From the Archive: Joseph P Clancy

Elan Grug Muse reads Joseph P Clancy in Poetry Wales, Summer 1967

It’s the musicality of the lines that first grab your attention. The way the consonants bounce and roll against each other. It is strangely familiar, but you can’t quite place it. Joseph Clancy called it a cywydd, and although it is ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’ the Welsh form, it retains a similar rhythmic musicality. Take the line “True entity without you”. Like a line of cynghanedd, it is seven syllables long, and there is a natural split in the middle;

True entity / without you.

This creates two natural stresses in the line;

True entity / without you

Then the alliteration of the ‘t’, falling both sides of the split on the same side of the rests (the ‘n’ in ‘entity’ somewhat swallowed by the dominant ‘t’) creates the percussive effect. It is this mimicry of a Groes or Draws consonantal cynghanedd that gives the poem its rhythmic lyricism.

Clancy developed this form of cynganeddol mimicry originally in order to translate Welsh Cywyddau into English (for his book Medieval Welsh Lyrics, 1965), later using it as a verse form in its own right. Although his form lacks rhyming couplets and full cynghanedd, he has maintained the syllabic meter, and at the end of each line he varies between stressed and unstressed syllables.

In Absence then is a cywydd with a small ‘c’. Split into five parts, it is the tale of separated lovers- a long distance-relationship in today’s parlance. The poet is alone and lustful on a cold Welsh coast, possibly the Aberystwyth seafront, a couple of miles west of the birthplace of Dafydd ap Gwilym (another Cywyddwr for whom the words ‘lustful’ and ‘alone’ can be used to describe the contents of his work, albeit in a slightly different sense).

Joseph Clancey was not the first magpie to take old Welsh verse forms and transform/bastardize/adapt/improve (?) them for his own use; Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and Anthony Conran have all been accused of the same. In fact, two works titled Cywydd and Englynion by Conran appear in the same edition of Poetry Wales. However, Clancy is possibly one of the few Americans to have drawn inspiration from the Cerdd Dafod tradition, being a professor of English Literature at Marymount Manhattan College, New York at the time of publishing this poem in PW.

And so we come to the cywydd, the form that Clancy drew from so liberally in his work.  If maybe not developed entirely by Dafydd ap Gwilym into its modern form, it was certainly popularised by him; a poet whose socio-economic position in fourteenth century Wales meant that as a man of independent means he did not depend on poetry and the sponsorship of the nobility to earn his crust. He also seems to have received a broad education and was exposed to French chivalric and romantic poetry. His economic independence gave him the freedom to experiment: to combine his exotic influences with his cerdd dafod training in order to compose work that can still seem fresh to a modern ear. He wrestled a form more used to elegiac and epic expression into a form fit for romance, comedy and nature writing. Like a magpie, he took bits of the Welsh tradition, and bobs from continental romances, and gave us something new and beautiful.

In Absence is a sensual poem, where we don’t see the landscape he describes as much as smell it. You can nuzzle the words like a cat, and feel their warm breath on your cheeks. Joseph Clancy died this May at the age of 88, fifty years after these poems were originally published in Poetry Wales.


In Absence




Fifteen years between letters.

A marriage away from that

Stuttering adolescent

Who poured out page after page.

Poor boy, bursting with language.

What he never guessed, I know.


I lack his faith in language.

Those words were actions to him.

My fifteen years of knowing

Your dear body, mind and heart

Reduce my letters to dull

Impotent scrawls in absence.


Yet I write as much as he,

Using words he would blush at

To speak of the flesh we share,

The ache of this apartness.

I show, love, by these letters,

Thin ghosts of my hands, lips, voice,

That no more than they have I

True entity without you.






Afternoon.  A Welsh Sunday.

Cold light on the ruined keep.

The waves assault the sea-wall.

The seagull circle and mew.


Some girls parade on the prom,

Few pretty, but the sea-wind

Flirts with their skirts and raises

My lust with their mesh-laced legs.


Pure hunger, this, no faces

Move through my mind, even yours

Whose absence starves my senses,

Nothing but nude, nameless flesh,

Valleys and mounts to pasture

And ride my bare need to rest.


Nightfall. The girls have all gone.

Tide-ebb. The soft sea mutters.


I turn to go. A seagull

Confronts me. His eye is cold.

I speak your name to warm me,

And make for my single bed.




The brown gives way to green on

Pen Dinas and Tan-y-Bwlch,

And I walk the other way,

Through bridge street and Great Darkgate

And Terrace Road to the prom.

I’ve no heart for the quiet

Hillsides we walked together

Sunday two summers ago.


Better to walk by the sea,

The tide-ebb on the shingle

The mirror of my hiraeth.

Tra bo d?r y môr yn hallt . . .


Better still if the winter

Had not loosed its barren grip,

If brown hills, cold winds, and ice

Had remained the heart’s mirrors

Till home again i hold the

Spring and summer in my arms.




If I seem, dear, too merely

Obsessed with the itch of flesh,

That hunger is a haven.

Tonight, as I sat at ease

In an armchair near the fire,

My eyes refuse to focus

On my book, or on the fire

Radio, wallpaper, table,

Or my hand when I held it up.

No, it was not your image

My dead eyes saw, but myself,

A nothing held in nothing

That felt nothing but terror

Of the nothing that it felt.


And I drove my mind to dwell

On memories of stroking

Your nipples, belly, and cleft

Until my body trembled

And I and your dear image

And the room were real again.




Fourth month apart. Far fewer

Nights awake with nerves on edge,

Less and less often the flesh

Unfurls the flag of hunger,

And the heart, so long fevered,

Like a lost, exhausted, starved

Explorer in the Arctic,

Sinks to icy, torpid peace.


No memories of murmurs

After love can wake it now,

But the rough words, harsh silence,

The drum-beat of pulsing blood,

The wrath of love- who else can

Matter enough to rouse rage ?

These rubs and frets of marriage

Now hurt the heart into life.


Joseph P. Clancy