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‘The Mabinogi’ by Matthew Francis – a review by Eurig Salisbury

It was perhaps inevitable. Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in 1999 made fashionable the work of translating into Modern English old texts deemed (often justifiably) inaccessible to a modern audience. His most notable successor in this work is Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Night (2007), and the trajectory of both works seems, in hindsight, to lead on unavoidably towards the fringes of Welsh literature. One is an Old English text written in England but set in Scandinavia prior to the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, the other an Arthurian Middle English text at home with the Matter of Britain and set in the West Midlands, in sight of the Welsh borders. Where to next?

Seren Books’ recent New Stories from the Mabinogion series seems to have shown the way. The re-imagining in prose of the eleven native Welsh tales in Seren’s series both mirrors the originals in terms of medium but also, crucially, differs enough in tone and substance to allow for a strong degree of independence. Francis’s retelling, on the other hand, despite being in verse, more closely resembles his original source material in terms of style, scope and medieval setting. This lends the work a great deal of legitimacy, but also handicaps it by highlighting its many structural deviations.

But there’s the crux. A reader with no knowledge of the original Welsh text may have little idea of the author’s deviations, and care even less. The poetry undoubtedly works. It moves along at a good pace and colours the action in a way that a medieval scribe would have had little time for. Pwyll and Arawn meet ‘in the still gaze of the stag’ not long since slain, whose ‘filched chitterlings’ the hounds ‘guzzle’. Matholwch’s ships approach the Welsh coast from Ireland, first as a ‘swirl of mosquitos’, then as a ‘flotilla of seagulls, / salt-water swans’, but they are in fact ‘more complicated than that’ and become ‘something human’.

Choosing when and how to embellish the original material is the prerogative of the storyteller. Francis succeeds time and time again in adding an extra layer of light and detail that loads an occasionally sparse Welsh text with cinematic immediacy. In that sense, the work can be enjoyed simply for what it is, namely a brilliantly perceptive reworking that elevates the finer points at the expense of narrative sweep.

But what of those who know Welsh? The lasting value of the four branches of the Mabinogi (incorrectly referred to on the sleeve as the ‘first four’) rests on the portrayal of their characters. Whilst Francis’s many structural deviations from the source should not be dismissed out of hand – he could presumably justify his choices, even though few justifications are offered – their effect collectively is to undercut the characters’ development and incentives.

Pwyll’s maturing in the first branch under the tutorship of Rhiannon, his far shrewder wife, is cut short by the astonishing omission of the whole second part of the branch. This undermines Llwyd’s motivation at the end of the third branch in seeking revenge for his friend’s earlier humiliation at the hands of Pwyll – a pivotal revelation that throws into sharp relief the less vengeful nature of Manawydan’s and Pryderi’s friendship – and is bafflingly altered so that it relates instead to the devastation of Ireland. Branwen’s brave and dignified retort to her captors, when asked – courteously for the first time in years – to explain a strange sight on the Irish sea, is likewise absent, as is any mention of the magical island of Gwales.

Furthermore, the restructuring of the four stories (effectively rewriting the last) to fit the narrative of Pryderi – the only character to appear in all four and whose life seems at first glance to follow their trajectory – falls prey to the now discounted theory that enticed Ifor Williams and others, namely that Pryderi was once the focal character for the stories as a whole. Pryderi is a poor unifier for a number of reasons, not least because he is less of a hero than most, but this seems to have counted for little in the face of Francis’s attempt to forge a ‘more straightforward narrative line that appeals to modern readers’. Modern readers can arguably deal with all sorts of narratives, but the underlying impression remains that the stories work best as individual tales that share common themes, and any attempt to force them into a straight-jacket of unity is doomed to fail.

