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Review of The Adulterer's Tongue

Where's the ghetto?
Patrick McGuinness, The Times Literary Supplement, 28th January 2005


These anthologies should test the validity of Anthony Thwaite's hypothesis, in a recent survey of British poetry, that "the difficulty of the Welsh language may be hiding from non-Welsh readers the best poetry being written in Wales, but one somehow doubts it". Welsh remains one of the few minority cultures it is possible to dismiss while simultaneously announcing a complete ignorance of it. The most widely spoken of the Celtic languages, Welsh remains strong enough to challenge English dominance in parts of Wales; still the language of organic communities, it is not dead enough to sentimentalize. For those of us who prefer our cultural struggles thousands of miles away, these books make revelatory reading. The same culture and communities that produce the music of the Manic Street Preachers and the Super Furry Animals also produce poetry, and a great deal of it. Its potential audience, around 600,000 people, is small; its relative audience is large and engaged (Barddas, a Welsh-language poetry magazine, is outsold in Britain only by Poetry Review). Welsh has a continuous literary tradition of 1,500 years. The Industrial Revolution hit it hard, but so did what Raymond Williams called "conscious repression, penalty and contempt" (we talk unreflectively about "natural" language death; if what happened to Welsh is natural, then one would hate to see the unnatural). For all Welsh literature's vibrancy, a sense of threat, of living on the edge, looms large, and is reflected in both of these anthologies.

The first thing to explain to the English-language reader is the unique Welsh tradition of strict metre (cynghanedd) poetry. Forms based around cynghanedd, such as the englyn and the cywydd, are as inventive and flexible today as in the fourteenth century. Their busy verbal textures have no equivalent - the nearest we have is Hopkins, who studied Welsh poetry and tried to reproduce (and to some extent codify) its dense internal sound-patterning in his own work. Many translations of strict metre poetry can be little more than prose glosses - valuable for just being there, but bearing about as much relation to the originals as a fossil bears to the supple, fleshy creature that came before. These books contain many successes, however, and some of the canonical poets of the early twentieth century work better than expected. T. H. Parry-Williams's "Two Poems" work through a sort of Cretan liar's paradox ("I was deceiving you when I said / I was a deceiver"), and are taut and complex poems. In The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry, Richard Poole's translation reproduces their intellectual and formal imbrications in ways worthy of the originals. Another poet who comes out well is Saunders Lewis, whose nearest equivalents in English are David Jones and T.S. Eliot, not just in modernist pessimism but in cultural conservatism. Politically different is the Marxist radical Gwenallt, imprisoned as a conscientious objector, whose "Depression" is memorably rendered by Tony Conran:

Idleness a sour dog on every street corner, Workers tramp shadowless from place to place;
There has come to the town's Eldorado this finish:
Neighbourhood scuttled, and break up of village, Roots of the South, a culture, a civilized grace.

Waldo Williams (another radical pacifist) is translated by Rowan Williams, whose version of "Die Bibelforscher - for the Protestant martyrs of the Third Reich" retains its complexity as well as its force:

The earth's round fullness is not like a parable, where meaning breaks through, a flash of lightning, in the humid, heavy dusk;

imagination will not conjure into flesh the depths of fire and crystal sealed under castle walls of wax, but still they kept their witness pure in Buchenwald, pure in the crucible of hate penning them in.

Waldo Williams's "What Is a Man" is simple and moving and translated beautifully by Emyr Humphreys:

What is living?
Finding a great hall Inside a cell.
What is knowing?
One root To all the branches.

Protest and political radicalism are recurrent themes in modern Welsh poetry, as are the competing, often simultaneous, claims of nature and industry, town and country. An increasingly urgent theme in the second half of the twentieth century is linguistic and cultural ecology. This preoccupation binds the mid-century poets to those writing now, such as Gwyneth Lewis and Menna Elfyn, who also have reputations as poets in English. Parts of Lewis's most recent book in Welsh, Y Llofrudd Iaith (The Language Murderer), are freely translated in her new Bloodaxe collection, Keeping Mum. In Robert Minhinnick's anthology, The Adulterer's Tongue, Menna Elfyn's "Welsh Ice" is a notable success, fraught with threatened beauty and sadness:

It starts at the pole in a kind of unlocking and soon we're a legend beneath a blue level.
They're becoming the same, Welsh ice and spring frost;
so alike as they leave us, so soon to be lost.

