Wales and Innovative Poetry: Part 2

Wales and Innovative Poetry: Part 2

In Part 2 of this extract from The Edge of Necessary: Wales and Innovative Poetry, editors John Goodby and Lyndon Davies trace the emergence of the modern poetry scene in Wales, charting the evolution of innovative poetry and citing the work of some of the most significant poets of Wales of the last fifty years.

When we (the editors of this book) first met in May 2008, it was immediately apparent that we had a similar interest in exploring the Welsh experimental poetry world in greater depth. We were both tired of the blandness and predictability of much Welsh poetry of the kind endorsed by the big poetry publishers and wanted to do our bit towards thawing out the existing deep-freeze, to extending the opportunities for innovative writers in terms of publishing, performing and critical discussion. In a series of Poetry Wales articles written around 2000, Lyndon (our apologies for the awkward lurch into the third person at this point) had sketched out a more complex vision of the relationship between language, landscape, politics, and poetry than that allowed for by the identity-obsessed discourses of the time, and called for a poetry to match it. About the same time, John had been exploring what happened to Welsh poetic modernism after Dylan Thomas, and had discovered John James, but was unable to find anyone in Welsh academia who knew – let alone valued – his work.

Putting our partial knowledge and much larger ignorances together, we decided it was time that the kind of poetry we both appreciated deserved a platform. If we could answer some of the questions we had about Welsh experimentalism in the process, so much the better. And so, in June 2009, the first of four Hay-on-Wye Poetry Jamborees took place. Held in mild defiance of the commercialism and poetry-lite programme of the Hay Literature Festival proper, it ran over the Whit weekend, and was Welsh-themed, with Peter Finch, Peter Meilleur, John James, Wendy Mulford and Chris Torrance among the main readers. Upwards of forty other Welsh and British poets showed up, strutted their stuff, mingled, swapped books, struck up friendships. As time went on, and three further Jamborees extended the success of the first one, we both discovered a series of fragmentary histories – of writers, meetings, publications and readings – which allowed us to gradually piece together the so-far untold tale of the fortunes of innovative poetry in Wales.

It turned out, for a start, that Welsh poets had contributed as much as any others in these islands to the British Poetry Revival. Wales had been, for example, at the forefront of the international Concrete poetry movement in the late 1960s, spearheaded by Finch (whose ‘Sunpoem’ we include in Edge of Necessary), but also including Philip Jenkins, Alison Bielski, and Swansea-based Englishman John Powell Ward. It turned out, moreover, that Concrete poetry continued to have a vital Welsh presence in the shape of Peter Meilleur, aka Childe Roland, an Anglo-Québécois poet, who had moved to Llangollen in 1979 and had been nurturing an impeccably inventive, idiosyncratic, and playful strain of poetry there ever since – an exemplary case of the way in which the Welsh experience of innovative poetry has embodied fluidity, cultural exchange and a disregard for national barriers. It was clear that the lifeblood of much of the best of modern Welsh poetry had drawn sustenance, not disqualification, from ‘the English pound’, from the inflow and outflow of talent and ideas.

Just as Chris Torrance, to take one example, had been arriving in 1970 to settle in the Upper Neath Valley and write Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time, the classic hippy poetry collection (we intend this term in its most positive sense), and to begin work on The Magic Door (his major long psychogeographical poem, published in 2017), so the careers of the Welsh-born John James, Wendy Mulford, Philip Jenkins and Paul Evans were already starting to thrive outside Wales, in Cambridge, Nottingham and London, each contributing to the Revival in significant ways.

part 2 innovativeJames, for example, had co-edited the journal Resuscitator in Bristol and was closely associated with The English Intelligencer by the mid-1960s. His 1960s and 1970s poetry crackles with energy, wit and formal daring, is subtle and cosmopolitan in range, yet is often intelligently populist too, in a way which shows him to be one of the few poets able to adapt Ginsberg and O’Hara to British contexts. Its Welshness is undemonstrative yet unmistakably there, in subject matter and, more deeply, in a blend of swagger in the face of, and at a staged distance from, ‘the saxon heartland’.

Paul Evans, likewise, was initially a brilliant exponent of the late-1960s ‘cool’ style, although – fascinatingly – he had come to write poetry which in certain respects resembles that of R. S. Thomas by the time of his tragic early death in 1991. Philip Jenkins edited the Nottingham magazine Sotto Voce, whose contents page (for issue 3, July 1974) shows just how close a young Welsh poet was to the avant-garde pulse of his day: his name appears with those of Bruce Andrews, Ted Berrigan, Thomas A. Clark, Cid Corman, Ulli McCarthy, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett and Nicholas Zerbrugg. Philip Jenkins, an exemplary case of a Concrete poet evolving into a more searching writer, is another part of the rich innovative legacy yet to receive due recognition; to this day his masterpiece, Cairo, remains unpublished in complete form.

