From the Archive | The Van Pool: The Collected Poems of Keidrych Rhys

Keidrych Rhys illustration

In the coming months, Wales Arts Review will be plucking some longform gems from our extensive archives and presenting them anew, and we start here with Laura Wainwright’s article on the publication of The Van Pool: The Collected Poems of Keidrych Rhys by Seren, in 2013.

In her extraordinary Modernist ‘heroic poem’, Gods With Stainless Ears (1951), composed between 1941 and 1943, the Argentine-born poet Lynette Roberts invests the landscape surrounding her adopted Carmarthenshire home of Llanybri with a diffuse, rhapsodic and visionary awareness of the violence of the Second World War. ‘In fear of fate, flying into land’, she writes in Part I,


Orcadian birds pair

And peal away like praying hands; bare

Aluminium beak to clinic air; frame

Soldier lonely whistling in full corridor train


The anxiously envisaged ‘soldier’ in the above lines is almost certainly a poetic incarnation of Roberts’s then husband: the influential yet elusive and frequently neglected Welsh poet, writer and editor, Keidrych Rhys. Identifiable later in the poem by his army number, ‘1 6 2 0 B 6’, Rhys was away from home on military postings – including a posting to bird-loud Scapa Flow in Orkney – for long periods during the War. His first appearance in a ‘frame’ in Roberts’ poem is not insignificant; as Roberts asserts in her Preface to Gods With Stainless Ears, ‘the poem was written for filming, especially Part V [the final section], where the [same] soldier and his girl walk in fourth dimension among the clouds and visit the outer strata of our planet’.

The speaker’s grandiose and fanciful visualisation of the ‘soldier and his girl’ at the end of Gods With Stainless Ears – as well as constituting the apotheosis of Roberts’ Modernist experimentation and an interesting poetic excursion into science fiction – also speaks to what Charles Mundye, in his fascinating and edifying introduction to The Van Pool: Collected Poems, views as ‘the process of self-presentation and mythologization’ that underpinned Keidrych Rhys’s literary career. Rhys is described by his friend and contemporary, Dylan Thomas (who was best man at Rhys’ wedding), as ‘consciously queer’[ii] and ‘the best sort of crank’[iii] in his letters; while Wales’ eminent literary critic, M. Wynn Thomas, identifies him as ‘ever the flamboyant impresario’, ‘adopting a Poundean abruptness of manner and striking a streetwise attitude hardboiled as that of Chandler’s Philip Marlow’.[iv]

Keidrych Rhys was not, in fact, really Keidrych Rhys at all, but Ronald Rees Jones: he changed his name by deed poll in 1940 to a corruption of the Welsh ‘Ceidrych’ – the name of a river that wound near his home in Bethlehem, Carmarthenshire. Mundye hails the publication, for the first time, by Seren, of Rhys’s poetic output in its entirety ‘as part of the reconfiguring’ of what we know and understand – or think we know and understand – about this writer and his work. In the terms of Roberts’ heroic poem, we might say, The Van Pool represents a fresh move to bring Keidrych Rhys both back from the ‘outer strata’ of critical and cultural awareness and back down, as it were, to ‘the solid stone of earth’.

Wales betrayed Rhys’ impatience with an insular London literati and a conservative Welsh-language literary culture

Although Rhys produced a significant body of poetry, publishing it in many of the little magazines that were in vogue in the avant-garde literary world during the early twentieth century, and in a collection, The Van Pool and Other Poems, in 1940, he is principally noted for his work as an editor. He edited two anthologies of war poetry, published in 1941 and 1943, and a third anthology, Modern Welsh Poetry, in 1944. The latter was published by T.S. Eliot’s Faber and Faber press and on its dust jacket Rhys stated:


This is an anthology of the work of the younger living Welsh poets writing in English; compiled by one of them [. . .]. It is of value generally for the excellence of the poems, and particularly as evidence of the peculiar contribution of rhythm, imagery and feeling, of the Welsh genius to English verse.[v]


This declaration attests to Rhys’s formative and enduring belief in the creative potential of Welsh writers who, as a consequence of the rapid Anglicisation of Wales in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, spoke and wrote in English – poets and writers such as Dylan Thomas, Caradoc Evans, Glyn Jones, Vernon Watkins, Idris Davies, Gwyn Thomas and Rhys Davies. These figures, along with writers such as David Jones and Lynette Roberts, who recognised and self-consciously utilised the artistic and, indeed, Modernist possibilities of Anglophone Welsh literature, produced works of striking intensity and originality. Among the more experimental of this so-called ‘first flowering’ of ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writers was Glyn Jones, who opened his ground-breaking critical study of Anglophone Welsh literature, The Dragon has Two Tongues (1968), as follows:


Dear Keidrych,

I address this introduction to you because in a way it was you who started it all. By ‘it’ I mean this particular book and the general inquiry into Anglo-Welsh [literature], a term, by the way, I know you dislike as much as I do.[vi]


Jones goes on to explain that it was a combination of Keidrych Rhys’s founding of the literary magazine, Wales – perhaps his most celebrated venture – which ran from 1937-39, 1943-49 and 1958-60, and his guru-like reminder to Jones, on a Cardiff bus during the War, that ‘you are not an English poet. You are a Welsh one’, that brought into focus the simultaneously distinctive and vexed position of the Anglophone Welsh writer in the early twentieth century. This conflicted sensibility also found expression in Rhys’ editorship of Wales. Wales betrayed Rhys’, and reflected other Anglophone Welsh writers’, impatience with an insular London literati and a conservative Welsh-language literary culture; and yet he was both a Welsh speaker – he translated a number of Welsh-language poems which are included in Mundye’s text – and a literary socialite in England’s capital. Dylan Thomas, for example, recalls him ‘talking little magazines until the air was full of names [. . .] and the rooms packed to the corners with invisible snobs’.[vii] Clearly, in this respect, Wales is an invaluable document of Welsh social and cultural history. And the magazine is also significant because, along with the Welsh Review, it created a vital platform for the promotion and development of Anglophone Welsh literary culture in the twentieth century – just as the Wales Arts Review is establishing itself as a crucial forum for Anglophone Welsh arts criticism in our own time. For Rhys, however, as Patrick McGuinness has commented, editing Wales ‘led to a hand-to-mouth existence belied by the stature of [the magazine’s] contributors and the energy of its promotion’.[viii] Let us hope that Wales Arts Review can look forward to a more comfortable future.

