AN INTRODUCTION BY THE GUEST EDITOR OF SLOPE #8
by Peter Finch
It was about thirty years ago that cracks in the centralised uniformity of British
literature first began to appear. Publishers were on the move out of London and
regional accents were becoming acceptable. The Irish cause was on the rise.
Scotland had emerged again into literary magnificence. On the Celtic margins of
the English state one other country felt that this was the time to try its hand. At
least seven of the signatories of U.S. Declaration of Independence had come from
Wales.Why, with its ancient traditions, was it still one of the least known countries
in the world? The poet Dannie Abse approached an American publisher with an
anthology of what was at the time known as Anglo-Welsh poetry - poetry written
by Welsh authors but in the English rather than the Welsh tongue. This is much
better than the Irish, he declared. But the publishers were not interested. The
works don't hold together, they told him. They are not different enough, there's
nothing here to mark them as particularly Welsh. They might as well be written
by bards from Somerset.
A few years later poets Roland Mathias and Raymond Garlick noted something
similar in the content of Anglo-Welsh Poetry 1480-1980, their all-embracing
anthology of the period. The flavour of Welshness in the more recent works had
become diluted. Its direction and distinctiveness had become hard to discern. But
those writers who worked in the Welsh language itself suffered no such identity
problems. The use of Welsh itself imparted distinctiveness. There was no need to
bother to think in specific cultural directions; the native tongue breaking on the
page was identity enough.
But the world - and especially the literary world - has always been subject to
dramatic upset. In 1999 Wales took a huge turn for change by voting itself part-
way to independence from English state and establishing the National Assembly
for Wales, the first parliament since Owain Glyndwr's assembly at Machynlleth
in 1406. National consciousness rose palpably. The aching divides between the
two language communities had bridges strung across them. Poets emerged as
national icons - Nigel Jenkins, Gillian Clarke, Ifor ap Glyn, Twm Morys and
Gwyneth Lewis, among others - and showed themselves willing and able to
make their verse reflect Wales's new bi-cultural, bi-lingual and increasingly
If Abse re-edited his anthology today and took it back to Scribners or whoever
its individual celtic voice would be blazingly obvious. Mathias and Garlick would
note a new unity among their contemporary contributors. The elder tradition -
Welsh language poetry with its historical traces back to Aneirin's Gododdin in the
sixth century, although only accessible at first hand to 500,000 or so of Wales'
3,000,000 population - had now become relevant again to the people as a whole.
The selection of poetry you read here - drawn from the cream of Welsh poetry
practitioners - is as broad as we could make it. The hard-line traditionalists lie
down with the graphic based experimenters and the strict meter masters stand
next to the freest of the formless. This is Wales as it is, rather than as some
literateurs would have us believe it might be. Spot its strengths and enjoy its
poetry and once you've done that go tell someone else.
"For Wales, see England," it used to say in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
That era is over. We're moving on.
I'd like to thank my Deputy at the Academi, Ceri Anwen James, for sourcing
the Welsh language poetry we've included and for arranging its translation.
Everything else, errors and successes, is down to me.
Peter Finch is a poet and short fiction writer. He was born in Cardiff, where
he still lives. He currently runs Academi, the Welsh National Literature Promotion
Agency. His books include Useful, Make, Poems for Ghosts and Food, which
appears from Seren later this year.