By the mid-1970s, Wendy Mulford, raised near Abergavenny (‘still [my] home’ she calls it), had mentored and worked with Denise Riley in Cambridge, founded Street Editions and pioneered the struggle for the visibility of women in the avant-garde scene. In a way which more conservative champions of women’s writing might study with profit, she made the case for the liberatory potential of experimental writing for feminists; far from failing by not directly advancing the nationalist cause, Mulford regarded it, rightly understood, as a more profound means for exploring the gendered self as it is situated within language, in order to ‘destruct the lie of culture’. As a leading figure in this field, Mulford would later be the natural choice to write the ‘After. Word’ to the seminal international anthology of innovative women’s poetry, out of everywhere (1996). None of this precluded her writing a poem-sequence called Alltud (2007) (whose title is a Welsh term for ‘exile’), as purists might suppose it would.

Back in Wales itself, incomers made a vibrant contribution to the nation’s poetry culture. Pete Hodgkiss’ journals Not Poetry (1976-80) and the seminal Poetry Information (1974-78), as well as his Galloping Dog Press, operated out of Swansea, for example. Nearby was Cwm Nedd Press, which ran for more than twenty years, from the mid-70s, and published Torrance and Richard Caddel, amongst others. Even in the depressed 1980s – that is, in the wake of the failed first Devolution vote, deindustrialization and the Miners’ strike – a string of new journals were born, including Element 5, No Walls, Maximum Load, Kite, Madoc, and Spectrum.

Predictably, more Welsh-born poets left Wales than stayed as recession continued its ravages; they included David Annwn who, significantly, was profoundly shaped before he left Wales as a student at Aberystwyth University. There, for many years, the English poet Jeremy Hooker was a beacon to seekers of non-standard poetic fare, teaching and fostering interest in David Jones and contemporary US poets. (Later, living in Wakefield, in contact with English innovative poets, Annwn would shift from a roots-baring, jazz-influenced style, to the futuristic radical wordplay perfected in Bela Fawr’s Cabaret – another case of a Welsh poet leaving Wales and, in doing so, expanding the imaginative definition of Wales by hybridising other traditions.)

Significant too, in the era of hard-faced Thatcherism, was the energetic Cardiff performance scene. This grew out of the performers of Cabaret 246 – mainly composed of students and former students from Chris Torrance’s Creative Writing Group – which flourished throughout the 1980s, generating its own press and magazines. Crucially, this activity was the launch-pad for several later English-born incomers, including Graham Hartill, Chris Broadribb, Elisabeth Bletsoe and Phil Maillard, all of whom, Bletsoe apart, stayed to live and write in Wales.

From the mid-1990s onward, innovative activity flourished in Bangor University, through Zoë Skoulding, who started up Skald magazine in 1994, and Ian Davidson, a former tutee of Ralph Hawkins at the University of Essex, who arrived later on the scene. Skald, of which Davidson became co-editor, was a locus of high quality activity. In 2003, it published Davidson’s On Wales, a pamphlet anthology of a dozen poems (by Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Andrew Duncan, Peter Riley and others) ‘which refer to Wales, [and are] written by poets who don’t live here [although] … some of them were born or have lived in Wales, or have strong family ties.’ This was a quietly subversive gesture; by deliberately featuring several poets with only a tenuous link to Wales – in some cases simply a visit, or passing-through – this pamphlet broadened the legitimacy of a poetic interest in Wales which extended beyond blood ties and residency, making it one of the forebears of our own anthology.

In South Wales, meanwhile, the immensely versatile David Greenslade had begun publishing in the late 1980s, his work having emerged in part out of the battles for Welsh language rights, as the title of the pamphlet Burning Down the Dosbarth indicates. Perhaps the most prolific and innovative Welsh poet of his generation, Greenslade is the author of one of the most impressive single collections by a Welsh poet of the last thirty years Each Broken Object, (1998). Like Steven Hitchins and Rhys Trimble, Greenslade also often collaborates with visual artists, and organizes what were once called ‘happenings’ (his setting of a trail of salt around the Welsh Office in Cardiff, was one of the more memorable). There are shamanistic aspects to these performances and enactments, which calculatedly renew the Welsh bardic tradition while displaying a postmodern awareness of its potentialities and possible pitfalls.