Where Elfyn finds her metaphors of cultural endangerment in nature, others, like Gareth Alban Davies, find theirs in the world of industry: "And I listen to a town's muteness / After the Welsh that drove its wheel has failed, and rusted on another generation's axle. / I measure time in dead Welsh". Alan Llwyd imagines the language as a rope bridge over the abyss of silence, "unravelling, strand by strand". This is precipice culture: poetry of gnarled or defiant survival, which, for all its vigour, fights with a sense of perpetual endgame.

Bobi Jones, one of the most important Welsh poets writing, is especially well served in both books - he may be one of the best suited to being rendered in English. J. P. Clancy's versions of Jones are scrupulous and resourceful ("The Conversation of the Deaf" in the Bloodaxe Book is especially fine), while Minhinnick's take more liberties. His version of "Beethoven's Ears" gives a sense of Jones's energy and sweep:

He was a poor man flying, a beggar out of the dark, rattling a stick against the palings of palaces, flailing against the protocols of hushed Vienna.

From his ears went out comets. They rifled through sound's rainbow, in the skull's cave.

He flew, over discarded silences. Inside himself he could overhear his own mind, and inside that all the sonar sculptures of a bat roost, the circumnavigation of the nerves, the sound of stillness within movement.

Also successful in the Bloodaxe anthology is Meirion Pennar, whose mix of fractured modernist forms and Celtic mythology works well in translation:

Ecce homunculusc'est moi'tis I rhiannon and teyrnon take a firm hold and here I am the self-kissing narcissus the little panegyrist the mabinogistic youngster bawling in childhood tongue Two poets amply selected by Minhinnick, Emyr Lewis and Elin ap Hywel, also derive some of their inspiration and imagery from Welsh mythology. Lewis's shape shifting poem "Taliesin" merges legendary past with cataclysmic present:

Not long ago I was an albatross, patient above Port Stanley, Seeing Galtieri's boys discover what the end of time feels like.

And now here comes another crowd, their boots melting on the Baghdad road, and the whole world watching through a dodo's eye.

In his versions of Elin ap Hywel's poems from her Rhiannon sequence (based on the Mabinogion), Minhinnick brings out to great effect her mix of other-worldy, mythical past and the troubling concreteness of her images:

One hundred years passed.

Now I hear horses, the hounds' music And time splits like a blade slashing daylight through a girl's dress.

But all the stitching cannot stop me:

I step from the picture out into the blazing world.

As the number of poems about travel, foreign countries and other literatures, political solidarity and international events testifies, this is also a culture open to the world. But it is not all serious or learned. In the Bloodaxe anthology, Grahame Davies's "Rough Guide" is a witty reflection on the risks and freedoms of Welsh marginality, a marginality that paradoxically brings new connections and new communities:

I'm the wandering Welshman.

I'm Jewish everywhere.

Except, of course, in Israel.

There, I'm Palestinian.

The poem (self-translated) ends: "Nice city. Now where's the ghetto?".

The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry, bold and ambitious, is a major achievement of cross-cultural communication: over 400 pages, nearly a hundred poets, and more than two dozen translators. This ensures a variety of tones and voices, but makes also for an occasional dissipation of effect. By contrast Robert Minhinnick has chosen contemporary poems that lend themselves to his voice, as he has lent his voice to them. Bobi Jones, Emyr Lewis, Gwyneth Lewis, Iwan Llwyd, Menna Elfyn and Elin ap Hywel constitute an excellent introduction to contemporary Welsh poetry. Minhinnick's book has an intensity and a fruitful doubleness: first, because of its smaller scale; second, because of his own strong voice, able as necessary to step back and let the translation happen, or to step in and force things through. There are bound to be purists' quibbles about where he stops translating and begins adapting. Such quibbles will be of no interest to the reader for whom all this is new and exciting. With Minhinnick, these poets retain their singularity and strangeness; their cultural and linguistic specificity remains, but they come across forcefully, adding something to contemporary poetry in English. These anthologies introduce us to a minority culture that has maintained its radicalism and, above all, its language, against the odds. One function of translation is to open a window onto another world; the world these anthologies open onto begins only two hours from London. If these books can help remind the English of those they share these islands with, and perhaps engage open and sympathetic interest, then they will have expanded our sense of British culture too.
To the Robert Minhinnick page... To the 'The Adulterer's Tongue' page...
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