Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Some of you may already read Professor Peter Coles’ wonderful blog. Peter was professor of theoretical astrophysics at Cardiff University until recently, but he is now head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex in Brighton.

According to his blog, he is also standing for Council of the Royal Astronomical Society. Accomplished though Peter clearly is in astrophysics, I really think he has missed his true calling. As this wonderfully mature and deep composition below shows (the link for it is also here), Peter should really be a published poet. Written at the tender age of 49 and 11/12 months, I can only wait with bated breath to see how turning 50 will lead to additional complexity and insights in his poems.

When the next Poet Laureate is being determined, Peter will certainly be getting my vote (do we get to vote? Maybe one writes to the Queen, or pompous letters to “The Times” to lobby for such things?).



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My favourite Anglo-Welsh poet (a Welsh poet writing in English) is R.S. Thomas. The first poem of his that I came across was when I was 13. In our school English class we read “Cynddylan on his tractor”. It made me angry when I read it. Thomas seemed to be belittling the Welsh. It took me several poems and several weeks to realise that he was attempting to awaken Welsh people’s apathy towards their country.


Thomas was born in Cardiff to English speaking parents. He went to Bangor University, where he read classics. He then went into the ministry, being ordained as a priest in the Church of Wales. Thomas learnt Welsh when he was 30, but he never wrote poetry in Welsh as he felt it was not his native tongue and so he didn’t feel his Welsh was good enough. Despite learning Welsh in adulthood, Thomas became a keen (some would say extreme) advocate of the Welsh language and the need to protect it against Anglo-American domination.

Thomas died in 2000, leaving about two dozen published volumes of poetry, the list is here.

This poem of Thomas’, A Welsh Landscape, is my favourite poem written in the English language. I mentioned it before in this blog, but I did not include the words of this wonderful poem, just a link to where they can be found. I mentioned it in the context of trying to answer my son’s English homework question – “What does it mean to be Welsh?”. If the words and sentiment of A Welsh Landscape resonate with you, then you at least have an understanding of what it is to be Welsh.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

A Welsh Landscape

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

R. S. Thomas 1913-2000

Which is your favourite R.S. Thomas poem?

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If any of you have seen the wonderful film Dead Poets Society, you will be familiar with this poem O Captain! My Captain!by Walt Whitman. The poem is used in the film to dramatic effect, but I won’t spoil it for those of you yet to see the film.

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The poem concerns the death of American President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth whilst attending the theatre in Washington D.C.

The American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

What is your favourite Walt Whitman poem?

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I had never, in my ignorance, heard of the poet E. E. Cummings until seeing the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters. As anyone who has seen this film knows, Elliot (played by Michael Caine) is married to Hannah, played by Mia Farrow. But, he is bored with Hannah, so tries to woo Hannah’s sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey. One of the things he uses to try to woo her is to share the poetry of E. E. Cummings with her. This is one of the poems that he asks her to read, saying he thinks of her each time he reads it.

The American poet E. E. Cummings

somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

E. E. Cummings was born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In his life he wrote nearly 3,000 poems, many of which used his distinctive style of not capitalising any words and not using any full stops (periods) in the poem. I have a book of his poetry and find some very difficult to understand, but this one above is one of my favourites.

Do you have a favourite E. E. Cummings poem?

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The Arthurian legends are probably the best known of the Welsh (Celtic) legends which have, collectively, become known as The Mabinogion. The word Mabinogion is, in fact, a mistake. When Lady Charollete Guest translated the medieval Welsh texts she picked up on the use of the word “Mabynnogyon” which occurs at the end of one of the stories in the four branches of the Mabinogi, and gave this name to all the Welsh legends she translated.

The cover of a book of an English translation by Gwyn Thomas of the Mabinogion aimed at children, with wonderful illustrations by Margaret Jones.

Her collection, The Mabinogion, are contained in 3 volumes, and are a translation of folk tales which include the Arthurian legends, including the romances Owain, Peredur and Geraint ac Enid (this last one served as the basis for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s two poems about Geraint in the Idylls of the King). Volume 2 contains the romance Culhwch ac Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy. The four branches of The Mabinogi are contained in Volume 3.

The earliest manuscript found which contains the 4 branches of the Mabinogi is the White Book of Rhydderch, which was (hand) written circa 1350. But, in fact, the stories are much older, many are pre-Christian tales, which would have existed orally amongst the Celts for many centuries, before being written down. Studies of poetry in some of the stories dates the writing down of the stories to about the 11th Century, but the oldest existing copies we have of the stories are from the 14th Century. The reason the poetry is used to try to date when the earliest written forms would have been made is because poetry changes less than prose in oral stories. The many supernatural elements to the stories indicate that they are part of a very old, pre-Christian, body of Celtic mythology.

Arthur himself, although he may have been a real Brythonic king, had become a character of mythology by the 5th-6th Century amongst the Celts. One of the mythis is that he and his soldiers are sleeping in a cave, but will one day awaken to defend the Celts (presumably now the Welsh as we are the closest ancestors to the Brythonic Celts).

