsh poetry published today is in English, its origins have not been forgotten. One of the most seminal Welsh language texts, the Mabinogi(on), lives on in contemporary poetry such as The King of Britain’s Daughter by Gillian Clarke, or Regeneration by Meirion Jordan. Additionally, nowadays Welsh poetry in English notably favours alliteration, stress, and rhyme – stylistic traits also favoured in early Welsh poetry, which had to be learnt by heart.

These traits live on, in the verses of Dylan Thomas – whose centenary we celebrate this year – to those of Gillian Clarke, who currently holds the title of National Poet of Wales.

From commemoration and celebration, to mourning, elegy, and protest, poetry has occupied a complex political and cultural position in Wales. But it has always been a cultural backbone, and its importance was significantly recognised in 2005, with the introduction of the National Poet of Wales. The position was first held by Gwyneth Lewis, who also provided the words writ large across one of the most iconic images of Wales – the Millennium Centre in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay.

The Welsh text reads: Creu Gwir fel Gwydr o Ffwrnais Awen, the translation of which is: ‘Creating truth like glass from inspiration’s furnace’. Lewis however was insistent the English text not simply translate the Welsh, but gesture in another, distinct direction. As I am sure most know, it reads: ‘In these stones horizons sing’. Referring, in the poet’s own words, to the coast, and the sea by which Cardiff port once connected to the wider world, as well as the stones of the Millennium centre, in which music and poetry thrive to this day.

Poetry in Wales always comes back to song, to words, and how they gesture towards the future; towards what is laying on the horizon.

We would like to conclude this short history, with a favourite poem by Gillian Clarke, the current National Poet of Wales; itself dedicated to another Welsh poet, Edward Thomas, and the last lines of which seem to echo Lewis’ sentiments exactly:

Nettles
for Edward Thomas

No old machinery, no tangled chains
of a harrow locked in rust and rising grasses,
or the fallen stones of ancient habitation
where nettles feed on what we leave behind.
Nothing but an old compost heap
warmed to a simmer of sickly pungency,
lawn clippings we never moved, but meant to,

and can’t, now, because nettles have moved in,
and it’s a poet’s words inhabit this.
And, closer, look! The stem leans with the weight,
the young of peacock butterflies, just hatched,
their glittering black spines and spots of pearl.
And I want to say to the dead, look what a poet sings
to life: the bite of nettles, caterpillars, wings.

For those looking to delve deeper into the world of Welsh poetry in English, check out these two collections:

A Pterodactyl’s Wing: Welsh World Poetry, edited by Richard Gwyn.

Poetry 1900 – 2000: One Hundred Poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, with a foreword by Dafydd Elis-Thomas.

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