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  The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry
edited by Menna Elfyn and John Rowlands
[448pp., £10.95, Bloodaxe Books ]
It is all too easy to forget that English is only one of the languages of these islands, and that English Poetry is but one of our traditions. The oldest of those traditions, indeed, is Welsh poetry. Whether by suffocating it in Celtic twilightery (or New-Age propaganda) or by adopting a metropolitan assumption of smug superiority, the English have usually avoided any serious attempt to come to terms with that tradition (much the same goes for the Gaelic tradition). Even quite sophisticated readers of poetry tend to be more familiar with, say, Russian or French verse than with Welsh. In part, at least, that is quite simply because translations (some of them very good) from those languages have been more widely published. So far as ‘modern’ Welsh poetry is concerned (modern here effectively meaning work written in the twentieth century) that excuse no longer holds. With the publication of this anthology a substantial body of such work is made available, much of it fascinating, some of it remarkable, and most of it well translated.

There are poets here who ought to be familiar to anyone who cares about poetry in Britain – poets such as R. Williams Parry, Waldo Williams, Marion Pennar and – surely already familiar – Saunders Lewis and Menna Elfyn. There’s work here by translators – such as Tony Conran, Joseph Clancy and Elin Ap Hywel – which is at least as good as any produced by translators from better-known (and more fashionable) languages. There are poems (such as Pennar’s ‘Branches of a Mabibogi’) which are profoundly influenced by European modernism; there are poems (such as ‘The Old Chapel’ by Alun Cilie) so deeply rooted in Welsh life and Welsh poetic traditions (and one consequence of the nationalism forced on the Welsh as a means of survival has been that to many poets their predecessors – including great poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym - are more forcefully shaping presences than any medieval poet could be for an English poet) that their authors seem effectively oblivious of the recent international scene.

In one mood the anglophone reader of this anthology is likely to have his or her attention most taken by those things which are distinctively Welsh. By, for example, the distinctively Welsh music (rooted in cynghanedd
) of Dic Jones’ translation of two of his own poems, extracts from which are turned into a ‘new’ English poem, ‘Harvest and Spring’ (this is a single stanza):

         When the milk of the oat shall August harden
         To see its beauty my soul will gladden,
         The gate of hope shall open: a vibrant
         Four-wheel giant will claim the garden.
         Around and around on its wide-mouthed journey
         Roaring its hunger across the country,
         Pouring the golden bounty of the soil,
         And April’s toil into streams of plenty.

Or maybe such a reader will be somewhat surprised at the sheer number of explicitly Christian poems here, often affirming faith with far fewer complications and qualifications than we are used to in most English or American poetry of the same period. Many Welsh poets – for all kinds of readily explicable historical reasons – have written unironic poems of political, religious and/or lingusitic commitment, some of which, stripped of their original music and linguistic texture can seem, in translation, strangely banal in sentiment. To have omitted all such poems would have given a quite false picture of the attitudes and themes of the Welsh poetry of the century; yet they present their translators (and the reader from ‘outside’) with particular difficulties.

Such apprehensions of what is distinctively (even peculiarly) Welsh here, need to be balanced, though, by a responsiveness to poets and poems less obviously so, if an excessively simplistic and reductive view is not to be taken. Not every Welsh poem needs to wave its passport (if such a thing as the Welsh passport existed) in front of the reader. Much here deals with the high commonplaces (I do not use the word in any derogatory sense) of poetry in more or less any language in any society. Writing of love or death, in tones of celebration or elegy, writing of place and person, the best of these poets (thanks to the generally high standard of translation) will stand comparison with most of their contemporaries writing in any other language – it is important that they are not merely seen as providers of ‘exotic’ materials from a culture strangely unfamiliar to their near neighbours. As with any worthwhile poetry well translated, the reader is faced with a densely realised particularity the experience of which mingles strangeness and familiarity. As a non-Welsh-speaking Yorkshireman who has lived in Wales for some years, this new Bloodaxe book has given me that experience more fully than any other English-language representation of Welsh verse that I have read.


         © Glyn Pursglove 2003