It is, however, by association with Heaney and Armitage that Francis falls seriously short. In introducing old English texts to modern readers, both Heaney and Armitage sought linguistic rights of way into the original that both justified and enhanced their endeavour. Heaney’s troubled linguistic inheritance in Northern Ireland made him wary at first of the Old English text, until he found ‘an entry into further language’ by way of familiar words known to him through Ulster Scots. Likewise, the ‘northerner’ Armitage not only recognized plenty of the Sir Gawainpoem’s dialect, but also detected ‘an echo of his own speech within the original’. Above all, both poets translated from an older version of a language in which they themselves wrote.

Pointing out that he is ‘neither a Welsh speaker nor Welsh-born’, Francis admits he cannot ‘claim the Mabinogias part of my personal heritage’. His brief pitch for validation, however, ‘in the sense that the greatest products of the human imagination are the heritage of us all’, seems rather glib. A lack of natural affinity with a language or a country certainly does not disqualify anyone who wishes to get to grips with its literature, but an awareness of the wider factors involved is key. In the case of the Welsh language, it is essential, for its position as a minority language in relation to dominant English in its own land warrants understanding in any form of cultural exchange.

The fact is that Francis’s version is no translation – it is not described as such except in Gillian Clarke’s quoted review on the sleeve – but rather a retelling. It was based solely on a recent English prose translation, and a casual reader might be excused for failing to realise that the language of the original is still spoken. Welsh is a living language. That the work was written mostly in Wales in a town with an abundance of Welsh speakers, and a stone’s throw away from the National Library of Wales, where the earliest complete text is housed in the White Book of Rhydderch, makes the effective bypassing of the Welsh language all the more surprising.

Its absence is telling. The exoticisation of Annwfn, wrongly labelled as ‘the Otherworld of Celtic myth’ whereas it is in fact distinctly Welsh, as a ‘dreamlike, elusive’ and ‘shadowy domain’ is worryingly redolent of the colonial notion of Celtic otherness. Having the Irish refer to Branwen the sister of Bendigeidfran in a manner reserved today for members of the English upper class, ‘Her Grace His Grace’s sister’, is grating, as is the downgrading of Gwydion, ‘the greatest storyteller in the world’ in the original text, to the status of a jester with ‘the pinched face of a frog, the eyes swollen’. Francis might see himself implicitly in Pwyll’s image, ‘crossing boundaries … into forbidden territory’, but one wonders whether he has returned having ‘gained insights’ or, like a tourist, having simply had ‘an exciting, if disorientating, time.’

It is ultimately the author’s right to deal with his material in his own way. Precious, dynamic texts such as the four branches of the Mabinogi are to be engaged with, reworked and retold. Seeking meaningful dialogue with the source is not always a prerequisite for engagement, but it is at the very least advisable in a dichotomous state of play between a minority culture – in which the Mabinogi already carries centuries of weight and meaning – and a dominant one. It would be foolish to imagine that such cultural exchanges carry no consequences. When viewed from the other side, a book marketed as ‘an important contribution to the storytelling of the British Isles’ can too easily smack of cultural appropriation. To paraphrase Francis’s description of the otherworld, it may be worth remembering that it is Wales, not Annwfn, that exists ‘just over there, behind those trees.’

Eurig Salisbury
(Featured in the current Issue of Poetry Wales, Summer 2018)

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‘New Stories From The Mabinogion’ by Seren Books

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Poster y Mabinogion by Margaret Jones

 

Nia Davies on Ritual, Poetry Wales Editorial Summer 2018

Ritual, Poetry Wales 54.1

Welcome to a special issue of PoetryWales dedicated to ritual. Ritual marks out this space, that is the page, and a time, that is Summer 2018, as special. Ritual is a performance, a heightened presence, an intention. I invite you to step into this liminal place with us.

But before the ritual we prepare ourselves. We feel the bones in our body which is about to plunge into a river. Or we feel ourselves geared up to read, minds cleared, ready to be filled with language. We ready ourselves to accept the coming chaos. Then for a defined period of time normal rules are upended. Poetry happens. Perhaps we utter names, a mantra or a poem, over and over again until magical something shifts. Perhaps we don masks. Maybe a dance is made or a song sung. Perhaps something is ripped apart in order to be remade. Or we could be joined in union to a person we love. Maybe we whisper words to ghosts, bid the dead goodbye. Perhaps we call attention to the living needs of the world around us and make a live action, a political intervention.

