The place of gender in the poetry of Gillian Clarke and Menna Elfyn
by M. Wynn Thomas
In 1971, Anne Sexton published Transformations, a collection of poetry in which she retold several of Grimms' fairy tales, recasting them so as to reveal the hidden agenda of their sexual politics.1 One of her most striking successes was 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', a story which Disney had turned into an immensely popular post war 'American classic'. From one point of view, Sexton appears to stick quite closely to the original version of the story, except that she translates it into the American tough guy vernacular immortalized (and in a sense invented) by writers such as Raymond Chandler:
'The dwarfs, those little hot dogs,
walked three times around Snow White,
... She was as full of life as soda pop'
But this streetwise idiom signifies Sexton's sardonic view of the way in which the original story sentimentalises the reality of gender relationships. By means of this retaliatory and revelatory discourse, which thereby seems closer to the style of Mae West or Bette Midler than of Chandler, she exposes the anti-feminine and covertly macho ideology inscribed in the original 'fairy story'. In Sexton's redaction, Snow White becomes a sinister social icon of the feminine, like Marilyn Monroe, or a Barbie doll:
No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin du Rhone,
rolling her china blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say, Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust of the unicorn.
She is unsoiled.
She is as white as a bonefish. (269)
After her cruel stepmother's every attempt to kill her, Snow White is invariably revived from her swoon and restored to her original oppressive state of 'virginal' purity. And when one recalls Sexton's own numerous attempts on her own life, one realises that she has in this poem created an allegory not only of woman's social plight, as she sees it, but of her own personal condition.
Sexton's Transformations is a notable instance of an important trend in women's writing in the United States over the last thirty years, trenchantly characterised by Alicia Ostriker in her essay 'The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.'2 Drawing upon the feminist theory that represents ‘normal' social discourse as silently saturated and secretly structured by patriarchal values, Ostriker distinguishes two strategies adopted by women to begin the work of remedying this situation. On the one hand, there is the search for an ‘écriture feminine’, a distinctively gynocentric mode of writing emerging from an exclusive ‘langage des femmes’; on the other, there is 'the vigorous and various invasion', by women, 'of the sanctuaries of existing language, the treasuries where our meanings for "male" and "female" are themselves preserved' (315). This latter strategy, involving the appropriation of established styles and genres for altered ends, is strikingly exemplified, for Ostriker, in the revisionist use made of myth by women writers who implicitly take as their motto Adrienne Rich's observation, in 'Diving into the Wreck', that she carries with her a 'book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear'. Rich's rewriting of that book of myths to include the female is therefore the representative action of a whole group of modern women writers.
Although the beginnings of this enterprise could be traced at least as far back as the work of Laura Riding in the 1930s, with a high point reached early in H.D.'s post war Helen in Egypt, Ostriker concentrates on the dozen or more 'major works (poem sequences, long poems, or whole books) of revisionist myth published by American women' between the early 1960s and the early 1980s (317). These writers include Sylvia Plath, Kate Ellis, Sharon Baba, Rachel DuPlessis, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Ann Stanford and Susan Griffin. Ostriker ends her survey by noting features that such poets have in common when dealing with mythic material. She sees their poetry as 'enactments of feminist anti authoritarianism opposed to the patriarchal praxis of reifying texts'; as involving radical revaluations of traditional occidental social, political and philosophical values; as ridding myth of the nostalgia which attaches to it when used by men; and as correlating revisionism with formal experimentation, including the destabilising of the ‘I’ which confidently presides over masculine discourse (330- 1).
Ostriker also notes that 'revisionist mythmaking' by women is by no means confined either to poetry or to the United States. Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter are clearly major figures in this new 'tradition' ' which includes a whole host of writers who have appeared since Ostriker published her essay in 198 1. Among these may be counted several writers from Wales, as critics such as Delyth George and, most recently, Jane Aaron have pointed out.3 Both draw attention to the fascination the story of Blodeuwedd holds for women writers, a fascination due not only to the resonant configuration of elements in the original legend but also to the 'strong' masculine reading of the whole offered by Saunders Lewis in his Blodeuwedd, one of the classic Welsh-language plays of this century. Implicit in most, if not all, feminine retellings of the Blodeuwedd story is a radical revisionist impulse to steal the story back from Lewis. to reclaim it for women by rearranging its constituent elements.
As Aaron shows, Blodeuwedd's appeal crosses the linguistic divide, eliciting a powerful interpretative response from both Welsh language writers (Angharad Jones, Elin Llwyd) and English language writers (Gillian Clarke, Hilary LlewellynWilliams). That response may, Aaron argues, be crudely divided into two. For Welsh women writers, Blodeuwedd tends either to represent the loneliness and guilt that accrues to women excommunicated from society for transgressing the moral code, or to stand for the rebelliousness of those who set established, male dominated society at defiance (193-4). The latter view usually involves seeing Blodeuwedd as instancing natural female energies and energies linking woman to nature that have been oppressed and distorted by the dominant, repressive social order established and jealously patrolled by men.
Suggestive though this schema is, it understandably gains its clarity somewhat at the expense of the valuable nuances and ambiguities of the actual texts, one of the best of which is undoubtedly Gillian Clarke's poem. One of the most striking, and significant, features of her 'Blodeuwedd' is that in no way does it refer to the fateful part played by no fewer than three men (Gwydion, Llew and Gronw) in Blodeuwedd's tragic story.4 It could, perhaps, be argued, that this is so integral to the original legend that it is bound to be implicit in any version of it that is told. But to insist on that too much and too soon would be to risk missing the point of Clarke's poem a point which is made through the omission of the men. A key strategy in her telling of the story is the turning of the legend into one told by women, among women and for women. And a key device is that of establishing, in and through language, binary oppositions which are then deliberately deconstructed. Blodeuwedd is at first colourless, but then her feathers are also 'cream as meadowsweet/ and oakflowers'; 'soundless' she may be, contrasted to the chattering women from whose company she is forever excluded, and yet 'her night lament/ beyond conversation' is 'Blodeuwedd's ballad', her association with nature signifies both barrenness ('condemned/ to the night, to lie alone/ with her sin') and a habitat of fecundity ('Her white face rose/ out of darkness/ in a buttercup field'). The indoor life of the women is both restrictively decorous and yet primitively ritualistic and productive of a fertile kind of sociability 'moving in kitchens/ among cups, cloths and running/ water while they talk'; the women themselves are at once nourished and confined by the domestic routine of their 'comfortable sisterhood' a phrase that just hints at smugness and self satisfaction, as does mention of how they 'recall/ the day's work, our own fidelities'.5
The whole point of Clarke's poem is that it, and its power, derives directly from a radical division of mind, and corresponding sharing of sympathy, between 'freedom' and 'domesticity', 'nature' and 'society', the individual and the collective. The attempts made, at the level of language, to make these distinctions absolutely clear and decisive repeatedly fail because Clarke's language is so beautifully responsive to her fluctuations of feeling and judgment. This dwelling in uncertainty is, for her, the very essence of being a woman, and as an artist she refuses to simplify it by resorting to obvious ways of resolving the matter - for example by representing female domesticity as merely the internalisation of male requirements. The men are kept firmly out of the picture, not because Clarke is unaware of their crucial influence on the roles women play and the lives they lead, as is evident from the Blodeuwedd story, but because she does not believe that the plight of women can be attributed fully, or essentially, to ‘patriarchal' influence.
