Books: At the sign of the leek

This Thursday, 9 October, is National Poetry Day. Around the country there will be events prize-giving and readings publishers are busy putting out the best of old and new TWENTIETH-CENTURY ANGLO-WELSH POETRY ed Dannie Abse, Seren pounds 19.95
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"Welsh-flavoured poems", "a recognisable Welsh pulse-beat", "Wales's poetry phantascope", "poets of Welsh affiliation" - Dannie Abse's Introduction struggles to define what Anglo-Welshness consists in, and so do the 20-odd poets and critics whose thoughts provide an interesting Prologue, but none of them arrives at anything which marks off the "efflorescence of Anglo-Welsh poetry" from its sisterly glow in England, Scotland, and the two Irelands. I don't say this in any imperialistic or anti-Welsh spirit, merely to observe that what we have in common, linguistically and thematically, tends to outweigh what is particular to any given region.

One poet speaks of "the condescension or indifference of English centralism", but it's hard to find out where this mythical beast lives and practises his cruel trade. Most poets devolved themselves long ago, yet are glad to find a London publisher and as big an audience as may be. The real centralism is that exerted by talent or genius. Witness the gravitational pull of an R S Thomas or Plath or Muldoon in the little magazines.

Not that there isn't plenty of rich matter for Welsh grievance to feed on. See Harri Webb's "Ode to the Severn Bridge": "Two lands at last connected / Across the waters wide / And all the tolls collected / On the English side." "Being Anglo-anything is really tough," adds John Davies, who neatly skewers a whole raft of pieties in "How to Write Anglo-Welsh Poetry": "exile, defeat, hills.../ Anything Welsh and sad". There's plenty to illustrate his case here; leaden pastorals and false lyricism, as when Sam Adams speaks of minors "held in that intimacy / of coal like men in love". The pithead bath's a supermarket now, Max Boyce used to sob with glutinous sentimentality, and there's more than a touch of that shameless nostalgia here, when cold rage would seem to have been a more appropriate response. This false elegiac note makes R S Thomas's grim hauteur all the more attractive, likewise the comic exuberance of Peter Finch, though the editor prefers his more conventional verse.

One problem for many of these poets is how to deal with the matter of Wales - mountains, pits, chapels, exploitation, the long-lost magnificence of Dafydd ap Gwilym - without descending into pastiche, a sherry-trifle compounded of Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Celtic Yeats and over-excited alliteration. Glyn Jones's "Again" avoids these excesses and catches the mood of sombre reflection: "Shall my daughter run through the streets to the pithead /...And see the young men brought up dead?" Vernon Watkins's ballad "The Collier" takes up the refrain: "Clever or clumsy, lad or lout, / All would look for a wage". Elsewhere he reaches for his bible-kit, and "the nunnery of sorrows". R S Thomas doesn't spare the rod either: "an impotent People, / Sick with inbreeding, / Worrying the carcase of an old song". Iago Prytherch, Thomas's most memorable creation, is nowhere to be found.

Alun Lewis, one of the major Welsh figures of the century, is here, thank goodness, though not as abundantly as he might have been. So is Roland Mathias's "Porth Cwyfan", which finds a soberly mature voice. Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas are co-opted, reasonably enough, but apart from "Old Man" the latter is not represented by his best poems.

Dylan Thomas does his stuff, which at this date seems closer to the Three Tenors than to Bach or Iolo Goch. Does a liking for "The Hunchback in the Park" indicate an incurably English, Movement-tinged myopia on my part, or a sane aversion to rhetoric and those dubious plummy vowels in the famous recordings of his readings? I was pleased to discover Robert Morgan and T H Jones, and trudged dutifully through all the worthies - Tripp, Ormond, Bidgood, Norris, Conran, and more - who make up much of the book. Oliver Reynolds only gets a page or two, and nothing at all from his sequence of poems on Welsh themes, not least the language itself ("I'd thought it time to stop / Welshing on the language / And learn about roots / If only etymological ones") in "Skevington's Daughter".

Sixty-seven poets find favour in all - the opposite of Muldoon's controversial strategy in sifting post-war Irish poets down to ten. As a sampling it's as catholic as could be, though that probably won't stop fights breaking out in Swansea, Cardiff, and points north and west. As a primer in the matter of making it new in Wales, however, it lacks quality control.

As for the Anglo-Welsh phenomenon, and the complex fate that entails, must it always be a matter of meliorists versus separatists? Look at Ireland, north and south: look at France and Brittany; look at India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. Maybe we should all settle for Salman Rushdie's grand metaphor of chutnification, as David Jones does, in a manner of speaking, in his modernist fabrications about the matter of Britain. Or maybe we await a new synthesis: A Drunk Man Looks at the Leek.

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