By the time we emerge from a ritual, we have become aware of our bodies and the space we occupy in an altered way. Then we return to ‘normal’ life somehow changed. Perhaps a small transformation has occurred.The ritual may be repeated and repeated. My current research as a poet is on ritual and poetry (part of my doctorate degree in creative writing at the University of Salford). I am exploring how we charge a space, time, objects, bodies and words in the heightened experience of a performance ritual.

And so for this issue of Poetry Wales I have gathered a collection of reflections on this topic. Firstly I include the poems of C.A. Conrad who has been making (soma)tic poetry rituals for some time and here shares with us a selection from a new series. Each ritual contains ingredients for action against the extinctions of bird species in the US. Similarly Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s swims are also environmental activisms, a calling attention to the present, a care-taking of our water ways by way of an embodied transformation. Nisha Ramayya’s tantric poetics forge a relational practice of resistance, listening and loving. Lyndon Davies describes the Ghost Jam, a game of multiple rituals with multiple players where anything can happen in the space of any time in sound, poetry, movement or action. For a moment humans can walk through walls.

And the cover of the issue comes from Rhys Trimble’s charged objects, totems to his performative poetics. It is with Trimble that I recently made ‘Cynhebrwng Aer’ an air burial for poetic texts in yr Caban, outside Pontio, Bangor, at the Poetry in Expanded Translation conference in April 2018. On the day of this issue’s release (July the 1st) we will repeat this ritual at Ledbury Poetry Festival where you can also hear performance from Trimble, Burnett and Ramayya.

Ritual seeks to change something, often by calling attention to the materiality of a thing – perhaps the textures or smells of the land, or water we are swimming in, our bodies and those we share the space with, the sound of the language in our mouths, the brushing of our hands with the hands of others. It is also something we repeat over and over again until something indelible is etched in us and somehow changes us, like the repetition of a line of song enters into our bodies and can be reproduced at any time. Ritual is a live ephemeral event. But it leaves a trace, perhaps in the form of a poem or simple marks on the ground.

This issue also includes a reflection on PW 1968 from Ben Gwalchmai as well as
poems and reviews, some by the Ledbury Critics.We are happy to be collaborating with Ledbury Poetry Festival in multiple ways this year. There will be more to come. We hope!

Poetry Wales survives as an open space for poetic experiment, for charged interactions across poetic cultures and dreamy or daring reflection and criticism in an increasingly bureaucratised and narrow-minded world. We attempt to make language interventions into the banality of homogeny and linguistic imperialism. Thank you for your support.

Thank you for staying with us. We need all kinds of resources to keep it up – financial and otherwise! If you feel Poetry Wales should continue, if you feel this liminal space should exist for longer, please join us as a patron or micro patron. This is a way for you to give us a regular donation to keep us afloat for years to come. To do this visit our Patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/PoetryWalesMagazine 

Diolch.
Thank you.

NIA DAVIES

Tishani Doshi on How She Writes a Poem

With her recent collection Girls Coming Out of the Woods (Bloodaxe, 2018) selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Summer Recommendations, we decided that May’s ‘How to Write a Poem’ should come from Tishani Doshi:

Steal a first line if you must. After you’ve finished writing the poem, destroy that line. Or not. Newspapers can be a good source of inspiration. Or not. Handwrite, preferably in turquoise ink. Or not. Worship words and keep a notebook filled with them. Or not. Memorize a poem you love. Or not. Understand that poetry is held in the body—that it works to a different kind of time and rhythm from prose words and news words and figure out how to inhabit that time. Or not. Long walks may help. Or not. Listen to Baudelaire: “Be drunk” —on wine or virtue, but be drunk. Or not. Proceed. Or not.