Compared to Saunders Lewis's play, her reading of the Blodeuwedd story certainly involves a revision of the myth in that she reclaims it as a story centrally for women and about women.6 Accordingly her feeling for Blodeuwedd is challengingly different in kind from that of Saunders Lewis. There is no hint in her poem of that visceral fear of the otherness of the female which is such a memorable element in his otherwise highly intellectual drama. But in so far as Lewis, too, refuses to structure his play along the lines of clear cut gender difference, opting stubbornly instead for ambiguities of judgment and presentation that much more broadly 'humanise' the story, Clarke's poem may usefully be regarded as complementing, as much as confronting, his play.' And it is precisely this incorrigible impulse in her when dealing with myth, both to give it a feminine inflexion and to subsume gender difference within what, for her, remains the overriding, primary category of the undifferentiatedly 'human' that is worth considering further.
'Adrian Henri once said to me: "You're in two political situations, being both Welsh and a woman poet.” ’8 Thus Gillian Clarke began her contribution in 1986 to a symposium on gender in poetry. It was natural that she should be invited to contribute, since several of her innovative long poems, beginning with ‘Letter from a Far Country’ (1982), have been lineations of female lineage, feminised genealogies in which the traditional Welsh obsession with male ancestor worship has metamorphosed into Clarke's very differently motivated and very differently orientated search for her distinctive antecedents as a woman.9
The latest, and perhaps the best, of these long poems is 'The King of Britain's Daughter' (1993), an autobiographical sequence that uses myth as a sort of sonic scan, allowing Clarke to explore the gestation of her own imagination.10 This work is central to my concerns, but first it is worth considering another, earlier, poem that could also have been entitled 'The King of Britain's Daughter', a short poem in which Clarke again constructs a modern myth of personal origin out of the materials of an authentic Celtic myth. Entitled 'Llyr', this poem begins with her recollections of being taken to the theatre when she was a child:
Ten years old, at my first Stratford play:
The river and the king with their Welsh names
Bore in the darkness of a summer night
Through interval and act and interval.
Swans moved double through glossy water
Gleaming with imponderable meanings. (SP, 79 80)
Behind Lear, Clarke glimpses his prototype LIyr, the Celtic (Welsh) king of ancient Britain. And in the name of the River Avon she sees its antecedent, afon, the Welsh word for river. No wonder, then, that the swans move double through this water. Here at Stratford, Clarke sensed the enticing duplicities of language and excitedly listened to the Chinese whisper of words. But her awakening to the resonances of English was coincidental with, and even perhaps internally connected to, her realisation that she, as a Welsh girl, stood in a very ambiguous relation to the English language. On the one hand, 'Lear' and 'Avon' demonstrated how English could distort Wales in the very act of reflecting it, just as Welsh culture had for centuries been destructively changed in being subordinated to the socio-political power of England. On the other hand, she felt very much at home, in her element as it were, watching King Lear at Stratford upon Avon; in this sense, English was after all her native medium, her mother tongue. Her beginnings as a Welsh poet writing in English can, then, be traced back to that originating moment when she saw, and became, that swan '[moving] double through glossy water/ Gleaming with imponderable meanings' (79).
But in Stratford the play's the thing, and it is indeed the part that King Lear itself played in the making of her as a poet that Clarke next considers: 'All. Nothing. Fond. Ingratitude. Words/ To keep me scared, awake at night. That old/ Man's vanity and a daughter's "Nothing",/ Ran like a nursery rhythm in my head' (79). Years later, 'on the cliffs of LIyn', that Welsh peninsula whose name uncannily chimes with LIyr/Lear, she broods on the oppressively patriarchal character of her ancient native Celtic landscape:
The landscape's marked with figures of old men:
The bearded sea; thin boned, wind bent trees;
Shepherd and labourer and night fisherman.
Here and there among the crumbling farms
Are lit kitchen windows on distant hills
And guilty daughters longing to be gone. (SP, 79)
She readily sympathises – identifies indeed – with the women of a decaying country who are quietly desperate to escape from the unbending masculinity of so much of the history of Wales, 'Land of my fathers' as the Welsh national anthem proudly hymns it. This putative female rebellion is conceived of partly in terms of a recuperation of sensitivities despised alike by the desiccated Puritan culture of rural areas and the macho proletarian culture of the old industrial regions. So, in gently appreciative lines, in which a filigree of sounds suggests an intimate structure of interrelationships, Clarke registers the intricate, delicate, inner beauty of the new feminized land of LIyn:
The turf is stitched with tormentil and thrift,
Blue squill and bird bones, tiny shells, heartsease.
Yellowhammers sing like sparks in the gorse. (79)
But in this poem, and in Clarke's poetry as a whole, female rebellion takes another form as well – takes, indeed, the line that she learnt at Stratford from Cordelia: 'That old/ Man's vanity and a daughter's "Nothing”,/ Ran like a nursery rhythm in my head.' Cordelia's 'Nothing' is the Ursprache, the originating, primal sound of a distinctively female idiom. But it is, nevertheless, not only on her own behalf as a woman but in the name of, and for the sake of, a genuine love of her father that Cordelia utters that 'Nothing'. And an important defining characteristic of Clarke's poem 'Llyr' is the sympathy evinced in it for the haughty old royal reprobate, Lear. Indeed, by the poem's close the 'Nothing' that Cordelia utters has been blended to such an extent with the tragedy it helped precipitate that gender differences have faded away and all that is left is a sense of the sadness inherent in the human condition itself, regardless of gender; the sadness that cries out for, and through, the articulations of poetry: 'When I was ten a fool and a king sang/ Rhymes about sorrow, and there 1 heard/ That nothing is until it has a word' (80).
