Scottish and Welsh poetry in the Seventies
I realise that having got to the end of a book about Seventies poetry I haven’t included a section on either Welsh or Scottish poetry. I am not clear why this is. Nor does anything clever occur to me now. I may owe the reader for this chapter. I haven’t written it. I have been working on a spreadsheet which shows 100 people writing good poetry during the 1970s-irritating because it just isn't possible to manage a book which marshals 100 different characters.
I am going to start with a comment about the geography of taste. Poetically, the ‘British Poetry Revival’ was much weaker in the north and western regions of the island (although this is partly the effect of local nationalist critics concealing the evidence). If you take the 46 names in Eric’s two statements on the “Revival”, then in 1974 24 were resident in the South and five in the North. (This needs qualifying – it is based on my personal knowledge, which may be wrong in one or two cases.) Similar figures, still for 1974, show Wales, four; Scotland, four. You rapidly come up with the conclusion that Modernity was mainly happening in the South. Game over. If you apply the values of Eric Mottram to Scotland and Wales, you find them to be backward – plucky amateurs who lost the game. My feeling is that we need to look at this a bit differently if we want to recover the real story of poetry in the Atlantic regions. There is a celebrated quote by Hans-Werner Henze where he reports a German music critic saying “Henze puts the clock back” about his new composition, and Henze is asking forcefully where is this clock and can it be put back at all. I am sure there is a clock – more accurately, dozens of clocks for different elements of the linguistic structure of poetry. And I do think poetry can be out of date, we can rapidly find poetry which is out of date and there is no appeal possible. But I also think that the direction of modernity has been different in different parts of the island, so that there is a geography of taste. That is even before we start to find out that the political basis, in terms of what the electorate cares about and wishes for, is different, and that the elements of language which poetry is, after all, based on, are different in Wales and Scotland from what they are in southern England. I just don't like this “game over” sound. To complicate matters, I don’t think that modernity was equally present in the North of England. I know there are famous exceptions, but they are thinly spread. I realise why people prefer not to discuss this – it is likely to arouse rage and resentment. You are talking about deprivation, about wonderful things being available to some people and not others. This is divisive. And, I can’t get very far with this because the spadework has not already been done, the data isn’t in order. But, if you accept that the “outlying“ areas were also the most Labour voting, and the most opposed to the ruling class as embodied in the city of London (and Whitehall and Westminster), then you might guess that dissidence was being expressed in the “periphery” – but that it was taking a different poetic form, and probably not the one sanctified by Eric and by influential commentators in the USA. So actually we are going to do better if we use a different clock, a different set of standards, in different regions of the country. Maybe I should have described the literary scene in half a dozen cities – evoked the conversations those people were having, the things they saw as threats, the issues they argued about and explored in compulsive detail.
One way of describing the radical surge of the 1960s is that nationalism moved from being a student craze, in Wales and Scotland, to become credible to the whole electorate, and mainstream in electoral politics. So it was much more successful than the counter-culture or New Left in England. This transition was taking place quite rapidly during the 1970s. There was a radical current throughout the Western world in the ten years 1965-75, connected with the collapse of European empires among other things. ‘Peripheral nationalism’ had been on the rise since the mid-sixties, and not just in Britain. The constitutional situation was unstable during the 70s due to the electoral success of nationalist parties, and this exerted a kind of gravitational attraction on writers. Radicalism in Wales and Scotland tended to take the form of nationalism rather than a ‘counter culture’ and the politics of the personal. Decolonisation was on the minds of students, if not of the political elite. The current among Welsh students and literati took the form, quite often, of linguistic nationalism which affected the Welsh university quite strongly. The experience of losing identification with the existing power structure, of no longer feeling protected by it, of becoming aware of collusion and malice and self-preservation as the classic behaviours of an elite at the top of society, of seeing economic interest behind canonised texts including works of history, of feeling illusions lose their grip, was felt by apprentice nationalists as well as by apprentice socialists or feminists. The basic course of learning how a modern society, essentially capitalist and more or less militarist and imperialist, works is one which could be followed in Bangor as much as in Camden or Leeds. It’s wrong to think that the peripheral nationalism of the 70s was simply an unreflective continuation of positions acquired in childhood, or that it did not involve intellectual excitement or genuine analysis. (After devolution, devolution became of much less interest to poets.)
