Bryan Martin Davies: Poet whose powerful and evocative work was inspired by the anthracite valleys of post-industrial south-west Wales

Although angry with governments that had allowed this to happen, there was nothing overtly propagandist in his poems

Sunday 15 November 2015 17:29 GMT

Bryan Martin Davies was the first poet writing in Welsh to make post-industrial south-west Wales the material of his poems, in the last phase of their rundown in the 1960s and 1970s. Born into a mining family in Carmarthenshire in 1933, he had first-hand experience of the break-up of communities that followed the closing of the anthracite pits and the social blight that came in their wake. He was particularly concerned about the decay of the Aman Valley’s rich cultural life in which the chapel and workmen’s institute had played such a key part.

Although he was angry with the governments that had allowed this to happen, and his support for Plaid Cymru notwithstanding, there was nothing overtly propagandist in his poems and he seemed to see himself as a chronicler of inevitable decline and the celebrant of a way of life that was about to disappear. He had an aesthetic appreciation of the scarred industrial landscape which is rare among Welsh poets.

He was educated at the Aman Valley Grammar School and the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he graduated in Welsh. After an MA thesis on Gwenallt Jones, he did two years’ military service, which he always looked back on with wry amusement: it was, he once told me, the making of him as a writer because it gave him a steely capacity to observe the folly of the officer class and the time to look into himself and discover who he really was. It also gave him a taste for cigarettes and beer and the male company in which he delighted for the rest of his life.

Although he took the Welsh-speaking communities of the Aman Valley as his main source of material, never moving very far emotionally from the scenes and people among whom he had grown up, he spent many years as a teacher in other parts of Wales: first in Ruabon, Denbighshire, and later as Head of Welsh at the Yale Sixth Form College in Clwyd.

In north-east Wales he enjoyed friendships with many poets, notably Euros Bowen, a prolific representative of Symbolism in Welsh-language poetry, in whose company he often went gallivanting around the pubs of Denbighshire and Flintshire. There never were two more dissimilar companions: Bowen, an Anglican priest, saw himself as a Sacramental poet, rather like RS Thomas in his later phase, and was given to endless exegesis on the finer points of his religious beliefs and poetic craft; the younger man would usually have settled for some good conversation about rugby and a few pints.

Bryan first came to prominence as a poet at the National Eisteddfod in Ammanford in 1970 when he won the Crown with a sequence of poems entitled Darluniau ar Gynfas (Pictures on canvas), which became the title of his first collection published later that year; the book was dedicated to the people of the Aman Valley. The poems are a powerful evocation of the villages, pits, miners, chapels, farms and cinemas the poet had known in his boyhood. His sense of the decaying industrial landscape existing cheek-by-jowl with the still vibrant rural tradition of the Carmarthenshire Valleys is reminiscent of the young Auden.

His feat in winning the Crown was repeated in the year following: in Golau Caeth (Captive light, 1972) he included not only the winning sequence on that theme but also a number of elegant poems on subjects from Welsh mythology and others suggested by the work of the French Impressionists. Most of these are written in free verse (as distinct from verse in the traditional metres for which the Eisteddfod awards its Chair) and using verse-patterns that reflected the “open field’’ approach to prosody Davies favoured.

A wider horizon is to be seen in his next two collections, Deuoliaethau (Dualities, 1976) and Lleoedd (Places, 1984). In the second of these are poems set in Poland and Switzerland in which he questions the bearded orthodoxies of those countries and holds up a mirror to what he understands about himself as a poet and man, often with a light sardonic touch.

In his last collection, Pan Oedd y Nos yn Wenfflam (When the night was lit up by flames, 1988) he addressed darker contemporary questions, including the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and the spread of Aids, as well as the exigencies of approaching old age. The most remarkable poem in the book is “Ymson Trisco” (“Trisco’s soliloquy”), a long rhyming ballad spoken by an old pit-pony in which the poet discussed, among other things, the effects of Modernism and Post-Modernism on the literature of Wales and the state of literary criticism in Britain.

There was a tension in Davies caused by his awareness of living in an anglicised corner of north-east Wales and yet earning his living by teaching Welsh and looking back in so many of his poems to his boyhood in the staunchly Welsh-speaking Aman Valley. One of his most chilling lines, “Ynom mae y Clawdd”, is to the effect that Offa’s Dyke runs through the psyche of every Welsh man and woman who feels the tug of England and the English language. For all his sympathy with those of his compatriots who write in “the thin language’’, he knew on which side of the Dyke he belonged but was none the less prepared to explore the complexities.

Davies wrote two more remarkable books. The first was a Welsh translation (1983) of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which he put in hand after one of his daughters complained that she found Chaucer’s Middle English difficult. The second was Gardag (1988), a fantasy novel “for children of all ages” in which he succeeded, without anthropomorphism or sentimentality, in empathising with a pair of foxes on the Black Mountain in much the same way as Richard Adams writing about rabbits in Watership Down. His fascination with foxes, in which he detected some of the cunning and indomitable resilience of the Welsh, is to be seen in his essay which appears in English translation in the anthology Illuminations (1998).

His last years were sad and lonely: cast down by the early death of his wife and suffering from cancer, he still wrote a number of fine, intricate poems in memory of Gwenda, a selection of which were published in the magazine Barddas in 2000.

Bryan Martin Davies, poet: born Brynaman, Carmarthenshire 8 April 1933; married Gwenda (died 1996: two daughters); died 26 August 2015.

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