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Poetry 1900-2000 : one hundred poets from…
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Poetry 1900-2000 : one hundred poets from Wales

by Meic Stephens

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Your Hundred Best Tunes

The Library of Wales is a project arising from a decision by the Welsh Assembly Government to fund a series of publications aimed at making available the English-language literature of Wales, in particular in schools and libraries. In the Preface to this volume, Dafydd Elis-Thomas describes the series as “a cultural act”, and an example of “nation-building” via the promotion of the literature of Wales to the people of Wales. Undoubtedly Meic Stephens, the editor of the volume, has been one of the key players in promoting literature, and in particular poetry, since he founded the magazine Poetry Wales in 1965. Subsequently, as Literature Director of the Welsh Arts Council, he was actively engaged in such cultural acts of promotion, building a institutional edifice to support literary production. He is also the editor/compiler of several definitive guides to literature in Wales. Whatever one’s view of such institutional support for the arts – and some might fear that the process can spill over into institutional manipulation - there is surely no-one better placed to have put together this anthology of English-language poetry from Wales in the twentieth century, and to have ensured that a comprehensive range of better and lesser known poets are included.

It might seem arbitrary that there are exactly one hundred poets represented for the century. But the anthology may be regarded in some ways as a ‘true record’ of events rather than a selection from any particular aesthetic or thematic point of view, an inclusive guide to who was who between the given dates, the criteria for inclusion being simply that poets must have been born before 1975 and published at least one book or a substantial number of poems in magazines before 2000. The process of definition is aided by a brief biography of each poet preceding the selection of poems. But if the aim of the anthology is to provide a definitive record and allow access to an established tradition for those coming to it for the first time, even those familiar with the key figures in this tradition are likely to find some poets they don’t know or to find the information about those they do know useful.

Given the inclusive principle of selection there can be no questioning of the choice of poets. It could be objected that such a mixing of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ figures (if such concepts any longer have any meaning) leaves open the question of relative quality, though some indication of this is given by the quantity of poems chosen in each case. The question of which poems to select must, therefore, have been the main issue for the editor. Even here, in such an anthology as this, poets need to be represented by their best work rather than any idiosyncratic editorial preferences or thematic subjects. So some poems would have chosen themselves. It is hard, for instance, to imagine not including ‘The Common Path’ and ‘The Meaning of Fuschias’ from Glyn Jones or, I suppose, such iconic poems as ‘A Peasant’ from R.S. Thomas whose generous total of nineteen poems are loaded towards earlier Welsh themes rather than later work. Selection from poets like David Jones is always difficult and tends, as here, to baulk at taking anything from the Anathemata out of context. So extracts from In Parenthesis and The Sleeping Lord collection are given to represent the range of his work. It is good to see some personal favourites such as Jean Earle’s ‘Walking Home’ and ‘Jugged Hare’, though I would have liked to see ‘The Woollen Mill’ represented here too. Then there are the less well-known names. Peter Hellings and Douglas Phillips for instance may have been left out by less well-informed editors. Putting such poets, who would so easily be forgotten, alongside more familiar names consolidates the work of establishing a tradition of Welsh writing in English which, whatever the arguments for a longer tradition, firmly and self-consciously established itself in the twentieth century.

It is interesting to speculate what those set to study this anthology will make of it as it can reasonably be expected that it will appear on a WJEC syllabus given its official status as an Assembly sponsored work. With a starting point of W.H. Davies and an end-point of Owen Sheers there is certainly a range and diversity of styles and voices to choose from should an examiner invite students to consider this as an aspect of the work. Such a literary emphasis would, undoubtedly, be supplemented by an option to consider the sociological dimension and the view of Wales which emerges from the volume. On the evidence of the poems collected here the balanced answer would be a Wales of many talents, diversely expressed and comprehensively encompassed.

[From PLANET magazine]
  GregsBookCell | Dec 8, 2008 |
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