By Michael Murray
To properly read a good writer one must begin by looking at his or her relationship to language.
This is particularly true in the case of Gillian Clarke, because she is a writer with a dual inheritance, as a native Welsh speaker, and as a product of the English educational system.
The consequence of this is that her frames of reference can be very varied and wide-ranging; Welsh-language issues tie-in with nationalist issues and, paradoxically, a more ready global awareness than is usually noted amongst monoglot writers. The colonial experience is as much the Welsh experience as it is Indian, African, Caribbean etc.
As early feminism identified women’s position within colonial experience – issues of ownership, exploitation, self-determination – then we can assert that Gillian Clarke’s writing is as informed by global contemporary issues as it is by personal experience: her poetry is majorly in the lyric mode.
This is not to say her poetry is only concerned with the day-to-day, she is very much engaged with that, but she is also aware of the possible resonances of the personal in the global superstructure. When she writes of seeing the sun go down, reflecting in window panes (Fires on Llyn, ‘Letting in the Rumour’) her references are as wide as to take in Wordsworthian allusions, biblical allusions (the fire that burns but does not consume) and also the activities of the Welsh Nationalist group The Sons Of Glyndwyr, who burnt English holiday cottages in the region in the nineteen seventies.
When she writes of lambing at Easter (A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998, ‘Five Fields’, 1998) she writes as much from the realist pastoral tradition from Duck, Crabbe, elements of Clare, down to Hughes, as about the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
Several of her lambing poems can stand alongside Hughes’ February 17th, for starkness and realism.
Of the modern realist-pastoral poets the influence of one major one is oddly absent, or so muted as to be so; that is R S Thomas. She alludes to him as a senior writer:
At sunset we climb Uwchmynydd
to a land’s end
where R S Thomas walks, finding
the footprint of God
warm in the shoe of a hare.
(Fire on Llyn)
but I suspect his negative-romanticism appeals little to her. She would never refer to farm workers as ‘peasants’, nor portray them as inbred etc. Her apprehension of the lives of small-holders and farming people is always as that of neighbours, and assertive of human dignity.
Her closest technical and thematic peer is Seamus Heaney. I also detect, in the bestiary poems towards the end of ‘Letting in the Rumour’, the modern praise poems of Norman MacCaig’s 1977 book ‘Tree of Strings’. These also lead us to Les Murray’s ‘Translations from the Natural World’, 1992.
It is very interesting to look closely at the sound-structure of the poetry, particularly in her earlier work.
‘Neighbours’ (‘Letting in the Rumour’, 1989) is very useful here:
That spring was late. We watched the sky
and studied charts for shouldering isobars.
Birds were late to pair. Crow’s drank from the lamb’s eye.
That SprIng WAS lAte. We WAtCHeD The SkY
1 2 3 4 2 4 / 3 3 4 5 6 1 2 7
And StUDIeD CHArtS for SHoulDerIng ISobArS
1 2 3 4 54 1 2 / 2 4 5 2 1 2
(6) (6)(5) (5) (7)(2)
Notice how the sounds also weave lines together, where sounds from line 1 also occur in line 2 etc
Syllabically the lines run 8 -11-11.
As Welsh verse is always read syllabically, we are on safe ground to say that what we read here is an echo of traditional Welsh verse forms.
Many have tried them: Barnes, Hopkins, etc, the rules are many and painstaking, and the results in English not particularly malleable. This poem, by closely echoing the forms tackles the very difficult subject of the position of the anglo-Welsh within a Welsh political identity. Some anglo-Welsh writers chose emphatically not to learn the traditional language or forms, in order to address the anglo-Welsh identity on its own ground, that of having Welsh political identity but not a cultural identity.
Gillian Clarke approaches this subject, and swipes at gender identities, in her poem Border (ibid):
where the land forgets its name
and I’m foreign in my own country….
History forgets itself.
At the garage they’re polite
“Sorry love, no Welsh.”
At the shop I am slapped
by her hard “What!”
They came for the beauty
but could not hear it speak.
The previous poem, incidentally, takes its dynamics from the land-worker’s experience of the Chernobyl fall-out. A later poem in the same book (Times Likes These) brings in memories of the Windscale radiation leak and contamination.
These are poems of anger and outrage, yet they do not alienate the readers, but draw us in: we readily identify with the common experience of being a parent, of living our ordinary lives within and through these events.
With each book she publishes one wonders how she can achieve, and keep on achieving, such excellence. What drives her? Love of Wales, of the language, obviously; there is also a great-heartedness; as one commentator said: a great generosity of spirit.
She is a warm, wonderful, and rewarding poet.
Gillian Clarke home page.
Poems and recordings at the Poetry Archive.