Branwen releasing her “drudwy” (starling) to take messages to her brother Bendigeidfran (illustration by Margaret Jones from the book above)

Branwen, daughter of Llyr, with her “drudwy” (starling)

The song in the video below, which is by a band called Edward H Dafis, is called “Drudwy“, the starling who acted as a messenger between Branwen and her brother Bendigeidfran whilst she was imprisioned in Ireland. The story of Branwen forms the 2nd brach of the Mabinogi. The story describes Branwen, and her brother Bendigeidfran, who is both king of Britain and a giant. Branwen is given as a wife to Matholwch, the king of Ireland. However, Branwen’s half brother Efnisien feels insulted that he was not consulted about the marriage, so he mutilates Matholwch’s horses in an act of revenge. Because of this, Matholwch punishes Branwen by banishing her to the kitchen of his castle in Ireland, and beating her everyday. In order to inform her brother Bendigeidfran back in Wales of her plight, she teaches a starling, drudwy in Welsh, to understand her and transfer messages for her. Drudwy flies from Ireland to Wales, and informs Bendigeidfran of his sister Branwen’s plight. Bendigeidfran then goes to war against Matholwch, and brings his sister back to Wales.

The song starts with the lyrics

Yn y bore,
Yn y bore
Gweler Branwen wrth y tân.
Eto’n brysur,
heb yr un cysur
Heb un gobaith
Ond ei chân

Drudwy dirion
Heda’n union
Draw ymhell dros y tonnau mân
Dos a’m gwyngân i Bendigeidfran
Drudwy fechan yn y man.

My translation of these lines (again, with no attempt to retain meter or rhyme) is

In the morning,
In the morning,
See Branwen by the fire.
She is busy
But without any comfort
Without any hope
In her song.

Kind starling
Fly straight away
Far away across the waves
Take my song of complaint to Bendigeidfran
Tiny starling do it now.

I played this song to my daughter Esyllt a few months ago as she was studying the story of Branwen in school. The school chose to perform the story for their summer concert, which will be in July. A few weeks ago they held auditions for the main part of Branwen (and the other lead parts), and Esyllt was successful in getting the lead part. She has many lines and songs to remember, so is busy learning them. But, she is blessed with the same outstanding memory that her brother Meirin has, so already she knows most of her lines and the concert is not for another 6-7 weeks.

Her name, Esyllt, comes from another one of the Arthurian legends contained in the Mabinogion. Esyllt was the lover of Trystan. These two names are better known to non-Welsh speakers from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, Isolde or Iseulte being the English/international translations of Esyllt. Maybe one day Esyllt will get a part in an opera or play where she will be playing her namesake.

She took the CD on which this song “Drudwy” is contained, namely “Yr Hen Ffordd Gymreig o Fyw” (The old Welsh way of life) into school, and now the song is going to form part of the concert.

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When I was a pupil at Fisghguard County Secondary School, our Welsh teacher Geraint Davies (known to all the pupils as “Dai Welsh“) used to give us a poem on Monday to learn by Friday, and in the Friday lesson we had to write out the poem as correctly as possible. Any forgotten or misspelled words, or any incorrect punctuation, would lead to our losing marks.

One of the first poems we learnt was this poem, “Y Llwynog” (“The Fox”), by R Williams Parry. [note, a South-Walian like myself would use the word “cadno” for fox, “llwynog” is the North-Walian word.] I still remember every word of every line, but I think that is mainly because it is one of my favourite poems by this very talented Welsh poet. I have read every poem he published, as I studied his volume “Yr Haf a cherddi eraill” (“The Summer and other poems”) for A-level Welsh. I blogged here about his cousin and fellow poet T.H. Parry-Williams.

The complete works of R Williams Parry

He only published one other volume of poetry, “Cerddi’r Gaeaf” (“Poems of the Winter”), which I also read so I could compare the two volumes and the different themes in the two volumes in any analysis I was asked to do in the exams.


Y llwynog / The fox

My son has his GCSE Welsh literature exam tomorrow (Wednesday the 16th of May 2012), and it is one of the poems he is studying. Surprisingly, despite having done two O-levels (GCSEs) in Welsh and also A-level Welsh, there are very few poems he is studying which I have also studied, this is one of the few.

Y Llwynog

Ganllath o gopa’r mynydd, pan oedd clych
Eglwysi’r llethrau’n gwahodd tua’r llan,
Ac annrheuliedig haul Gorffennaf gwych
Yn gwahodd tua’r mynydd, – yn y fan,
Ar ddiarwybod droed a distaw duth,
Llwybreiddiodd ei ryfeddod prin o’n blaen
Ninnau heb ysgog ac heb ynom chwyth
Barlyswyd ennyd; megis trindod faen
Y safem, pan ar ganol diofal gam
Syfrdan y safodd yntau, ac uwchlaw
Ei untroed oediog dwy sefydlog fflam
Ei lygaid arnom. Yna heb frys na braw
Llithrodd ei flewyn cringoch dros y grib;
Digwyddodd, darfu, megis seren wîb.

R. Williams Parry (1924)

The main theme of this poem is the conflict between going for a walk up a mountain on a sunny July Sunday morning, and going to church. R. Williams-Parry was a humanist, so for him there was no competition. The wonders of Nature would always win out over worshipping a God he didn’t believe existed.