The publication of Keidrych Rhys’ collected poems, then, represents an important event in Welsh literary culture. While Rhys’ prominence as an editor is undeniable, however, his stature as a poet is more uncertain – largely because many of his poems have, until now, long been out of print. If we were to believe Dylan Thomas (not always a reliable source of information), then we might approach The Van Pool: Collected Poems with few expectations:


We [Thomas and his wife, Caitlin] never see the Keidrych Rhyses [sic] now. I’m number one on the list, Mrs R’s [Lynette Roberts’s] list, of people who have had a bad effect on hubby. That’s what she thinks. I tell him bad things about poetry; such as that his isn’t poetry at all.[ix]


There are certainly a number of poems in The Van Pool: Collected Poems that fall well short of the considerable standards set by many of Rhys’ contemporaries, including those laid down by his wife, Lynette Roberts. This is evident, for example, appropriately, in ‘Letter to My Wife’:


I miss your letters terribly when our mails go wrong

Those days are blank for me, the sky without a song

You are my front-line love – and always will be – with ease

            Oh I can see you at your window in the cottage through the trees.

O ecstasies of courting days O clouded quarrel-days

The Fuehrer wants a word with you! the simple life the simple Joy

just stays


‘Letter to My Wife’ could easily be dismissed as trite, and Rhys’ verse certainly features, as the above lines testify, some rather desperate-sounding rhymes; and yet the poem – like many others in this collection – creates a revealing and often moving picture of a World War Two soldier’s exile and of the personal and creative relationship between two of the most interesting and complex Welsh cultural figures of the twentieth century. ‘Section from the Van Pool (For My Wife)’ is especially engaging in its invocation of Lynette Roberts as poetic muse, while ‘Lament (In Memoriam T.J.M.C. killed flying October 10th, 1941)’ captures eloquently the shuddering despair of a mother bereaved by war:


Worse than the licking dearth the limits of her great emotion

A range out-topping earthly Reason is this small

jubilant death and this great grief.


‘Poem on Being Invalided Out of the Army’, on the other hand, is an affecting and surprisingly candid meditation on Rhys’s treatment, Mundye’s note on the text reveals, in a pioneering military psychiatric hospital.

As Rhys’ words to Glyn Jones – ‘you are not an English poet. You are a Welsh one’ – imply, Wales and Welsh culture are also integral to this rich and mercurial collection. As for so many of his contemporaries, the landscape of Wales undulates through Rhys’s poems, trailing its histories and its myths. ‘The Van Pool’, for example, a pervasive intertext in the collection, refers to a magical folkloric pool – Llyn y Fan Fach – that lies in the shadow of the Van Mountains near Rhys’s childhood home in Carmarthenshire; while ‘Poem for A Neighbour’ is another resonant, musical poem of place:


In the sea-marsh where I carve the harsh shallows

On the turfed rock rise a shock of willows

Stockdoves, fireflies, sea-gulls, bats from the hollows.


Other poems, such as the playful ‘Cynghannedd Cymru’, provocatively draw on traditional Welsh poetic forms, while ‘Violence: Wales’, ‘Fragments from the Poem of Asking’ and ‘The Fire Sermon or Bureaucracy Burned’ – which takes as its subject the Welsh nationalists, Saunders Lewis, D.J. Williams and Lewis Valentine’s arson attack on a controversial army bombing school in Penyberth in north Wales in 1936 – give forthright expression to Rhys’ social and political conscience. The challenges and divisions of the ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writer in the early twentieth century that so preoccupied Glyn Jones, however, are – as they are in the work of many of Rhys’ contemporaries – always disturbing or troubling the surface of this ‘pool’. Rhys’ combative retort to the ‘Literary ‘Conservatives’’ represents this cultural moment, to use W.B. Yeats’s phrase, ‘enchanted to a stone’:[x]


Their patriotic words echo rusty perdition

In verse that falsifies a fine tradition:

While our hot Idealists, shot with lead,

Leave deathless poems – far better dead.


[i] Gods With Stainless Ears: A Heroic Poem, in Lynette Roberts: Collected Poems, ed. Patrick McGuinness (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2005), pp. 43-78, (p. 45).

[ii] Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (London: Paladin, 1987), p. 373.

[iii] Ibid., p. 301.

[iv] M. Wynn Thomas, Corresponding Cultures: The Two Literatures of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), p. 84.

[v] Keidrych Rhys (ed.), Modern Welsh Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1944).

[vi] Glyn Jones, ‘Letter to Keidrych’, in The Dragon has Two Tongues: Essays on Anglo-Welsh Writers and Writing, ed. Tony Brown (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 1-3 (p. 1).

[vii] Dylan Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 373.

[viii] Patrick McGuinness, ‘Introduction’, in Lynette Roberts: Collected Poems, ed. Patrick McGuinness (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2005), pp. vii-xvii (p. xiv).

[ix] Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, p. 434.

[x] W.B. Yeats, ‘Easter, 1916’, W.B. Yeats: Selected Poetry, ed. Norman Jeffares (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 93-95 (p. 94).

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis