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Steve Spence

"The Edge of Necessary: an anthology of welsh innovative poetry (1966-2018)", ed. John Goodby and Lyndon Davies, pub. Aquifer/Boiled String 329 pages £13.00

This is an impressive tome to be sure. Its basic thesis, outlined in detail in an eighteen page introduction, is to challenge the perception of ‘Welsh Poetry’ (which in this case means ‘in English’ though there are elements of Welsh language usage here) as being a largely small c conservative affair, more R.S. Thomas than Dylan Thomas, allied to a narrow form of nationalism and ‘hostile’ to outsiders. This is simplifying matters to be sure but the introduction delves into these issues in more depth and is a very useful aid in approaching this wide and varied body of work. The editors refer to David Jones and Dylan Thomas and the lesser known T.H. Parry-Williams as ‘precursors’ of the modernist tradition, one which has been largely sidelined or ignored by what I’m going to reductively call the mainstream here. The work of Dylan Thomas has of course been widely praised and published although it’s arguable that he has been incorporated within a ‘bardic tradition’ which perhaps misrepresents its modernist and innovative inclinations. There are 47 poets included here and I’m aware of the work of around 26 of these which means that prior to encountering this volume I’ve read some in depth, am lightly acquainted with the work of others and some I’ve just heard of, leaving around 20 writers I’d not come previously across. They are represented in chronological order in terms of birth date and the earliest inclusion, Gerard Casey, was born in 1915 and died in 2000 while the latest, or youngest, Rhea Seren Phillips was born in 1989. Fifteen of the poets are women. The definition ‘Welsh’ here, apart from referring only to work written in English, has a wide remit in terms of including writers who were born in Wales and have moved elsewhere and some who were born elsewhere and have moved to Wales and had a long association with the country. There are also those who perhaps have less tangible associations with Wales but whose work is included because there are distinct connections. The whole vibe that comes from this is that the project is indeed an ‘internationalist’ one and it’s worth naming a few of the included poets simply to indicate what an influence poets/writers from Wales or having strong associations with the country have actually had in terms of widening the remit of modern poetry: Iain Sinclair; Peter Finch; Jeff Nuttall; John James; Elizabeth Bletsoe and Chris Torrance. I was very pleased to see that the book is indeed dedicated to John James, a poet whose reputation has been growing enormously in recent years and whose work I think is as ambitious and successful as any published in the latter part of the 20th century in the British Isles.

The first inclusion here is Gerard Casey (1915-2000), not a name I was previously aware of, with an extract from his long work South Wales Echo (1973), which is dedicated to David Jones and influenced by The Anathemata, also by William Carlos Williams and indeed by Peter Finch, so it’s a work grounded in generations of innovative writing. It’s a poem based on a memory of a childhood journey home from school in the area of Tiger Bay’s slums in Cardiff and has reference to a hanging of three convicts – possibly a miscarriage of justice – as the walk includes the passing of the city gaol:

          who I am or what I am
          who knows or cares
          call me Ishmael … or Ulyssees
          he that poured libations to all the dead
          come stormdriven back from that hateful stream
          where powerless heads throng to the dark blood

It’s a powerful mix of social commentary and imaginative evocation and its reference-points in other literature (Joyce, Homer and Melville) gives it a very modern yet ‘mythic’ feel.

Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) is obviously best known for his book Bomb Culture (1968) which had a big impact on the counterculture of that time. He was also a poet, jazz musician, actor, painter and as well as having strong connections to Wales from earlier times he spent the last years of his life in Abergavenny where he was associated with the workshop scene at the Hen and Chickens pub. Nuttall’s poetry has many influences and is certainly connected to the avant-garde of the time and was published in a big Selected by Salt in 2003. His work has a visceral, erotic quality and also references Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins in its formal devices:

          The lunatic is in my skull – his blazing replica is spat out molten
                    on the dying sky.
          I walk a while, a long while I walk. The instant’s constant.
                    Something in me won’t die. Help me.
          (from ‘I stalk with the razorblade cranes’)