Because the radicals were electorally successful in the “associated nations”, the gap between them and the average voter was not wide. The wish not to alienate the voters had the effect, arguably, of making the nationalist thinkers cautious about any more radical critique. Also, success was likely to resolve the problems which were inspiring people –devolution could be attained and so sink down to the level of fact. It may sound perverse to say that attachment to impossible ideals had a benign effect on the “outside” Left in England, but we may be seeing at this when we look at the most radical poetry in England. It did not necessarily have any counterparts in the ”associated nations” or even in the provinces. It could arrive at a point of rejecting society as it stands but being “autonomous” and removed from any really possible social order or social reform. Thus “politics” would be an element wholly inside the autonomous art work, to be manipulated in a way similar to rhythm or semantic fields.
Scottish poets working in the Seventies would include WS Graham, Alexander Hutchison, TS Law, Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, David Black, George Mackay Brown, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Christopher Salvesen, Alistair Fowler, Alastair Mackie, Alan Riddell, Walter Perrie. I might have to list Kenneth White, Tom Leonard, and Liz Lochhead as well, although I would be happy not to read their poetry. I tend to forget Riddell, but when I got hold of a copy of his book of concrete poetry, Eclipse, I just said “wow”. Hard to anthologise but very high on the slopes of the poetic mountain. D.M. Black is on a high point, writing the mythical narratives which will peak with Gravitations. Kenneth White is an eccentric exile, writing in a way which is either cosmic or vacuous. Ian Hamilton Finlay is the captain of the concrete poets, both extremely simple and notably avant-garde. George Mackay Brown is at the peak of his powers, writing poetry which is naive and artificial at the same time, using the real Orkneys as a setting for his highly imaginative narration of an ‘archetypal’ view of history derived from Edwin Muir. Peter Davidson did a couple of pamphlets, embarrassingly enough I have never read them, but we have to mention them. JF Hendry published a book (Marimarusa), although it is doubtful that he was writing poetry. We should also mention the five poets selected in Macaulay’s anthology Nua-bhardachd Ghaidhlig: Donald MacAulay, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, Derick Thomson, George Campbell Hay. This list of poets is overwhelming, and maybe that explains why I can’t make meaningful generalisations. At this point I will give up and quote parts of an essay called “Iodine and fish-boxes: an alternative theory of Scottish poetry”. This dates from roughly 20 years ago and would have accompanied an anthology, which after some effort simply veered off the road. Peter Manson and Rob MacKenzie had vital inputs into the project.
Being committed to the Scottish tradition is not uniformly a source of joy. Often it involves getting a parcel of books, by post, from the Scottish Poetry Library, and reading on to find all the books brain-damagingly bad: timid, monotonous, arrogant, predictable, populist, an insult to reason, sentimental, bullying, conservative, and in all humiliating for a patriot. […] We want to say that even if Gaelic culture has been oppressed it is still possible for someone writing in Gaelic to be artistically corrupt, milking the applause from the kind and indifferent audience. We want to say that a society which reduces its own symbolic realm to reality is losing one dimension of culture, and is eroding the possibility of freedom. That restricting the songs to the ones that everyone can sing is not the best thing for everyone. That there is a flavour of Blairism in Scottish cultural managers, saying: everything to the Left of me is immoral and has no right to speak.
We find a common reliance on limited-stimulus fields and on boundary-free spaces. A simple test of success would be the ability to combine these, and to produce something which simultaneously has a three-dimensional reality and embodies an abstract idea and the possibilities of thought. [...] An example of a limited-stimulus field would be an object, on which focus is kept, preventing camera movements. This might apply to one of Finlay's art objects, with its ultra-simple text. The field without boundaries could be the sea, moorland, the sky, virgin snow, falling snow, or the polar ice, for example. […] The boundless space is part of a "pair" with bounded space, it carries a memory of the political; in which its existence points to the alienated nature of daily division and struggle.
[…] With such a small literary audience (and no interest from outside Scotland), the Scottish poet suffers a pressure to converge on secure and identified tastes, to avoid disappearing altogether.
Every starting poet is faced with a landscape which is only apparently infinite (since it is full of objects which represent limits and powers of attraction), and only apparently frozen and fixed (since language and human psychology conceal immense possibilities).