On this particular walk, the poet and his two friends’ decision is richly rewarded, as they catch sight of a fox. The poet equisitely describes the wonder of this fleeting moment, with descriptions of e.g. The fox’s eyes “like two burning flames”. The whole episode is over in the briefest of instants, “It happened, it ended, like a shooting star”.

Below is my rather poor attempt to translate this poem. Again, as I have done before, I have gone for a literal translation rather than any attempt to retain a rhyme or meter in the poem. I hope you enjoy it.

The fox

One hundred yards from the top of the mountain, when the peal
Of the churches on the slopes were inviting us towards them,
And the unspent sun of glorious July
Inviting us towards the mountain – right there,
On an unknowing foot and quiet trot
His rare beauty wandered in front of us
We, without movement and without a breath
Were paralysed a moment, like a trinity of stones
We stood, when in the middle of an uncaring step
He too stood frozen in space, above
His one tentative foot the two steady flames
Of his eyes upon us. Then, without hurrying or panic
His red fur slid over the ridge;
It happened, it ended, like a shooting star.

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A few weeks ago my 15-year old son was given an assignment in English – to write about what it meant to be Welsh. He asked my father how my father would answer the question, and he also asked me.

I wasn’t able to give a simple answer, but amongst the many things I said was that if one were to read R. S. Thomas‘ poem “Welsh Landscape“, or T. H. Parry-Williams‘ poem “Hon“, being Welsh means one can understand and identify with what the poets are trying to say in these poems. One poem I forgot to mention at the time was this one, “Fy Ngwlad” (My Country), a poem by Gerallt Lloyd Owen. I showed it to my son yesterday, and I thought I would share it here.

“Fy Ngwlad” was written in 1969, and was meant to be a wake-up call to Welsh people, during a year when many Welsh people felt our identity was being insulted by the investiture of the Queen’s eldest son Charles as “Prince of Wales”. The naming of the eldest son of the English monarch as “Prince of Wales” is a tradition that goes back to Edward I, who was the English king who killed the last native prince of Wales, Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn the Last), in 1282, essentially defeating Wales and ending Wales’ existence as an independent country. The poem is one in a volume of poetry entitled “Cerddi’r Cywilydd” (Poems of the Shame).

The opening lines, which are available here, are:

Wylit, wylit, Lywelyn,
Wylit waed pe gwelit hyn.
Ein calon gan estron ŵr,
Ein coron gan goncwerwr,
A gwerin o ffafrgarwyr
Llariaidd eu gwên lle’r oedd gwŷr.

My translation of these lines are:

You would cry, you would cry, Llywelyn,
You would cry blood if you saw this.
Our hearts in the hands of a foreign man,
Our crown in the hands of a conquerer,
And a peasant-folk of favour givers
Meek their smile, where men used to be.

The poem is in a form of poetry known as “cywydd“. A “cywydd” is a poem with rhyming couplets, and you can see that in the 6 lines I have quoted above. But, a “cywydd” is a lot more than that, it is also written in “cynghanedd“, which is a very ancient (dating back to the 6th Century at least), strict form of poetry which is unique to Wales. There are many types of cynghanedd, but a line of cynghanedd must be 7 syllables, and follow certain other rules.

For example, the cynghanedd in the first line

Wylit, Wylit, Lywelyn

is an example of a “cynghanedd sain“. In this type of cynghanedd, the line naturally breaks into three parts, and the end of the first part rhymes with the end of the second part. In addition, the consonants in the second part match the consonants in the third part – so in this line the “l” in “wylit” is matched by the “l” in “Lywelyn” (“w” and “y” are vowels in Welsh, and it is not necessary to match the consonants in the last syllable of any part of the line).

The line

Ein coron gan goncwerwr

is a different type of cynghanedd. This is an example of a “cynghanedd draws“. In this type of cynghanedd, the line breaks naturally into 2 parts, which in this line is after the word “coron”. The consonants in the first part of the line are “n c r” and they are matched by the “n c r” in the word “goncwerwr”, with the consonants “g n” in the word “gan” and the “g” at the beginning of “goncwerwr” being skipped over (hence the name of this type of cynghanedd – draws, which means “across”, one can go across or skip over these consonants).

The last one I will explain (otherwise I will be here all day) is the line

Llariaidd eu gwên lle’r oedd gwŷr.

This line breaks naturally after the word “gwên”. The consonants in the first half are “Ll r dd g w” (one can “ignore the last consonant “n” as it is in the last syllable of the word at the end of the first part of the line). The consonants in the 2nd half of the line, which are “ll r dd g w” match those in the first half! This type of cynghanedd is called “cynghanedd groes“.

As I said above, cynghanedd is an ancient form of strict Welsh meter, and to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod one must write a poem which is written entirely in cynghanedd. Some people seem to be able to dream in cynghanedd, and often the poems which win the Chair in the Eisteddfod are hundreds of lines of cynghanedd long.

The chairing of the bard

The chairing of the bard at the National Eisteddfod

I am yet to compose a single cynghanedd with which I am happy…..

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