Alison Bielski: Poet whose experimental, structurally inventive and often startling work drew on Welsh myth and legend

 

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The Independent Online

Alison Bielski's preoccupation as a poet was with Welsh myth and legend, which she used to sometimes startling effect both on the printed page and in constructions that owed something to Concrete Poetry and the experiments of the European avant-garde. She was aware of the typographical shapes made by poems and of the gestalt qualities of words, so that her work was of interest to visual artists as well as the literary-minded.

She found in myth and legend a dynamic source of material, using its treatment of such basic emotions as love, jealousy and death as pegs on which to hang her own responses to the modern world. When characters from the Mabinogion, that great collection of medieval tales, appear in her poems they do so not as cardboard cut-outs but as real people with something to say about the world today.

But her favoured form was the love poem. Often in love, and twice-married, she wrote lyrics in which she attempted to express the essence of love, often with gnomic precision and a delicate aesthetic touch reminiscent of the hen benillion – the anonymous folk-stanzas which were sung to harp accompaniment. These verses of hers have a pleasing simplicity and directness but they reveal almost nothing of the lover or the beloved, so scrupulous was she in distancing herself from the emotional experience described. They sparkle like exquisite jewels in much the same way as the englyn or the haiku, and simplicity is all, but they are hermetically sealed and do not repay scrutiny by the reader seeking biographical information.

Her prosody also strikes many readers as unfamiliar and off-putting. "I like a poem to have good bones," she once commented. "The shape on the page, together with the surrounding white space, allows breathing space for carefully chosen words." To this end, she created her own system of versification which employs internal rhymes, half-rhymes and cadences imitative of speech-rhythms, rather than end-rhymes. All clutter is removed – punctuation is reduced to a minimum and there are no upper-case letters. These were not devices of her own making but she used them consistently and sometimes brilliantly to heighten the immediacy which she always sought. "I want my poems to sing," she said, "to surprise but never instruct." Many do.

Her method changed little over the years. Although she won a number of minor prizes and exhibited her work in continental Europe, she was virtually ignored in England and regarded with caution and suspicion in her native Wales: her work was too "modern", too "experimental", too "difficult" to command the respect of our more conservative critics and editors.

Despite this neglect, she stuck to her last, convinced of her calling as a poet and determined to follow the writer's craft come what may. For many years her poems were published by a myriad little presses in booklets that are now collector's items. She made her debut with Twentieth-Century Flood, published by Howard Sergeant on the Outposts imprint in 1964, and this was followed by Shapes and Colours, published by the Triskel Press in Wales four years later.

Alison Prosser was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, in 1925. Her family, the Morris Prossers, had been in the district around Tintern Abbey since the 11th century and her great-grandfather had driven the first mail coach from Brecon to Bristol, thereby making postal history. She was acutely aware of the Border land of Gwent, where endless invasions from sea and land, and the clash of Welsh and English cultures, have gone to the making of the people and the landscape, and she made this turbulent history one of the themes of her poetry.

After leaving Newport High School at the age of 16 she had secretarial training before becoming private secretary to the press officer of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1945 and then working in her family's engineering firm. Her first marriage ended with her husband's death after two years. She then took a job as Welfare Secretary to the British Red Cross in Cardiff, remarried and settled down as "a writer-housewife", finding time to write despite the strain of having to cope with an alcoholic husband and two growing children. Voracious reading made up in some measure for her lack of higher education.

Her first hardbacked book was Across the Burning Sand (1970) but, because it was difficult in those days to reproduce collages and the more advanced of her concrete poems, that book consists for the most part of poems in traditional forms, though they dispense with capital letters and conventional punctuation. It was followed by The Lovetree (1974) in the Triskel Poets series, after which she fell silent until her last, most prolific phase. Only a few small booklets such as Flower Legends of Wales (1974) and Tales and Traditions of Tenby (1981) appeared in her name, so that many thought she had given up poetry. A private woman who took pains to guard her personal life against enquiries from nosey-parkers and the plain prurient, she found solace in playing the organ and harpsichord, and in baroque music and the game of chess.

A selection of her poems appeared as That Crimson Flame from the University of Salzburg in 1996, a volume that gave a new impression of her as a lyrical poet of some range and power, and the same press brought out The Green-eyed Pool the following year. Her last books were Sacramental Sonnets (2003) and One of our Skylarks (2011), the former a cycle of 52 poems written in 1982 which she considered her most sustained and memorable work. The sequence is based on the year's cycle and reflects Church liturgy and the legends of Dyfed, land of the Mabinogion, where she lived for more than a decade, working in Tenby bookshops.

From 1969-74 Bielski was, with Sally Roberts Jones, honorary joint secretary of the English-language section of Yr Academi Gymreig, the national association of writers in Wales. Her administrative skills helped nurture the fledgling body until such time as it was taken under the wing of the Welsh Arts Council and then, in due course, made autonomous with its own office and personnel.

MEIC STEPHENS

Alison Joy Prosser, poet: born Newport, Monmouthshire 24 November 1925; married 1948 Dennis Treverton-Jones (died 1950; one son); 1955 Anthony Bielski (marriage dissolved; one daughter); died 9 July 2014.

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