Feminist poets and myth~makers of the kind mentioned by Ostriker might well condemn Clarke's poem as a cop out, since, instead of holding the line between male and female, it ends up by blurring it. But since I am not here concerned with ideological purity, 1 want simply to try to understand the reasons why Clarke proceeds as she does and to consider, in a pragmatic way, the advantages and disadvantages that accrue to her poetry. There seem to me to be two main, and closely interconnected, reasons why she raises gender issues in terms that allow them to be ultimately subsumed within an all-embracing concept of the human. The first reason concerns her relationship with her father; the second relates to Wales, and the implications of both become richly apparent in that long sequence, 'The King of Britain's Daughter'. This sequence involves the counterpointing of two sorts of narrative, each of which dominates in turn, and each of which can be interpreted as a version of the other. One narrative is autobiographical, involving the recollection of experiences from Clarke's childhood, and the other narrative is mythic, drawing its material from the great stories of the Mabinogion.
Clarke's father died when she was a rebellious teenager, leaving her unable for forty years to express a grief compounded in no small part of guilt, resentment and anger. 'The King of Britain's Daughter' is one of the poems in which at long last she succeeded in breaking silence, putting words to that 'Nothing' with which she had greeted his death. The sequence is largely set in the far west of Wales, her father's native region, and the heartland of an ancient Welsh language culture. Over millennia, the rural landscape had been imbued with legendary racial meanings to which Clarke's wondering mind was opened as a child when she was taken from urban Anglicised Cardiff to stay with her grandmother for the summer.11 That ritual car joumey, magically transporting her from one world to another, is wistfully recalled in the sequence: 'Then rocked to sleep in the dark for a hundred miles,/ my face in his coat, soft growl/ of the Austin in my dreaming bones' (KBD, 2). Here, as throughout the sequence, her father is a patient, caring, nurturing, 'maternal' presence. By contrast, her briefly mentioned mother seems unfeeling: witness the way she disposes of her husband’s beloved old hat:
When she gave it away ...
she gave away mornings of forage,
beachcombings, blackberries, pebbles, eggs,
field mushrooms with pleated linings,
his fist working it to a form
for the leveret that quivered under my hand
before it died. (KBD, 5)
Amplitude, hospitality, fecundity, delicacy, generosity, mercy, these are the attributes associated with that old hat, the masculine womb that gave birth to Clarke's imagination. Moreover, it was her father who gave Clarke the freedom of a countryside, rich in legend, which was commensurate with her innate capacity for wonder. If he electrified her imagination by telling her stories that metamorphosed familiar features into fantastic strangeness, he also safely earthed her imagination in the beautiful landscape of west Wales. By these means, and in a reversal of the gender roles that have conventionally been associated with poetic creation, he acted as her muse, in the sense that he empowered her mind to recognize the generous, inviting malleability of the world. Clarke's poem 'Giants' is therefore at once about the stories he told her, about the liberating scale of his imagination, and about her own resulting conception of her powers as a poet:
turn boulders into grains of sand,
a brimming horizon to a goblet,
capstone and orthostats of the cromlech,
a milking stool set slant
on the hill's shoulder. (KBD, 9)
Though giants are male, Clarke came to associate these kinds of change of scale with female experience. Required to divide their time, and their very selves, between so many radically different environments, women have constantly to be changing perspective and readjusting their sights.12
In 'The King of Britain's Daughter', Clarke's father is more like Prospero than Lear, nowhere more so than when his modern skills as a radio engineer are mythically celebrated as the means whereby the modern world was mediated to her in homely terms: the ionosphere reflected her father's 'long wave signals back to earth,// light bending in water/ But things get tight and close,/ words, music, languages/ all breathing together under that old carthen' (KBD, 11). (Carthen is the homely Welsh word for a thick woollen blanket.) This childhood idyll (Clarke's reworking, perhaps, of her compatriot Dylan Thomas's 'Fern Hill') is, however, destroyed, when the world turns nasty. The outbreak of the Second World War is the point in the poem where the myth of the king of Britain's daughter, hitherto mostly subordinated to the recreation of actual personal memories, really comes into its own. It is therefore useful to bear in mind Clarke's own summary of that famous story from the Mabinogion:
The giant Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân, son of LIyr, was king of the island of Britain. Matholwch, king of Ireland, married Branwen, daughter of LIyr. For a year she was happy, until the Irish Court became troubled by an old grievance against Wales. Matholwch's brothers demanded vengeance and Branwen was driven from the King's chamber to work in the kitchens. There she reared a starling and taught it to speak her name, and it flew to Wales to find her brother. When he knew of her sorrow, Bendigeidfran set off in rage across the Irish Sea with a fleet of ships. In the ensuing battle all but seven men were killed. Branwen was brought home to Wales, where she died of grief. (KBD, 1)
Intermittently, throughout the sequence, Clarke has evoked the presence of the mighty Brân. But it is only at this turning point, when the world erupts into violence, that she chooses to enter wholly into the realms of Welsh myth, speaking by turns with the voices of Brân and of Branwen. Branwen, bereft of child, husband and privileged queenly status, mourns all she has lost, and dreams of being rescued through the mighty, elemental powers of her giant brother. He, Brân, in his turn, exults in his spectacular cosmic strength and is roused by anger at his sister's plight to use a language of exultant hyperbole: 'My ships are gull feathers/ towed over the drowned rocks of my rage' (KBD,1 5).