Perhaps the most astonishing single publication of the 1990s was that of the triple-authored collection However Introduced to the Soles (1995), by some way the most deliriously iconoclastic volume ever published on Welsh soil. It owed its existence to Niall Quinn, who gathered his own work and that of two friends, Nick Macias and Nic Laight, the latter a member of the Noumena Writers Group run by John Evans at Pontypridd’s Club y Bont in 1989. Soles was a worthy inheritor of the traditions of Dada, Fluxus and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, blending verbal debris and lyric ranting in a way which outdoes even Peter Finch or Iain Sinclair at their most charismatically possessed. In a critical culture worthy of its avant-garde, this single book would already have spawned half a dozen PhDs. As it is, work from Soles is reprinted in Edge of Necessity for the first time, with the story of its origins having to wait for an as-yet-unwritten history.

As was the case elsewhere in Britain, Welsh innovative poetry started becoming more visible in the early 2000s; this was its key moment of emergence, following submergence in the late 1970s. One major reason was the burgeoning new technologies of email, the web, and print on demand. These helped innovative poetry everywhere to overcome its ghettoisation, and were crucial in Wales, where they connected individuals who were particularly far-flung, and helped to weaken officialdom’s grip on events, publication and information flows. As if to make the point, it was as a print-on-demand title from Salt that The Collected Poems of John James appeared in 2002. Bringing together nineteen pamphlets and collections which had appeared over thirty-five years, this was a turning-point in the reception of innovative poetry in Wales, and gave many a sense for the first time of a brilliant, hitherto unsuspected dimension to Welsh poetry.

In the same year Wendy Mulford’s selected poems, and suddenly, supposing, was also published. Taken together, as the work of two major poets who had lived their adult lives largely outside Wales, considered themselves Welsh, and wrote with Wales in mind, these volumes gestured towards a vast, unacknowledged poetic hinterland, within as well as without the national territory.

Another reason for increased visibility was Poetry Wales. This was a journal which had always been well-handled, and had established itself as one of the best of its kind in Britain; but, from 1997, under the editorship of Robert Minhinnick (whose own poetry was at this time acquiring ever-greater linguistic freedom and scope) it became one of the few literary organs in the English-speaking world to give fair representation to both mainstream and innovative poetries. Zoë Skoulding, from 2008 to 2014, and Nia Davies since, have each maintained this genuinely pluralist position. It is in stark contrast to the London-based equivalent, Poetry Review, over the same twenty year period, the brief reign of Robert Potts and David Herd apart.

As the 2000s progressed, other rediscoveries occurred, feeding contemporary activity – Lynette Roberts’s great neomodernist epic Gods With Stainless Ears was republished for the first time since 1952 in 2005, a Selected Poems of Paul Evans appeared in 2009, works such as Baritone Compass (2010) were published by Philip Jenkins’s new Baked Alaska imprint, while Boiled String did the same for Peter Meilleur’s Ham & Jam (2009) and other titles.

Across the years the occluded achievements of Welsh innovative poetry revealed themselves; more alternative histories surfaced from the murk of mainstream oblivion, connections were made across decades, highs and lows exposed by the receding waters of a carefully cultivated ignorance. A new landscape hove into view, and it offered a context in which middle generation poets, such as David Annwn, Zoë Skoulding, Ian Davidson and David Greenslade, and younger ones such as Chris Paul, Rhys Trimble and Steven Hitchins, could be properly set for the first time; that is, be considered as part of a gapped, yet near-continuous enterprise to develop an alternative radical poetic practice in, of and about Wales, ongoing since the 1960s, but reconnecting too with the modernist founding moment of modern Welsh poetry back in the 1930s.

The academic-critical response to this efflorescence has, predictably, been disappointing. Vested interests and established reputations were, and are, at stake: surveying the scene one is reminded of John Berger’s observation that ‘Every tradition forbids the asking of certain questions about what really happened to you’. A praiseworthy attempt to deal with the revelations sketched above was Matthew Jarvis’s overview essay ‘An absent art? “Alternative” poetry since the Second Flowering’, published in Poetry Wales in 2008, which mentioned Gerard Casey, John James, Graham Hartill, Zoë Skoulding, Wendy Mulford, Chris Torrance and Peter Finch. The essay has a slightly tentative air, and Jarvis at no point considers the possibility that what he calls the ‘alternative’ or ‘parallel’ tradition, through its profound questioning of the nature of language and poetry might actually present some kind of a challenge to the orthodox operations of the established canon, but he at least tackled the subject.