A lot of the support for Scottish poetry has been predicated on nationalist positions. That is, the reader is doing the poet a favour by reading something he or she doesn't really enjoy, wants to use the poem as a weapon (to replace English influence?), and wants the poem to include "typical events" which are recognizably Scottish, which demonstrate Scottish superiority (to England), distinctiveness, and abidingness. It is a bonus if the poet uses no words or ideas which have arrived since 1707. Needless to say, no-one who follows these sullen imperatives has the slightest hope of artistic success or sociological truth. […] This border of the unstable and uncontrollable is a searching test for poets: they either switch the noise out, and turn inwards, or take it as a torrential source of information and therefore of verbal possibilities.
The concept of the avant-garde, and the whole theory of history, change, and prestige which accompanies it, fails to meet Scottish conditions.
The use of folksong in Scottish poetry has been uniformly disastrous; it's hard even to remember a time, back in 1800 or so, when the two could speak to each other. There are resources hidden in the folk culture. [...]We say this to give a context for saying that the folksong is the deadliest enemy of the Scottish poem, and that no-one who fantasises themselves back into a previous century is going to create anything worthwhile. There is room for a writer both to be Scottish and not an imitation folk artist. We wanted to exhibit the unused resources of the folk culture, and in particular to show its amorality, its preoccupation with sexuality and communal violence, its phantasmagorias, its word-plays, its liking for horror, the splendours of its language; but the material is too familiar, and too overlaid by orthodoxy and sentiment.
Prolonged contemplation of the simple, pure, and non-discursive forms of concrete poetry raises alarming memories of the simple, pure, and non-discursive forms of the folk song. It is unreasonable to define the one as sheer authenticity and the other as sheer inauthenticity (with the two exchanging places for different readers). Both are 'limited-stimulus fields'. Scottish concrete poetry has had a lot to do with the sea and fishing-boats. Owing to the deformations of national culture, modern Scottish poems are often missing a dimension–or even two.
MacAulay's Gaelic anthology includes five literary poets, sometimes known as the ”famous five” (an coignear cliuiteach). Arguably, one could describe the ‘modern’ poets as literary rather than oral. Donald Meek said ‘We need to remember that the traditional culture (dualchas) was behind everything, and that there were spiritual bards in the neighbourhoods all though the century: poets like Eachann MacFhionghainn in Bernera, and Catriona Domhnallach in Stamhain.’ The ground rule for the anthology we just mentioned was therefore that only poets who wrote in modern, 20th century, ‘European’ ways were included. Another anthology, An Tuil (The Wave), much more recently, ignores this rule and includes a mass of work by the poets of traditional or folk style. It is a large-scale book and is edited by Ronald Black. This may indicate a growing acceptance of folk arts by the reading audience. It is obvious why MacAulay (and others) picked out those five and left the “village bards” behind, but defining what the difference is is not at all straightforward.
I think we have to make the basic point that Wales is a country where poetry is important and England is one where poetry is unimportant. In Welsh-language poetry, we have the rise of several currents. First (and I did cover this in the book) you have the revival of classical meters, made institutional in the magazine Barddas and the society Cymdeithas yr Iaith. This is important, but we also have to notice the colloquial-sloppy-youth line, also made official by a series, Y Beirdd Answyddogol, from the nationalist press Y Lolfa. Thirdly, you have the line of Welsh free verse which is the most experimental thing around, and which although it tended to lose out to the nationalist-conservatives and to the colloquial students, produced a lot of the poetry which we find interesting and valuable today. It is baffling that there are three different currents to look at, but this is just a symptom of Welsh-language poetry being in an exceptionally vigorous state. I looked at one annual anthology, Cerddi 77, and is just a very good book. So none of the currents was, really, central.
For the Answyddogol, let me quote from a review (translated) of the retrospective anthology of the series, in 1998:
“The origins of the series, anyway, carry us back to the sunny days of 1976, the world of contemporary song in Wales was one infectious boiling and the national movement was facing the challenge of the referendum and the broadcasting campaign with eagerness. Truly, the poems chosen for the first volumes of the series are full of 'Lifeitis', that period Robat Gruffudd talks about, with the train of the revolution rushing past along the slopes:
Do you remember that night
when we raised two fingers to the world?
when we swore an oath
we would never confess...
But in the shadow of the explosion of 1979 the thick of the series is to be located. From the melancholic studies of Sion Aled (1979), to the challenging élan of Ifor ab Glyn (1991), we hear the echo of the painful attempt of Iwan Llwyd in his collection Gwreichion (sparks) to sing the new Wales into being in the face of the bankruptcy of the old Wales. And perhaps that one sign of the process reaching high tide is the decision of Robat Gruffudd to wind the series up? On the literary level, in any case, we have gone past the polarisation of standpoints which was so noticeable in the discussions of the seventies. Indeed, if polarising opinion, responses and standpoints was the effect of the series in the first place, there is no doubt that one of its chief after-effects immediately was leading to the destruction of poles of that sort in the world of poetry.” …
“After all, the series was militating all through its life against conventions like 'standards' and 'taste'. For this reader, it shows that a good number of striking poems have been dispensed with, especially so in the case of Lona Llywelyn Davies and Steve Eaves.“
(I couldn't determine who wrote this piece.) This makes the interesting point that the “centre” for these young poets was the lyrics of Welsh-language pop music (of the time), something which the English audience is unlikely to have a grasp of. This description evokes among other things why this movement is not to be described as avant garde or underground – although it was clearly a breach with inherited poetic values. The jacket of the anthology says “In the period 1976-1996 Y Lolfa published 25 volumes of “answyddogol” poetry, all of it raising two fingers to the Establishment in Wales: the KKK (the Welsh Arts Council, initials CCC) the royal eisteddfod, Barddas, the joint education council, and the Kremlin of Books. Not to mention the Labour party and the Tories, and the University of Wales – and many a trendy member of Plaid Cymru.” A spontaneous response might be that these are people who find adult life boring and comprehensible. (I think ‘Kremlin’ refers to the Books Council, Cyngor llyfrau.)
Llwyd's book on the sixties doesn't even see this movement coming. Answyddogol means 'unofficial' but is also a genuine mediaeval term, as the books on poetics refer to bards who have not passed all the bardic exams and so have not qualified. For the 1980s movement, the implication that metrical poems were official was close at hand even if inaccurate. Rather more basically, swydd means 'a job', as well, and the series could also mean the unemployed poets.
Y Lolfa represents changes in the scene but stands for a kind of poetry closely related to Brian Patten, Roger McGough, Danny Abse, Liz Lochhead, Adrian Mitchell, etc., rather than modernity of style. The assertion about ignoring literary standards is not merely a gesture but a literal summing up of what the series was intended to be.
The structural contradiction of the unofficials was that the only market which was interested in reading in Welsh was devoted to nationalism, but that the informal verse threw away the most distinctive feature of Welsh poetry and in so doing lost the feature which would allow it to compete with informal verse from England or America. Thus, these poets were writing against globalisation in a form which was unmistakably the product of globalisation.
I am having difficulty in talking about modernity in Welsh-language poetry, partly I suppose because the domain of freedom is so extensive once you wander into it. The major figure was Euros Bowen, with his highly complex and experimental variant on the traditional cynghanedd, and he is the single figure who is likely to attract international attention, with the experimental quality being the air travel ticket. However, it is noticeable that Welsh people are not wildly enthusiastic about his poetry. It is ambitious and in a way inorganic. He was moving to a simpler style during the 1970s. There was a group of non-traditional poets who were very productive during the decade.
There is a comment by Alan Llwyd on the formal renaissance of the 1970s, in the foreword to Trafod Cerdd Dafod Y Dydd, written 1982:
“This period is an exciting one in the history of the poetic art and in the history of Welsh poetry. Plenty is heard about the formal renaissance, excessively much indeed, until some of us have begun to hate the term. Since some critics and poets want us to be in the middle of a formal renaissance, at once people went ahead to put the 'new movement' to the test, for the sake of making it scarce. After all, if I may cynghaneddu a proverb, 'There is a reaction to every movement'. Wales is not fond of success, or splendour, or excellence; she is practised of old in being inferior, servile, and the pride and dedication of the poets of the renaissance are not at all to her liking. She is too fond of grumbling and complaining, often in the name of nationalism. Fake nationalism, or perverted nationalism, milk and water, is what this nationalism is that wants to drag everything good in Welsh down into the depths.“
What we seem to see is that the dumbed-down verse of the unofficials has, over time, been defeated and pushed aside by the neo-conservative revival poetry. What is reported is that the polarisation of the 1970s has died down considerably, and that Wales is unlike every other country in western Europe in the dominance of highly formal, regular verse.