Myth is irreducibly multiform in structure and meaning, and is employed by Clarke at this point precisely because she wants to explore, in the very act of expressing, an intricate nexus of experiences. Obviously, the poem is in part an elegy for her father and in part an oblique meditation on war; in addition, Clarke has herself drawn attention to the way it touches upon her parents' often troubled marriage; it may also and simultaneously be about growing up into sexuality and about Clarke's ultimately unsatisfactory relationship with her first husband.13 However, I want to concentrate simply on the way this poem is a development of a theme central to the whole sequence, the theme of the androgynous imagination: of the girl Gillian/Branwen who has been taught by her father to exult in her giant, Brân-like strength. As an earlier poem in the sequence put it, 'Giants . . . are the metaphors that shift the world,/ make delta, Gulf Stream, sea road/ from a stream spilt on the beach' (KBD, 9). Her father had taught her to acknowledge both the delicacy and the convulsiveness of her own mind, to image herself in both conventionally female and conventionally male terms. Experience subsequently taught her that disaster resulted when Brân was separated from Branwen: the latter dwindles from a proud queen into an exploited drudge; the former turns hubristically violent, maddened into creating carnage by an excess of testosterone. It is significant that this mythic interlude at the imaginative centre of 'The King of Britain's Daughter' ends with an elegiac tribute to her father in the form of a beautiful epithalamium celebrating the reunion of male and female, Brân and Branwen:
When he hears my name
he comes as a black crow,
blessed and iridescent
in the rising sun,
giant striding the sea,
prince with his fleet of ships,
brother with a starling
cupped in his nesting hands. (KBD, 16)
From Clarke's relationship with her father, then, came her abiding impulse to temper her awareness of the important social history and pathology of gender difference with a reluctance to draw a hard-and fast distinction between the sexes. Hence, for instance, her unwillingness to use the Blodeuwedd story as a way of indicting men, and her retelling it in a way that allowed her to separate out the various strands or issues, so that she could concentrate on those that specifically concerned women without thereby either completely excluding or immediately implicating men. Hence, too, her characteristic comments such as the following about a supposed new group of poets:
It is the naturalness of the tone of this school of writers, most of them women, which is radically different from the voice of the old order. It springs too from the fact that most girl children speak sooner and read sooner than boys, and have earlier memories. Words that come early are rooted deeply in sensuous experience and can thereafter never lose their primitive force.14
This is a woman poet's working theory of language that is at once explored and consciously instanced in 'The King of Britain's Daughter'. But Clarke has not yet finished. She concludes by saying: 'These are, of course, only tendencies. Not all women's poetry could be identified in this way, and many men possess these characteristics.' One of the men she clearly has in mind is Seamus Heaney, a poet by whom she has been greatly influenced, and who has himself memorably identified the 'feminine' aspects of his own sensibility in essays such as 'Feeling into Words' and 'The Fire in the Flint', collected in the volume entitled Preoccupations. In another essay from the same collection he has (skirting stereotype) described his poetry as 'a somnambulist encounter between masculine will and intelligence and feminine clusters of image and emotion'.15
Interestingly enough, this concept of the androgynous imagination, so influentially formulated by the Romantics, seems implicit in the celebrated treatment of the Branwen story earlier in this century by the important Welsh language poet R. Williams Parry. In 'Drudwy Branwen' ('Branwen's Starling') the intrepidly voyaging, masculine starling, who obviously symbolises the poet, is partially feminised not only through close association with the suffering Branwen but also by being represented as a creature of sensibility, 'the birds of the world's buffoon', mocked by the callously jocular sailors.16 Carrying the message for Brân that the melancholy Branwen has secured by skilful stitches to his body, and taught by her to 'speak' the sounds of a desperate human plea for help, he journeys heroically across the ocean from Ireland to Wales, where 'he seeks a single one, / The soul that is set apart,/ The god in the form of man' (51). Here, too, in this image of Brân, is a suggestion of the androgynous completeness of a Christ-like redeemer, a man of sorrows yet of prodigious physical strength. Williams Parry's treatment of Branwen contrasts strikingly with, for instance, the use made of her in Harri Webb's 'A Crown for Branwen'. There she becomes the female symbol of Wales, and Webb, as self styled representative of the newly nationalist 'AngloWelsh poets' of the 1960s, designates himself her devoted knight protector, a clear instance of masculine appropriation of the legend, with conventional emphasis being placed on the helpless passivity of the stereotypically feminine Branwen.17
What is clear is that, partly because of her father, Clarke regards the landscape, and the culture, of Welsh speaking west Wales as fundamentally hospitable to both 'feminine' and ‘feminised' experience. This is apparent in details, such as the harmonious blending of male and female in her vision at Ystrad Fflûr of 'a river blossoming on stone', or the suggestively bisexual character of her response to the grave of Dewi Emrys, that beloved vagabond of a Welsh poet:
This roughest stone of all, a sand stone pod
Bursting with words, is Dewi Emrys's grave.
And all around the living corn concedes
Fecundity to him. (SP, 27)
This is not, however, to overlook her more assertive attempts to claim a place in the male voice chorus of Welsh poetry. In 'Dyddgu Replies to Dafydd' she enables the mute object of the praise of Wales's greatest poet to become a speaking subject, and she thus empowers a woman to speak her own differently erotic love poem; to yearn for 'when the wind whitens the tender/ underbelly of the March grass/ thick as pillows under the oaks' (SP, 23). And in the companion poem 'At Ystrad Fflûr', Clarke quietly claims, in the name of her female self, not only the place where Dafydd ap Gwilym is buried but also the traditions of praise poetry and canu bro (poetry of place), which had previously been virtually a Welsh male preserve. In her poem, the landscape becomes vividly female in body, culminating in a sensation of how 'desire runs// Like sparks in stubble through the memory/ of the place, and a yellow mustard field/ is a sheet of flame in the heart' (SP, 24). It is almost as if it has taken a woman to recognise, and in that sense fully to awaken, the riotous 'desire' that is pent up in this location, that latent passion which is the true legacy of Dafydd ap Gwilym and which is the hidden blazon of puritanically and politically oppressed Wales.
It is also the landscape of the west that enables her gradually to dissolve the tension between her parents, which had been symbolised, as she has put it, by their quarrels over the Welsh language (to which her Welsh-speaking mother was implacably hostile). In 'Blaen Cwrt', her poem about making her home in Dyfed, the restoration of the old farmhouse becomes the ground of reconciliation, of a new order of relating. It is a 'relationship' poem, beginning as it does by addressing an interlocutor: 'You ask how it is. I will tell you' (SP, 10). This is a place that exists only in Clarke's relating to it, which in turn is inscribed in her relating of it, which consists of her sense of it as a complex structure of interrelating. It exists only as a place held in common – the stress throughout is on the first person plural; the language is one of encounter ('Holding a thick root/ I press my bucket through the surface/ Of the water'); the similes are social connectives ('Our fingers curl on/ Enamel mugs of tea, like ploughmen'); the syntax is a homogenising device ('All is ochre and earth and cloud green/ Nettles'); and everywhere there is the semiotics of coexistence ('Some of the smoke/ Rises against the ploughed, brown field/ As a sign to our neighbours in the/ Four folds of the valley that we are in'). Integration of the self, and simultaneous integration into a community of people and nature, are the poem's implicit themes, made explicit in the concluding lines:
It has all the first
Necessities for a high standard
Of civilised living: silence inside
A circle of sound, water and fire,
Light on uncountable miles of mountain
From a big, unpredictable sky,
Two rooms, waking and sleeping,
Two languages, two centuries of past
To ponder on, and the basic need
To work hard in order to survive. (SP, 10)
These lines seek to contain and pacify instability ('a big, unpredictable sky'), and their resemblance to an epithalamium, a celebration of the marriage between Wales's two cultures, acquires a poignancy when read in the light of the tensions in Clarke's early family background.
By so clearly emphasising at the outset her intention to 'tell' her reader/ listener not about Blaen Cwrt but literally 'how it is', Clarke is demonstrating the power of language, and the authority to be a poet that is vested in her by this place. In this respect, the poem is her signature text as a writer, and specifically as a woman writer, because the kind of sensuous immersion in, and receptive submission to, the ancient particularities of this landscape in the very heartland of Welsh language culture is here associated in Clarke's mind with a 'feminine' sensibility which (as has already been noted) is nevertheless not the unique preserve of the female sex. Thus the poem may be read as a celebration of a feminised – and indeed, feminising – landscape, centring on the implicit demonstration that Clarke's way of moving in and setting up home is not the conventionally masculine way of taking possession of a property. Rather, she tentatively feels her way, adapting herself gently to what is there, taking new shape from it, just as 'Some of the smoke seeps through the stones/ Into the barn where it curls like fern/ On the walls'.
There remains a second aspect to, and reason for, Gillian Clarke's refusal to polarise the sexes and to promote gender conflict, and it is again because she relates to Wales on terms that are connected to her relationship with her father. Both he and her mother were Welsh speakers, who raised their children to speak only English. Her mother viewed Welsh as an obstacle to social advancement and so disapproved of any interest shown in the language by her daughter. The attitude of Clarke's father, though, was much more mixed. As 'The King of Britain's Daughter' shows, he surreptitiously encouraged, and fed, her interest in Welsh legend. He developed in her a kind of racial memory, making her aware of her inheritance, of being heiress to a rich, ancient culture wholly unrelated to that of England. Consequently, when Clarke broke with her first husband, she migrated back to her father's native region of west Wales, settling in Blaen Cwrt. There she learnt sufficient Welsh to enable her to integrate with the ancient indigenous culture of that area. But during the very years of her resettlement, the Welsh culture of west Wales was being seriously threatened by non-Welsh speaking immigrants, drawn to the area by its great natural beauty, and able to settle there because of the relative cheapness of local housing. It is, perhaps, the decay of a very old, quintessentially Welsh, way of life that is in part being mourned in. the concluding parts of 'The King of Britain's Daughter', where Clarke notes that Brân's stone, that had 'balanced its mass so delicately,/ four thousand years withstanding weather/ like a dozing horse' (KBD, 20), has now toppled into the sea:
Today I swim beyond the empty headland
in search of the giant's stone.
Do I see it through green translucent water,
shadow of a wreck, a drowned man's shoulder,
a clavicle huge as a ship's keel
wedged between rocks? (KBD, 18)
Clarke has come to realise that to belong to a Welsh speaking community is to belong to a permanently beleaguered remnant. This has made her aware of other ways, too, in which Welsh identity is in a precarious condition. Infusing her writing, therefore, is a sense of the tenacious spirit of community (characteristic alike of rural Welsh speaking Wales and of industrial English speaking Wales), which has hitherto made possible the survival of a small nation. Solidarity is a feature of the Welsh past which is more than ever a necessity in the Welsh present if there is to be a Welsh future. Under such socio- cultural circumstances, the issue of gender conflict takes on a very different complexion. Clarke's poetry consistently tries to redress the balance – of the historical record, in social arrangements, of cultural life – in favour of previously slighted female experience.18 But it attempts to do so without destroying the fragile integrity of her people by setting male against female. Hence, for example, ‘Letter from a Far Country’ tries gently, rather than militantly, to make visible the contribution of women to Welsh society past and present; and 'The King of Britain's Daughter' pointedly claims that modern Welsh woman is the legitimate heiress of the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain.
In many respects, Clarke shares the plight of women in other marginalized cultures, as illuminatingly described by Marilyn Reizbaum in her recent essay on Scottish and Irish Women's writing.19 'When a culture has been marginalised', notes Reizbaum, 'its impulse toward national legitimisation tends to dominate in all spheres and forms of cultural realisation', so that women have inescapably to address the problematical 'relationship between their national and sexual identities'. Consequently, 'women have found themselves in a peculiar predicament, compelled to realise or challenge the demands of the nationalist imperative in order to clarify the terms of their own oppression' by the very culture that has itself been oppressed. In such circumstances, women have to 'reinterpret nationalism and to establish a role for themselves as feminists within it'; and for an example of this work of radical readjustment Reizbaum turns to the poetry of Eavan Boland, a contemporary Irish poet particularly admired by Clarke.20
'I felt it vital', Boland has written, ‘that women poets such as myself should establish a discourse with the idea of a nation, should bring to it a sense of the emblematic relationship between the feminine, experience and a national past.'21 Clarke has consistently used her poetry to fashion just such a discourse, challenging the patriarchal terms which have dominated the self-descriptions, of Welsh culture. However, she has also established her own rules of engagement, which take her own personal experience and local Welsh cultural conditions into account.
Eavan Boland has similarly refused to equate her poetry in any simple, unequivocal way with gender identity, and she has talked memorably about the double bind of her relationship, as a woman, to her country's heavily masculine literary tradition:
As I read the poems of the tradition, it could often seem to me that I was entering a beautiful and perilous world filled with my own silence, where I was accorded the unfree status of an object. And yet there was a paradox. As I struggled to become my own subject in poems I could hardly write and in a literary tradition which blurred the feminine and the national these poems were enabling and illuminating. As a woman I felt some mute and anxious kinship with those erotic subjects which were appropriated; as a poet I felt confirmed by the very powers of expression which appropriated them.22
These, and other, comments by Boland voice the feelings not only of Gillian Clarke but also of her close friend and near-neighbour, Menna Elfyn, whose Welsh language poetry Clarke has translated and with whom she has occasionally collaborated. The ambiguous relationship in which Elfyn's work stands to that of the overwhelmingly male traditional literary culture of Wales – a masculinity particularly evident in the classic strict metre poetry that is at its core – has been evidenced both in her writing and in the reactions to it. Particularly noteworthy, perhaps, is the feeling in some quarters that her poetry was slow to receive the official recognition it deserved (from the National Eisteddfod as from influential anthologists) because, in significant part, of its heterodox, feminine character.
Throughout her career, Elfyn has certainly felt the need, as part of what Boland called 'the struggle to become my own subject', to recast hallowed poetic forms in her own female image. The elegy, for instance, assumes a new, feminine, form in such poems as 'Broits' ('Brooch'), which speaks of how 'it's from the soft inner depth/ we work the brooch of our lives'.23 As well as quietly revaluing an object traditionally stigmatised as a mere piece of female frippery, the poem bodies forth woman's experience of the generative processes secretly proceeding within the concavities of her body and mind. Also – like the poem 'Amber’ – it gently subverts the binary (and frequently gendered) opposition between soft and hard, since what is here revealed is how each of these qualities can, in psychic and moral terms, be regarded as an aspect of the other. So, too, in another feminised elegy, this time for a woman who died in the anti-nuclear demonstrations at Greenham Common, heroism is recognised as involving hard moral resolve, appear though it may in 'soft', unfamiliar, female guise: 'And soberly these sisters from Wales/ went not a bit like Catraeth boyos'.24
Praise poetry is similarly changed to arresting effect by Elfyn when, for instance, she devotes a whole sequence to sensual celebration of woman's hair, the display of which has (in line with Pauline teaching) been traditionally censured by the patriarchal chapels, whereas it had been lustily lauded by Dafydd ap Gwilym and his kind who made women the objects of their passion. It is her own passion, however, that is the frank subject of Elfyn's poetry. She it is who assumes the role of sexual petitioner and practitioner, producing thereby a love poetry suffused with the ecstasy of female eroticism. And in thus invading and appropriating a male genre, she makes inventive play with several of its key conventions, including that of the llatai, or love messenger. After her husband has been imprisoned for his lawbreaking activities in defence of the Welsh language, Elfyn sends him Basildon Bond messages couched in a hyperbolic language of longing that captures the anguished comedy of despair: 'While you were in prison/ the banks of the Teifi froze/ in civil disobedience,/ and the salmon died/ of broken hearts!' (E, 83).
But although instances of Elfyn's fruitful practice of refashioning Welsh genres could easily be multiplied, ultimately more important may be the way she has altered the deep structure of Welsh prosody. This may best be appreciated if one views aspects of her style as simultaneously moving towards cynghanedd and departing from it in a silent contrapuntal dance which constitutes a poetic conversation between the masculine and feminine genders. Elfyn's writing abounds in the kinds of sonic and rhythmic devices that characterise cynghanedd, but it never quite submits to the strict discipline that governs strict metre poetry. Implicit in that discipline is an appreciation, by the poets, of what Gerard Manley Hopkins, that celebrated English beneficiary of cynghanedd, called 'the achieve of, the mastery of the thing'.25 And much of what Seamus Heaney has to say about Hopkins in 'The Fire i' the Flint' seems also to illuminate the prosodic practices of Welsh barddas:
The Hopkins poem is fretted rather than fecund ... The words are crafted together more than they are coaxed out of one another ... Hopkins's consonants alliterate to maintain a design whereas Keats's release a flow ... Keats woos us to receive, Hopkins alerts us to perceive . . . There is a conscious push of the deliberating intelligence, a siring strain rather than a birth~push in his poetic act ... As opposed to the symbolist poetic, it is concerned with statement instead of states of feeling. Indeed, at this point it is interesting to recall Ben Jonson's strictures on the Shakesperian fluency, rejecting linguist mothering in favour of rhetorical mastery ... [Jonson] values control, rule, revision, how things are fit, how they are fitted . . . [Like Jonson, Hopkins] valued what he called 'the masculine powers' in poetry, the presence of 'powerful and active thought' it was typical that when he realized his 'new rhythm' he had to schematize it into a metric. (P, 84, 85, 86)
Thus subtly made, the point may help us understand both Elfyn's reluctance to identify her (female) self with authentic cynghanedd, and the difficulties the purists of barddas have, in turn, sometimes experienced in trying to appreciate her work.
Another way of understanding this situation would be via a distinction between a poetry of 'closure' and a poetics of openness. Openness is a state of being, and a poetic stance, fearfully celebrated in Elfyn's writing. For her, the concept is cognate with ideas of (ad)venturing, of risk, of vulnerability, of exposure, of psychic excursion, of acknowledging otherness, all of which relate in their turn to the way she apprehends her Welshness, her religious faith, and her womanliness. Menna Elfyn instinctively recognises that this nexus of preoccupations is constitutive of her very being as a person and as a poet, and her poetry is accordingly full of motifs and images that take her, and us, to the very nub of this truth. Most obviously, she is fascinated by boundaries, limits, liminal situations, neighbourliness ('Who is my neighbour?'). Moreover, inscribed in the very rhythms of her writing are the motions of a spirit at once ardent to press on (daring transgression) and yet still (cautiously? obediently?) inclined to hang back ('Will the ladies please stay behind?'):
A headful of hair was a girl's crowning glory,
It made her hair stand on end
to see the paradise of it fan over her nape,
a stubborn standard waving on the wind. (CA, 59)
Muted though this passage has been by translation, it is still possible to hear Elfyn's characteristic hesitant bold rushes into speech, and to understand why she favours short spurts of impetuous expression.