John James (1939-2018) who grew up in a working-class Cardiff family spent much of his working life at Cambridge where he taught at the Cambridge College of Arts & Technology (now Anglia Polytechnic University) and is gradually being acknowledged as one of the real heavyweights of late 20thcentury British poetry. Certainly his reputation has increased since the publication of his ‘Collected Poems’ by Salt in 2002. James’ poetry has a political aspect, militantly so at times, yet he also embraces the joie de vivre more usually associated with Southern Europe. His work has a beautifully lyrical aspect as well as embracing, in the 70’s, the spirit of punk and dub in response to the Thatcher regime. His work is substantially represented in this anthology which is a fitting tribute to his growing reputation. The following extract from ‘Craven Images’ mixes what could be a song lyric with a more easy going line-by-line meditation which includes an almost swaggering attitude and off-beat observation:

                                           her back is arched
                                           & her breasts are bare
                                           I feel a rose down
                                           in her hair


          the inimitable life of hotels
          a rich display of feminist cactus in the lobby
          lingering crows on the steps of Brompton Oratory
          the poor animal life of the region we
          will try the grand gesture the sag-arsed manner
          the sculptors throw cat & rip off cock manner
          tails the piece the hands of me manner
          & up to a certain point manner
          a couple of borzois on a leash manner

                                           oh baby what
                                           a dog to be
                                           in the Suck Age
                                           of the bourgeoisie

James was a great live reader and had a ‘popular’ side to his work which could have got him a much larger audience. You can almost imagine Adrian Mitchell performing some of the above, for example.

Iain Sinclair (1943-) is better known for his fiction and work as a psycho-geographer but has produced poetry from the early days and is still writing poetry for publication, as The Firewall (Etruscan Books, 2006) suggests. He also edited the seminal Conductors of Chaos anthology (1996) which included a wide range of poetry from the British avant-garde, contemporary, but referring  back to past traditions. His work included here embraces both the more out-and-about psycho-geographical aspect of his output together with the more short-line esoteric yet lyric material which is allusive, elusive and puzzling as indicated below:

          Kiting the Flies

          always the muff, mouth agape
          stealing fond bacteria

          this field a cold ghost
          excising the ecliptic

          pacing the chrism
          on highheel blisters

          from the Myrdle Court out:

          in goes the gelt
          thudding paper

          silencing the disease
          of white domestic business

Wendy Mulford’s work (b.1941-), ‘bound up with an exploration of place’ is as much to do with an investigation of language as with scene-setting and has an indirect, sort of penumbral way of coming at things. Her line constructions veer between a hint of narrative, syntactically driven yet this is balanced by a more aesthetically generated wordplay which deals in texture and euphony. None of this prevents her poetry having a political aspect:

          Day Dreams

          make of me what you will
          that may be red glowing
          green over me

          blue shields my eyes
          horizon sheers
          night stocks slice dusk

          dampness smokes trough
          the art of loving are you
          hard at work being modern

          or full pelt backwards
          never let up
          hatband nostalgia

          bedecking the major feeling
          speak to yourself so
          old-fashion I
          could give you love
          in a thousand pieces

Chris Torrance moved from Surrey to rural Wales in 1970. Influenced by David Jones, The Beats, Blake and Burroughs his poetry is mainly concerned with the isolated environment in which he lives where history, geology, the weather and the experience of day-to-day living feed into his material. His major work The Magic Door, which has preoccupied him for many years has now been completed and is available in one edition. There’s an element of Thoreau’s Walden to his poetry which is clearly influenced by circumstance and by choice of lifestyle:

          Autumn Drunkenness

          Write it. The solitary drinker’s
          depression. What is it
          I can’t resist? Ether
          & chloroform daddies
          caper in their underwear. With
          clear, liquid eyes,
          the cats tussle in tall trees.
          The orchard yields
          of its sour best, little apples,
          plums & greengages. What is
          poetry then? An amalgam
          of my sorrowing & deliberations.
          May blossom wine
          trickles down my throat.