Conventionally, Welsh poetry in English is divided into the First Flowering (connected to the magazine Wales as edited roughly between 1937 and 1945 by Keidrych Rhys) and the Second Flowering (starting around 1962 and supported by the newly arriving flow of arts subsidies). Doubts have been raised that this second wave actually produced good poetry. Certainly the political impetus was more significant than the artistic talent. They wanted ”typical” poetry which would promote nationalist views by praising truly Welsh values and yet showing that Wales under English influence was a degraded place full of diminished people. Unsurprisingly, this wish to be typical produced a literary dogma in which anybody who wrote differently was simply pushed off microphone. In the 1970s, you have a fairly distinct new generation of Anglo-Welsh poets who have nothing to do, artistically, with the Second Flowering. We could cite Peter Finch, John James, Paul Evans, Iain Sinclair, Ralph Hawkins, Phil Jenkins. You have survivors of the 1940s – Glyn Jones (b. 1905) and Roland Mathias (b. 1915) are no longer at their artistic peak. They do have formidable back catalogues, though. You have Emyr Humphreys, who produced Ancestor Worship, a really fascinating long poem which is not, I would say, behind the implication of worshipping ancestors, that you are following ancestral ways in a stupefied daze. Humphreys was a veteran of the 1940s but was a novelist who took to poetry late. You have the “second flowering” guys like Meic Stephens, Tony Conran, Raymond Garlick. They have limited artistic firepower. You have Robert Minhinnnick, a much younger poet who is writing at this time in a realistic and ”regionalist” style which he is very skilled at but which has built-in artistic limits. There is a wave of younger poets in a mainstream style, of whom we need to mention also Sheenagh Pugh, Mike Jenkins and Nigel Jenkins. You also have the magazine Second Aeon, edited by Finch, which is the top counter-cultural magazine in Britain. Also, you have a cluster of concrete poets, encouraged by Finch and published, often, by Second Aeon.
There is a Glyn Jones interview where he reports a count of the poets active in Rhys’ magazine Wales and says that by the 1970s only one third of them were still writing. (Or was it, one third still continued in the 1950s?) The point was about the dearth of resources and the simulating effect which an ambitious magazine had on people. I can't remember the details, it may have been MP Ryan’s interview. I suspect that the people who had given up are part of literary history, part of the evidence we have to collect to get the real picture. We can just mention Lynette Roberts as one of the poets who wasn't writing poetry in this decade. Conran produced a volume called Spirit Level which is very mixed, he was going through radical changes in his style and only parts of the book are successful. (Confusingly, this is credited as selected poems 1956 to 1968.) I do admire his willingness to experiment, but it is frustrating trying to describe a book like this. He produced another book called Life Fund which unfortunately I haven’t read. [I bought it and realised I actually had read it before] I suppose the fairest description is that he had a basic idea of what to write, which was poems for events like weddings, and this didn’t work; he abandoned it after roughly 20 years; and while he was having difficulty expressing what mattered to him, he got fascinated by ideas which were really peripheral, and put a lot of formal energy into them because he had spare energy. He had a cultural critique but didn’t at this time write culture-critical poems. One of the poems is called ‘Space’, and deals with the contrast between the equable grid of space with recession and perspective, linked by him with the Renaissance, and the space of folk art, in which each object has its own space (and there is no recession to show distance).
I LOOK THROUGH THE GRID. BLACK SPACES POUR INTO ME.
AND RIPPLE. SPIN. GLINT. DISAPPEAR INTO ME.
PEDANTRY EATS THE WORLD BETWEEN SLICED STEEL.
URGENCY IS A HOLE KEPT IN PLACE BY BARS.
OTHERWISE I SHOULD BURST. MY SIDES WOULD COLLAPSE.
TOO MANY SPACES POUR INTO ONE SWOLLEN EYE.
VERY WELL, I PARTITION MY EYE INTO TEN LEGION GULLETS.
The idea of writing a poem about this is intriguing, and this poem can be compared with Edwin Morgan. His poems are genuinely unpredictable. Take this poem about an ‘Hourglass’:
In the mutable sand
Where may hands build?
Palace and tower
Gulf and vortex
Ebb at the altar
Furnace and forge
Rust and flake,
Drilled to a gap
Of inflexible stars;
The loom is a cobweb world.
The cogwheel spins
In seething tides;
The bales are spilt,
The bullion taken
To coral banks
And lobster's yard.
This is clearly linked to Metaphysical poetry, it is not wholly modern, but it goes through twists. It may date from the 1950s – the labelling is not clear on that.
I seem to be owing the scene a chapter about Wales and Scotland, possibly also about cultural activity in the north of England. I can see that adding Northern Ireland to the story would give a fuller picture. I never started to do this, because I am doubtful about my ability to grasp Irish poetry (for various reasons I don’t have that feeling about either Scotland or Wales).