One of her most powerful meditations on openness takes the form of a 'Psalm to the Little Gap in the Cell Door'. By contemplating this crack, this peephole, this chink, she is able to organize a series of variations on what is, for her, a seminal theme, before concluding with a tribute to 'Dark eyed Gaia,/ Namaskara, I greet the divine in you/ which out of my being makes an open door' (CA, 25). By thus feminising the divinity of earth, Elfyn turns the openness that woman is fated to, not least by the definitive character of her genitalia, from a female curse into a physical, psychological and spiritual blessing. But the serenity of this conclusion is far from being the dominant tone of her writing. Rather, she is more likely to be troubled by a turbulent sense of the ambivalence of woman's exposed condition. As she puts it in her elegy for Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, 'For a poet who's a mother/ there's no safety pins for life,/ no prior understanding/ between bottles for baby/ and the paradise of language' (E, 81).
'No prior understanding' is a suggestive phrase that opens windows on to Elfyn's poetry. Viewed in these terms, cynghanedd can be regarded as a mode of proceeding which presumes a 'prior understanding' of set rules and which therefore honours a standing agreement, a set protocol; whereas, by contrast, Elfyn's feminine poetics favours the constant chancy improvisation of harmonies and meanings. This mode of proceeding is instanced and emblematised in the very title of her elegy for Plath and Sexton: 'Byw, benywod, byw' ('Live, sisters, live'). While very much in the spirit of cynghanedd, the buried internal rhyme ('Byw, benywod, byw') conforms to none of cynghanedd's many. invariably precise rules. Its inexactitude is, however, part of Elfyn's point. Unlike men, women are unable to live within a social order already so well adjusted to their several needs that it seems 'naturally' to correspond to them. Instead, they live an experientally dispersed existence and learn constantly to improvise a rough, approximate coherence out of it all rather like the broken, unorthodox harmony of 'Byw, benywod, byw'. For the authoritativeness and finality of cynghanedd, Elfyn substitutes the lability of heuristic expression. Such an approach is implicit in the view she takes of Wales in 'The Shapes She Makes' ('Siapiau o Gymru'), a poem that explores the many pictures that may be discerned in any outline map of the country, before concluding that Wales is 'polysyllabled pictures' and that, truly seen, she is 'comically scattered' (E, 99).
Obviously, Elfyn's whole outlook, although mediated by her own highly original and unmistakably Welsh sensibility, is derived from the international women's movement, in whose literature she is very well read. In her important essay in Sglefrio ar Eiriau (Skating on Words), for instance, she demonstrates her extensive knowledge of feminist theory from prominent British, French and American sources, and identifies several key concepts, including phallogocentrism, man made language, l’écriture feminine, the wild zone, body language and gynocriticism. Her readiness to use such concepts as a stimulus for her own writing is, however, more than outweighed by her determination not to identify wholeheartedly with any of them; and such wariness is due in no small part to the sense, stemming directly from her Welsh experience, that gender is by no means the sole determinant of personal identity.
'In order to open up new territory for considering every aspect of the place, feelings and desire of woman', Elfyn has written, 'it isn't sensible to treat gender every time as the sine qua non of her presiding passion, because other factors may be equally important and relevant – such factors as class and nationality, to say nothing of those experiences that relate only to intimate personal experience'.26 As we have seen, this is a view shared by Gillian Clarke and Eavan Boland, and in each case it is rooted in a sense of belonging to a vulnerably small national community – a cultural collective that might not survive a deep split along gender lines. Hence a poem such as that which opens Elfyn's first bilingual volume, Eucalyptu, 'The Year of the Bat, 1986', tells of the occasion when the poet responded to a plea, by a panicky woman from the holiday home next door, to rescue her from a bat that had got trapped in her living room. Releasing it, Elfyn suddenly saw in the creature an image of her Welsh-speaking self as seen by this invasive stranger from England – a threateningly wild thing, to be tolerated only when safely disposed of. In this instance, then, it is not gender but shared language (and therefore culture and nationality) that defines kinship.
By turning the story about the bat into a parable of Welsh culture, Elfyn fashions a self image for a community that finds no corroborating reflection of itself in 'mainstream' British culture. Like women, Welsh Wales can rely on no 'prior understanding', no established system of signs that acknowledges and serves its needs. And as for the Welsh woman poet, her situation is analogous to that of her Irish counterpart, as summarized by Boland: 'her sense of power inside the poem must be flawed and tempered not just by a perception of powerlessness outside it but also by the memory of her traditional and objectified silence within it' (OL, 186). As poet, Elfyn has therefore to perform much the same service for Wales (and her own Welshness) as she does for women (and her own womanliness); she has somehow to evolve a language that will speak to and for her identity as a Welsh woman. In her effort so to do, she learns of her consequent partial affinity with disinherited peoples of many countries and conditions – the Blacks of South Africa, the Vietnamese, the Bosnians, the Mexican street children – and through her poetry she endeavours to allow their dumb voices to speak.
The two interactive poles.of Elfyn's personal world – her strong identification with her own sex, and her ungendered awareness of her Welshness – are illustrated respectively in the poems mourning the child she lost through miscarriage, and the elegiac sequence in memory of the charismatic historian and 'people's remembrancer' Gwyn A. Williams. The former series profoundly alters the barddas convention of marwnadu (grieving for the dead and memorialising them) by using that ancient genre, for the first time, to express a mother's anguish at losing a physical and psychological part of her very self; the foetus that failed to become a 'child'. Difficult problems therefore immediately arise. How is such an indeterminate 'being' to be addressed ('The lump of life's failed, what can I say', E, 23)? How exactly can such a loss be characterised? How may such a uniquely private anguish be shared with others? How is it possible to honour the passing of a living 'thing' that was also a nascent person, a creaturely object that defied ordinary classification? 'Your coffin was a plastic bag/ like the see through gizzard/ from a chicken's gut' (E, 21). If this is, for a woman, a lonely and agonising personal dilemma, then it is also a related torment for a woman poet, because the vocabulary and conventions of traditional elegy are of so little immediate use or comfort to her.
New psycho poetic strategies have to be developed for dealing with such a crisis. Elfyn finds, for instance, that botanic and biological metaphors 'naturally' present themselves under circumstances where an attachment to an organism has made her sharply aware of the metabolism of her own being: 'A part of me is gone for ever./ Pollen is lost from the mother-cell,/ the petal of the ardent rose/ with its blushes is raped' (E, 23). Implicit in this is the difference between a woman's view of the female form and that of a man, with Elfyn turning the male's celebrated cliché that his love is like a red, red rose into a functional view of young female beauty as containing the potential for fecundity. Man's image of willowy young womanhood is given a similar dislocating twist towards a sobering truth in the opening lines of 'Y Gneuen Wag'/ 'The empty shell':
Though my body was not ripe-shelled
or brown like the fine hazel,
still, as a young tree I wanted
to cast nuts for humanity –
the bite of them hard and true,
strength the character in their shells. (E, 23)
Through these lines there speaks the culture of service in which Elfyn, the daughter of a Nonconformist minister, was raised. In fact, any full exploration of her sense of herself as a woman would have to take careful account of the ambivalent relationship to that Nonconformist culture which is apparent in all her writing.