Tishani DoshiAbout Girls Are Coming out of the Woods

In her third poetry collection, Tishani Doshi confronts violence against women, lending her resonant, lyrical voice to those who have endured abuse, and those who have been permanently silenced. The poems are steeped in the heat and danger of the monsoon season, honouring the dead by celebrating survival. Doshi writes with love and reverence for that which thrives against the odds — female desire, the power of refusal, and the aging body. Doshi reminds us that poetry, at its root, is song.

“In Girls are Coming out of the Woods, Tishani Doshi combines artistic elegance with a visceral power to create a breathtaking panorama of danger, memory, beauty and the strange geographies of happiness. This is essential, immediate, urgent work and Doshi is that rare thing, an unashamed visionary who knows that, ‘while you and I go on with life / remembering and forgetting, / the poets remain: singing, singing.'”

— JOHN BURNSIDE

Llyr Gwyn Lewis on How He Writes a Poem

‘resist writing — the act of getting words down on paper — until much later in the process of composing.’

For October’s ‘How to’ we invited Llyr Gwyn Lewis to share his fascinating thoughts and approach to his writing:

Read, read, and interact — but keep in mind that it’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation.

Writing in cynghanedd and in freer metres need not involve entirely different approaches regarding form, imagery, and content. Let them bleed: let the minute, line-by-line approach and careful marriage of form and content seep through into free verse; let the freshness, the upside-downness and carefree possibilities of free verse enliven the cynghanedd tradition.

Begin at the end: know what your final line will be, and then find a way of getting there. The myriad possible ways of getting to that line, and the choices taken along the way, are what makes the poem interesting.

Resist using language that is unnecessarily overblown or convoluted, but be awake to those fleeting moments of preciseness and possibility when heightened language can glimmer. Again, poetic language can be pedestrian, as long as it’s going somewhere.

The distillation of idea, image, and expression: try to allow as much of this to happen internally as possible, before spilling everything out on to the page. In other words, resist writing — the act of getting words down on paper — until much later in the process of composing. This is the one I need to try hardest to do: I’ve always tended to do my working out on paper, resulting in a lot more work for me, and very often for the reader too.

Finally, tradition is betrayal. If you want to be able to pass a tradition on, to keep it alive, you have to be prepared also to betray it.

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Raised in Caernarfon, north Wales, Llyr Gwyn Lewis studied at Cardiff and Oxford, before completing a doctorate on the work of T. Gwynn Jones and W.B. Yeats. Following a periods as a lecturer in Welsh at universities in Swansea and Cardiff University, he now works as resource editor at the Welsh Joint Education Committee in Cardiff.

He has published poetry, fiction and articles in periodicals includingYsgrifau Beirniadol, Poetry Wales, Taliesin and O’r Pedwar Gwynt.

His first prose work, Rhyw Flodau Rhyfel (Some Flowers of War) (Y Lolfa, 2014), won the Creative Non-Fiction category in the 2015 Wales Book of the Year award, and his poetry collection, Storm ar Wyneb Haul (Storm on the Face of the Sun) (Barddas, 2014), was shortlisted in the poetry category.

In 2017 Ll?r Gwyn Lewis was selected as one of the Ten New Voices from Europe for 2017, part of an innovative project, Literary Europe Live (LEuL), led by our sister organisation Literature Across Frontiers (LAF).

His first short story collection, Fabula, was published by Y Lolfa in 2017, and was chosen for the 2017 Exchange Bookcase. 

Spring / Gwanwyn

Poetry Wales Spring 2016

(RS Thomas)

Gelynion: Alys Conran and Robert Sheppard

A Gelynion collaboration from Robert Sheppard and Alys Conran in Bangor, May 2015. The poem is published in the Spring issue of Poetry Wales.

Gelynion: Eurig Salisbury & Zoë Skoulding

Eurig Salisbury and Zoë Skoulding’s collaboration for Gelynion – Enemies Cymru. Published in the Spring 2016 issue of Poetry Wales.

Gelynion: Emily Blewitt & Rebecca Parfitt

Emily Blewitt and Rebecca Parfitt’s collaboration for Gelynion – Enemies Cymru. Published in our Spring 2016 Issue.