                         September 1970

Tilla Brading’s (1945-) poetry has something in common with the mapping procedures of Richard Long as she explores landscape from a perspective which combines the geological/historical with what I’m going to call more ‘spiritual’ concerns. She is also a performer and textual artist and shares these interests in her writing which at its best has an open-ended and playful quality which is engaging and intoxicating. She shares some common ground with the more traditional landscape poet Mark Totterdell (certainly in terms of geographical location at one point) but a more experimental, materialist streak marks out her work as being different:

          tautology retains the vestiges of singing synaesthesia of one energy to
          another past the end of viability

          reappropriated into the discourse choices catching complexity tropes

          disruption uncovers climbs over lack paradox cadence musicality
          contradiction meditative powers

                                                      (from ‘Notes Towards Definite Inference – 2010’)

The unfinished yet ‘sculptural’ feel of the above documents a thought process while also embracing an open-ended textural musicality which avoids metrical determination.

Elizabeth Bletsoe (1960) also has a good chunk of work in this collection, relative to the success of her artistic achievement I’d argue. She’s not a prolific poet to my knowledge but all her published work is to a very high standard, rich in vocabulary and source material (myth, feminism, horticulture, science and etymology). The following extract comes from her collection The Regardians, I believe, which combines urban Cardiff with rural Dorset and some wonderfully ‘material’ angels:


          not everyone loves a blue angel
          I met you once
                                        on a railway footbridge
          a black Alsatian-cross with
          pricked ears
                         long lupine jaws
                                        & eyes like peeled grapes, but
          I was not ready
                    I let you pass
          you growled somewhere
                              deep in your throat-fur

                                                  (opening stanza from ‘Azrael’)

Bletsoe is also one of the best live performers on the circuit when she’s available to do readings and is well worth seeing if you get the chance.

Peter Finch (1947-) is one of the stalwarts of the Welsh poetry scene with an international reputation. His work ranges from the ‘accessible narrative’ poetry to the wider realms of performance/experimentation, including concrete poetry influenced by the late and wonderful Bob Cobbing. He plays with language and with linguistics and can be hilariously funny to boot. His work as editor of Second Aeon magazine was influential and wide-ranging as was his presence on the Arts Council of Wales and his running of the bookshop Oriel in Cardiff. He was an early promoter of the avant-garde and indeed could be said to have put experimental poetry in Wales well and truly on the map. His poetry included in this anthology takes in a range of his styles and includes some purely visual material plus ‘Extracts from ‘five Hundred Cobbings’, a further extract from which is taken in the following:

          Cobbing a nonelephant animal
          Cobbing’s paradigm shift
          Cobbing’s red spot roaring
          Cobbing under normal conditions
          Cobbing it’s a simple example
          Oh my little Cobbing
          my lovely Cobbing
          my soft sweet Cobbono
          my curling Cobonno
          my curling Cobbing
          Cobbing with bows and hearts
          my great-hearted Cobbanovitch
          Cobbing the stone throat
          blue-eyed great coated
          honey suckle Cobbono 

I only ever saw him read live once, an entertaining affair which culminated in the total destruction
of a Mills and Boon novel!

David Greenslade (1952-) is another experimentalist whose Each Broken Object (2002) is a classic of the avant-garde. His poetry often has a relationship with material ‘things’, combined with a surreal approach to his work although, like Peter Finch, he can also do the more traditional poem, as in his collection Weak Eros (2002). There is almost a crossover with visual artforms and his work has clearly been influenced by conceptual art as well as surrealism. The extract below is from his poem ‘Railway’ which should give the reader at least a flavour of where he is coming from:

          What a difficult railway track you are,
          no rails! How easily you kill,
          what a fool if I chose
          to die for you – beckoning
          your kiss across a battlefield.
          No engineer could deliver you,

          heaped with unwrapped things.
          Have I the courage to imagine
          and deny you? Constantly –
          until I can’t help myself
          pulling off your wedding ring,
          your skin at its whitest hinge.

