The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry

By Rogers, Byron | The Spectator, January 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry


Rogers, Byron, The Spectator


Westward, look, the verse is bright THE BLOODAXE BOOK OF MODERN WELSH POETRY edited by Menna Elfyn and John Rowlands Bloodaxe Books, £10.95, pp. 448, ISBN 1852245492

This, the most comprehensive anthology of 20th-century Welsh poetry in translation, came out in April 2003, and is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, yet I am given to understand what follows will be the first review in any national newspaper or magazine in England. Why?

Have the English, or at least those who still read poetry, no curiosity about what is still being written in the literature which is not only the oldest in these islands but, outside Greek and Latin, the oldest in Europe - and written, not in some remote country, but a couple of hundred miles down the As 5 and 40 in areas where so many of them have holiday homes? I would have thought they would at least have been intrigued.

I was once telephoned by a literary editor after I had introduced some allusion to Wales in a book review. 'Who's interested in the Welsh?' The literary editor was Jewish, metropolitan, and indignant. Had our roles been reversed and I had said something similar about the Jews, all hell would have been self-righteously loosed. But the Welsh attract the last respectable racism.

The English are frightened of the Irish, they arc in awe of the Scots, but we, ever since our military threat was broken, have been a joke, rather like adolescence before pop promoters discovered its commercial potential. Being Welsh in the modern world, Matthew Arnold brooded, was a stage one had to get through, and it is advice taken by the large number of my countrymen who over those six centuries have reinvented themselves as Englishmen. One, a political journalist, blithely told me that Welsh literature was just so much amateurism and sentimentality, and felt able to say this even though he himself could not even speak the language, let alone read it. But then, for his own peace of mind, a man has to rubbish what he has thrown out as rubbish.

So how good is modern Welsh poetry? On the basis of this anthology it is very good indeed, so much so that it will be possible to appreciate those comments of the Anglo-Welsh poet R. S. Thomas on the tension in his own work, which until now you may have thought perversity on his part. Having taught himself Welsh too late to be able to write his own poetry in it, he was doomed to be an outsider, an alltud, and this in his own country.

The sheer size of the book, at 448 pages, is startling enough, but it is extraordinary when you bear in mind that only half a million people can speak the language, of whom only a fraction have the vocabulary to read it at this level. The birdsong from a shrinking world is overwhelming. …

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