Review: The Whitsun Wedding Video

The Whitsun Wedding Video by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Rack Press, 2015) reviewed by Dai George.

 

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What do Pam Ayres, R.S. Thomas and Frances Leviston have in common? Not the set-up to a bad joke overheard at the T.S. Eliot Prize ceremony, but a question I pondered as I read ‘A Mug’s Game’ (subtitle: ‘The Modern Poetry Career’), the third chapter in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s invigorating pamphlet, The Whitsun Wedding Video, a zippy tour d’horizon of the contemporary British scene. All three are poets, of course, but beyond that I’d struggle to imagine three more starkly triangulated figures in the history of modern verse.

The more nuanced answer – and one that it took someone with Noel-Tod’s specialised antennae to detect – is that they all have a varyingly acquiescent relationship with commerce and self-promotion. Ayres sold out to a frozen food company, lending her ‘good-humoured doggerel to the animated story of a flying potato’; less willingly, one suspects, Thomas had his likeness filched by a posh crisp manufacturer after his death. At the far end of the spectrum, Leviston is called upon to provide evidence that a certain ‘dignity of intellectual independence is something that the uncommercial career of poetry still offers the serious-minded’. Turning down various invitations to take part in high-profile industry promotions, Leviston has stood her ground. In a recent article, cited by Noel-Tod, she argues ‘that one need not be appointed to one’s own life: that no sanctioning government, no official position, is required for the business of taking oneself seriously, in whatever sense seems right’.

This omnivorous, scattershot approach is both the joy and the frustration of The Whitsun Wedding Video. To start with frustration, I find the slide from Ayres to Leviston – which happens across two brief pages – clever, and funny, but glib. It elides two connected but separate matters: first, the barefaced shilling that poets might do for advertising companies (a moral crisis many more poets would love to face, I’m sure) and second, the more insidious culture of networking, commissions, prize circuits, promotions and mutual blurbing that undoubtedly compromises almost everyone in the British poetry mainstream these days. Only one of these types of artistic compromise has anything much to do with what Noel-Tod calls elsewhere – with mordant precision – ‘the etiquette of the modern poetry career’. It isn’t the type that may lead to a lifetime’s supply of potato-based convenience food.

Joking apart, I have genuine doubts about whether Noel-Tod’s own jokey style – moreish and enjoyable though it is – can do justice to the bigger arguments it attempts. In the Ayres-Thomas-Leviston example, he ends up crowding out the composure and challenge of Leviston’s words, ushering her too swiftly offstage with that condescending epithet ‘serious-minded’. This is strange because Noel-Tod comes at poetry from an avowedly modernist angle, skewering the bluff, matey parochialism of recent British verse – the popular sort, that is – in favour of ‘stronger, stranger drink’ like J.H. Prynne and Geoffrey Hill. He seems to be on Leviston’s side, in other words, though he clambers into the Trojan horse of witty, accessible table talk to make his point. ‘Rumours persist,’ he quips at one stage, discussing how the T.S. Eliot Prize has betrayed the modernist instincts of its benefactor and namesake, ‘that excellent poetry is being written by poets who are not venerable names rehearsing old themes’. The overall effect can read like Evelyn Waugh writing in defence of Samuel Beckett: an amiably sharp ironist standing up for more austere virtues, the mockery blowing a little in all directions.

If The Whitsun Wedding Video has an overarching argument, then it’s summed up in its opening anecdote. Quoting Philip Larkin’s story of how he almost had a car accident while an emotional reading of Wordsworth played on the radio, Noel-Tod adds:

If Larkin had careered into the hard shoulder trailing clouds of exhaust, British poetry today might look a little different. As it is, thirty years after his death from natural causes, he remains the post-war poetic monument to be – depending on your point of view – saluted on parade days or pulled down when the revolution comes.

This notion of Larkin as a shibboleth, dividing traditionalists from iconoclasts, holds more water than the vivid though fanciful counterfactual of his early death diverting the course of British poetry altogether. Was Larkin such a lonely exception that without him British poetry would have gone the way of wild, postmodern America? He might have liked to think so, but I can’t see it.

