Emma Schofield takes a look at The History of Wales in Twelve Poems, edited by M. Wynn Thomas, a new collection which charts the social, economic and political history of Wales through the window of twelve selected poems.
Whenever a book lands on my doorstep claiming to offer the history of anything, whether through literature, music or art, my heart sinks. Volumes with titles of this nature tend to set themselves up with lofty ambition, but so frequently seem to fall short of what they set out to achieve. Yet as with everything in life, there are always exceptions and M. Wynn Thomas’s new collection The History of Wales in Twelve Poems is just the exception I wasn’t expecting to find. It is, as the preface announces, a volume which sets out not to compile a frivolous chart of the best poetry from Wales, but ‘to place the poets of Wales at the very forefront of Welsh history’.
The book is beautiful, twelve carefully chosen poems presented alongside stunning illustrations from Ruth Jên Evans. The key here is that the collection does not purport to be the definitive collection of twelve poems which summarise the entire history of Wales, instead it regards itself very much as a window into the past and the present. The poems here are a snapshot of the moment in which they were written, a shot brought more sharply into focus by the strength of the narrative which accompanies them. The selection of such an eclectic array of poems is affectionate, but also pragmatic; they have been selected for their relevance to the discussion of Welsh history and nationhood and because, together, they have a story to tell. This story is one of a nation which has proved resilient in the face of a turbulent political history and is emphasised by the poignant illustrations added by Evans.
It is Thomas’s own role as the facilitator of this process which really draws the whole collection together. Gentle, charismatic and full of Thomas’s rich knowledge of Wales and its literary and political history, the commentary weaves together each of the poems to create an image of Wales as a nation. With Thomas’s own unique style (who else would describe the Welsh as ‘the Tinker Bell of a people’?) firmly in the driving seat, it makes for an entertaining and enjoyable read. Each of the poems has something specific to contribute to this history, from one of Wales’ earliest surviving poems to a powerful and moving elegy from the thirteenth century, the collection brings together poems which are worthy of so much more attention than they usually attain. Of course there are a few very well-known poems dotted among the twelve here, for example, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ is included, but these are read within the context of their social and economic history.
It is contained within the collection’s honesty about this context that the real stories can be found. The history depicted by the poems in the collection is a frank one, often focusing on themes of loss, loneliness, death and broken identity. Together the poems paint a picture of struggles, hardship and a determination to keep going, even against the odds. The figure of the underdog is everywhere and this is not so much a collection about the past, as it is a record of poems which have captured the struggles of lives lived through financial hardship, political upheaval and war. As is always the case with poetry, readers will have their own favourites from within the collection here, but I found myself particularly drawn to Ann Griffiths’s hauntingly poetic ‘Wele’n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd/See – there stands’ and Menna Elfyn’s ‘Siapau o Gymru/The shapes she makes’. I was already familiar with both poems, but in this context their passion and bittersweet evocations of faith, identity and femininity really stood out.
Surprisingly perhaps, given the weighty nature of the content in the poems and the commentary, the volume still makes for a surprisingly uplifting read. Yet a volume such as this is, inevitably, political and Thomas does not shy away from the fact that there still remain an enormous number of challenges facing modern day Wales. Transport issues, communication difficulties, media turmoil and rural decline are all recognised; no attempt is made here to sugar-coat the turbulent Welsh history, or to pretend that the nation has now entered calmer waters. In this respect, the collection is a timely one and it feels like the sounding of a cultural claxon, a reminder not only of the strength of the poetic tradition in Wales, but of the nation’s continued resilience in the face of adversity.
In a recent discussion about this book, I said that I thought it would be a collection which we return to for years to come, a benchmark in our study of history, poetry and nationhood in Wales. I can only reiterate that belief. Make space on your bookshelf, this is one book which you will be drawn back to again and again.