Philip Jenkins (1923-) and Paul Evans (1945-1991) were both influenced by surrealism, in Jenkins’ case particularly by the French poet Pierre Reverdy. There’s a dreamy, minimalist swirl in ‘baritone compass’ which makes this point succinctly: ‘people from perhaps earlier / decades I might’ve known / them they move unchanged / sunshine continually recurring’. In Evans’ ‘1st Imaginary Love Poem’ the jump-cuts are incorporated into the overall flow by the use of conjunctions which create a sort of ‘dreamy strangeness’ which make the juxtapositions feel ‘natural’:

          “I like poetry as much as sleeping” you said
          and the guards lined up outside the tower
          the crocodiles were all on form that day
          wiping your face in the sun
          (from ‘1st Imaginary Love Poem’)

In Helen Lopez’s work (1960-) we have a new form of lyricism, using found language at times I suspect, snippets of material reworked to create both a sense of mystery and a dreamy moodscape which also has an underlying anxiety. She takes different kinds of language, employing montage as a method to reliven the texts and to encourage the reader to look at the familiar in a new way. Lopez often uses repetition as a device which can be comic as well as slightly sinister. She is a magpie who works with cliché and with received forms in a manner which is playfully subversive and challenging. This is thought-provoking poetry which is also pleasurable to read:

          Lyrical Scrap

          In the garden after lunch where the
          bougainvillea rains, I shall water

          the saladini both fresh and weary.
          You row your owen boat and I will swim as

          language, and move on–like water.
          When waterfalls came in  a dream,

          like a delayed dusting of snow on the hills
          remembered when slamming tennis balls

          across an open space. The mouth space
          opens and shuts for language a landscape.

Live with that for a while and begin to see how strange it all is!

Zoe Skoulding (1968-) was editor of the innovative magazine Poetry Wales between 2008-2014 and is interested in translation as well as multi-media work. Her poetry combines psycho-geography with an existential questing and also feels to have positively benefitted from an immersion in conceptual art, not something you could say about every poet who has worked in this way:

          How does a sheep
                              know where to go
                                        molecular frisking in clouded sun
          all the tuneless organs
                              a shepherd’s pie
                                        singing an embryo music
          machine of sheep and human
                              fleeced and plugged in
                                        the eye’s memory
          remaking itself in darkness
                              out on the mountain
                                        browsing image after
          image in the chomped grass

          (from ‘Heft II’)

Here we have music, an element of comedy and a new way of recording events (‘browsing image after / image…’) which fuses phenomenology with a novel lyrical approach.

Nia Davies (1984), currently editor of Poetry Wales, is widely published, including work in The Salt Book of Younger Poets and a chapbook, Then Spree (2012). Her work is playful, feminist, outgoing, provocative and often quite direct. While there is still a strong link with past literary tradition, unlike a great deal of the writing by younger poets in the Bloodaxe anthology of younger poets Dear World & Everyone in it, for example, hers is a notably new voice, exuberant and up-front:

          I Want to do Everything

          Bibulous, happy, exploded in the litter
          of pomegranate, I want to live long.

          And face the glacier’s flume. It’s spring,
          it’s spring in that toothpaste. The winter is game,

          asks me to press forward: evenly. Then spree.
          The rubble of my room, the follicles pushed up,

          Flowering envelopes, springs of seed packeted.
          What can be chosen amid this?

          In the bed we’ll live long to bear orang-utans.
          And in clusters of eight we’ll count them.

          Nine might be holy. And it’s better
          when it’s a charmed story.

          Peeled wheat at breakfast, blood oranges and March.
          Let it be March soon.

There’s a lot of work here I can but mention due to the limits of space: David Annwyn, for example, whose wonderfully energetic wordplay and comic fluency has long been a favourite. Likewise with Rhys Trimble, whose work reminds me to an extent of Barry MacSweeney. I love John Goodby’s reworking of Dylan Thomas, Phil Maillard’s fresh focus on everyday events and Ian Davidson’s mix of the political and the personal, to name a few. Anthologies are strange beasts, gathering elements from the past (even the recent past) to create a map of some sort, a meaning based on both subjective and objective choosing. This particular anthology is significant in that it opens up, hopefully to a wider readership, a mix of divergent, subversive work which hints at influence and gives the reader a chance to look at the past anew. Its purpose if it has such a thing is to provide current and future poets material to work with, to stimulate the reader with work which is varied yet exploratory, to bring hidden traditions to the surface. Anthologies can never be totally inclusive, even within their particular remit, but I was slightly surprised that the poets Martin Duxbury Hibbert, Lloyd Robson and Ric Hool didn’t appear here. Nevertheless this is great book and you should get hold of a copy pronto.


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019