More persuasive than the Larkin thesis is Noel-Tod’s view that, generally speaking, the contemporary moment tends to favour poets that will fare less well in the halls of posterity – or, simply put, the popular romantics of today become the winsome fuddy-duddies of tomorrow. One of my favourite moments in the pamphlet arrives with a provocative comparison between Marianne Dashwood’s passion for William Cowper in Sense and Sensibility (a marker of passé or gauche taste even in Austen’s time) and our current mania for Seamus Heaney. ‘Like Cowper,’ Noel-Tod writes,

Heaney is a reflective, rural poet, moving easily between man and landscape, and finding a moral in humble objects evoked with a sumptuous accuracy of phrase…

It’s characteristic of Noel-Tod’s open-minded discrimination that he can do justice to Heaney’s talents even while relegating him to the second division. Doubtless, Larkin may well fall victim to a similar type of reputation fade, in time; maybe he already has done, with the likes of Frank O’Hara and Rosemary Tonks (Noel-Tod’s examples) emerging out of relative obscurity as the key ‘60s influences for switched-on contemporary poets.

But this would just be an instance of the wider phenomenon; Noel-Tod doesn’t quite convince me that Larkin’s example is especially definitive of the contemporary moment. Indeed, by citing Daljit Nagra’s recent ‘Domes of Britain’ and its reference to the speaker’s ‘Larkin train-brain’, he seems at once to undermine and confirm his final prediction that ‘in the century to come, migration and climate change will remake the little island-world that Larkin cast in verse’. Yes, that ‘little island-world’ is being remade, but contrary to what this wording implies, Larkin’s influence isn’t standing in the way of such change. Rather, his writing has so far proved remarkably fertile ground for reinterpretation, as Nagra’s subversive tribute demonstrates.

I quibble with Noel-Tod’s larger arguments because this is the sort of contentious yet generous book that invites one to. Clocking in at a mere 50-odd pages, The Whitsun Wedding Video is impressive for what it does manage to pack in, and it’s the brief, glancing insights that linger, not the rather provisional headline thesis. Apart from neo-Romantic reputation fade, we should be grateful to Noel-Tod for coining the idea of the Shy Tory Poet. As he says, it ‘stands to statistical analysis’ that some contemporary poet or other will have opinions towards the right of the political spectrum, as Larkin famously did, but I’m damned if I can think of one. Modern poetry has become the province of the cultural, ecological and political left – all constituencies in which I’d readily position myself, so this isn’t a complaint as such. You could come up with cogent reasons to explain why poetry lends itself to leftist ideology (that it’s a tool of empathy and therefore solidarity; that it prizes originality and truth in language rather than market-driven efficiency; even that its negligible economic value fosters a bracing knowledge of capitalism’s pitfalls). Nevertheless, I worry about poetry’s fate in this relatively new order. The more that our art becomes a political monoculture, the more embattled and marginal will be its position.

This is the sort of meaty topic I would love to see Noel-Tod tackle in a serious study. For the time being, The Whitsun Wedding Video is more or less the perfect pamphlet: a broadside fired off from the trenches of occasional journalism, peppery, well-intentioned, spiked with social media gossip, and without fail very interesting. It’s surely the only place you can read in codex form about Dave Coates’s essential blog, or John Clegg’s Prynne-dow at the LRB bookshop. Read it now, before a phrase such as ‘Earlier this year, in a review for the Guardian newspaper, Sean O’Brien played Socratic doorman to the debut collection of the poet Jack Underwood’ loses too much in relevance as well as pedantic truth. Most of these pugnacious sallies on the vicissitudes of literary fortunes make as much sense at the start of 2016 as they did in 2015, and will likely do so for a time to come.

Dai George’s first collection was The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). He blogs on British poetry for the Boston Review and edits the web journal Prac Crit. Follow him on Twitter @dai_r_george.

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