Aside from one or two other honourable exceptions, such as Alice Entwistle, WWE studies has to date, however, made a point of loudly ignoring the subject. Thus, a Welsh edition of Angel Exhaust, published in 2010, which included seventy pages of innovative poetry, a twenty-page timeline, and articles on Roberts, Finch, Meilleur, and experimentalism in Welsh language poetry, went unreviewed. The standard tactic in dealing with innovative work, a few tokenistic mentions aside, is still to hope it will go away, or to distract from, dilute or diminish its importance. Laura Wainwright’s recent New Territories in Modernism (2018), the first critical monograph on the subject, is a pioneering break with this tradition, and its coverage of a neglected field is admirable in many ways. Yet the price paid for its positive reception by WWE studies is only too clear in its deliberate evasion of nationalism’s antagonism towards modernism (without which modernism’s trajectory in Wales cannot be understood), its lack of a sense of the importance of form, and its domestication of modernism more generally, symbolised in the clumsy reduction of Dylan Thomas to a verbal equivalent of Salvador Dalí.

Innovative poetry, in recent years, has fought its way to a point where, in anglophone Welsh poetry as a whole, it is now approaching a situation of at least equality with more conventional strands, in terms of institutional mechanisms and critical attention, refusing to stoically accept the place in the shadows once assigned to it. It has called out a cultural apparatus which operates in lock-step with its political paymasters and too often treats writers as functionaries of the Welsh tourist board, and is beginning to find it can survive quite well without its support. Small presses dedicated to innovative work, among them Boiled String, The Literary Pocket Book, and Aquifer Books, have sprung up. E-zines, such as Junction Box and ctrl+alt-del are going strong. New journals, readings, groups and events abound, among them Ric Hool’s legendary Hen and Chickens series, Lumin, the Ghost Jams, Cardiff Poetry Experiment, Bangor International Poetry Festival, The Black Mountain Festival and the Glasfryn Seminars. Ongoing collective and joint-authored projects, like Rhys Trimble’s mash-up of Giraldus Cambrensis or Stephen Hitchins’ Canalchemy, are redefining the role of the individual and the collective in Welsh poetics. Younger innovative poets are not only productive, but continuing to develop and becoming more varied and skilled as writers through successive collections.

Predictably, the old establishment routine still maunders on, whereby a few personable but reliably undemanding practitioners are puffed and buffed up to be the face of poetry for the nation. ‘New’, ‘vital’, ‘young’, easily consumable mainstream ‘voices’ are continually being found, and equally continually failing to develop beyond the comfortable populist mode their backers insist upon, apparently unaware of the irony that the authentic Anglo-Welsh article they are touted as actually derives from an increasingly enfeebled scion of a once-vigorous English tradition. As Peter Finch has put it: ‘Larkin after Thomas Hardy Motion after Larkin Sheers after Motion Unpolluted in soft ignorance don’t bother doesn’t bother too tired on the sofa poems like Everready torch bulbs circa 1958’ (“The State”).

Some much-lauded recent publications actually offer little more than a regression to the ‘Valley Characters’ cliché identified by John Davies forty years ago. Despite the extension of the range of experience mainstream poetry covers since the 1990s, officialdom’s approved poets remain bound by an empiricist template of the poem as ‘report on’ experience, with some of its practitioners trotting out nostrums that have been critically untenable, risible even, since the 1920s. Bluntly put, Wales deserves better than this tired same-old same-old.

So it is that The Edge of Necessary celebrates the fact that innovative poetry is, and has been for several years, the most vibrant and forward-looking sector of the Welsh poetry scene. It is intended as a challenge to existing habits of thought, an intervention rather than a passive record, as a disruption of the past as well as of the present and the future. It is becoming clear that what was for so long ignored, or even denigrated, in establishment circles as irrelevant, is not only the more relevant tradition today, linguistically, culturally, politically, morally, but was actually more relevant all along. The increased recognition of this fact is partly a result of the developing sophistication of literary-cultural education and partly the growth of a more general awareness that the complexities of a twenty-first century personal, social and global existence require new and more inventive forms of language to express them. Apologists for the status quo – powerful, still, even in the universities – try naturally to incorporate these developments in a piecemeal, selective, and distorted way into their stolid narratives, but in truth the horse has already bolted. The poetry presented in The Edge of Necessary cannot be thought of as some kind of tributary to the central flow of ‘Welsh poetry’, tolerated, sanctioned and accommodated by something bigger. Rather, it is itself now the bigger thing – broader, deeper, more dynamic, internationalist in scope and action, and as such the best literary vehicle for reconnecting Wales to a cultural worldscape.


Edge of Necessary is available now.

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This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.

John Goodby is a Dylan Thomas expert and contributor to Wales Arts Review.