It is perhaps most movingly apparent in a passage in which Elfyn touches on the umbilical cord between her elegising and her ambiguous status as a 'mother':
No one sang a hymn
or spread prayers over you.
You had no praise.
No one hugged you
except the black doctor in his fist.
But I, I shall unwrap a song
for that solitary exequy
in the busy toing and froing of sickness
over the hospital's aggressive lights;
I'll reach to the very last solemn thought
before I'll let go my elegy for you. (E, 21)
The shift to formal poetic syntax and vocabulary in that last stanza ('But I, I shall unwrap a song') marks the point at which Elfyn directly claims from the male elegists the right to honour her own dead, just as the lines that follow mark the point where she snatches her baby back, in imagination, from the depersonalizing milieu of the heavily masculinised world of modern medicine. These verbal gestures are the counter attack of one who feels, as woman and as poet, that her utterance, like her uterus, has been contemptuously disregarded. And what moves her to such aggression is, of course, a mother's instinct to protect her offspring. These lines of poetry are a protective, belated, verbal embrace, which is also the soft shawl of a winding sheet. The words are lapped gently around the foetus in order to ensure, and to secure, a safe place for it within the human world. And the concluding phrases ('I'll reach to the very last solemn thought') contain within them a multitude of commitments: to make sure that last thoughts of the departed 'baby' are lasting ones; to insist on the intensity of such an undervalued loss; to discover in this supposedly 'insignificant' instance the type of all mourning and, indeed, the wrenching evidence of our own mortality. These meanings are even more hauntingly present in the original Welsh, the syntax of which allows the last line to be read, moreover, as 'before I let go my elegy in order to go' ('cyn gadael dy farwnad i fynd'). The unspoken purpose of every elegy is, after all, to fit us again, but in a new way, for life.
Even as Elfyn struggles, then, to fashion elegy anew in an effort to find appropriate forms of expression for an uniquely female experience, she clearly exposes those normally hidden ingredients of grieving that psychoanalysts have long insisted constitute the true profile of every experience of loss, regardless of gender. Resentment, anger, a mingled sense of guilt and personal betrayal – these emotions so quickly sublimated into sadness in conventional elegiac practice become nakedly apparent under circumstances that so obviously license such a reaction. If Elfyn is swept by 'a gust of longing/ in case it was I bruised it so much / before it decomposes to the four winds' (E, 23), she can also recall it as 'that ugly, premature thing inside me' (E, 25) and confess to its having been at times 'more like an enemy, stuck tight/ to my being' (E, 19). And the unexpected relevance to males of this inalienably female experience is made apparent by Elfyn in her conclusion to 'Pabwyr Nos' ('Night Light'):
Now my womb's empty, I can only
breed a poem's
higgledy- piggledy words
with grief in its lap –
the oldest epic of our history,
the anguish baked before I was made. (E, 25)
The images are unequivocally female, with Elfyn taking fine, pointed advantage of the fact that cerdd, the Welsh word for poem, is feminine in gender; but they ultimately embrace in their purview the whole of the all too homely human experience of anguish and grief.
Shortly after embarking on her career as poet, Elfyn realised that she 'was out of step [with Welsh poetry]: I neither wrote in cynghanedd nor did I like elegies. All the poems of praise in Welsh seemed to me sickly. There was so little about human life and living.'27 If her poems mourning her miscarriage remedied that deficiency, then so, after a different fashion, did her poetic sequence in memory of the electrifying historian Gwyn A. Williams, who had himself seemed so capable on television of magicking the Welsh past alive. In its invocation of the historian as our guide through the otherwise inaccessible regions of past time, the sequence recalls one of the greatest Welsh poems of the twentieth century, Saunders Lewis's elegy to Sir John Edward Lloyd (1861 1947), the incomparable historian of medieval Wales.28 But whereas Lewis's stately poem, consciously modelled on passages from the Aeneid and the Inferno, was designed to convey his majestic vision of medieval Welsh culture's important place in a European Christendom that was the mighty heir of classical civilisation, Elfyn's sequence offers a very different view of history. It is Williams 'the people's hero' whom she honours, with his incorrigible dream of social justice and his tempestuous, gloriously intemperate celebration of the anonymous masses' attempts, down the centuries, to realize aspects of that dream. In retrospect, his vivid recklessness as a driver comes, for her, to figure his impatient unwillingness to play safe, to play the professional historian strictly according to the rules.
In viewing Williams thus, Elfyn may be instinctively responding to him as her alter ego or spiritual twin, not only because she has herself been a notable political activist but also because he functions, after a fashion, as the masculine muse of her poetry. If her verbal portrait of Williams is wonderfully evocative of the man as he was – a mesmeric speaker whose fluency was always being perilously snatched from the very jaws of a stutterer – the rapid, impressionistic style she employs is both apt for her subject and intimately expressive of herself. Tony Conran's observations on that style could, in fact, apply to the historian as well as to the poet:
Any flaws there may be in your Gwyn Alf sequence are simply the overflow of your involvement in words and in life. Words and ideas and images churn, flash, spark off one another. Sometimes I think you are only just in control; they run almost out of your grasp. It is difficult to see where they are leading you, sometimes. But this sense of words and images struggling and you struggling with them, or flowing with them, or letting them exist, and still being you saying things, feeling things in your own particular way that is where the excitement of your poetry comes from. (CA, 10).
The contrast with Saunders Lewis could scarcely be greater. His elegy is written in a style calculated to exude gravitas and to demonstrate the authority of the august, venerable tradition that underwrites every line of his formal composition. The unspoken message of the poem is that Lewis is as incontrovertibly the chosen heir of the great civilisation being invoked as was Sir John Edward Lloyd, the historian elect of that civilisation. And that civilisation is constructed (as much by the magisterial style as by the exclusively male allusions) in terms so adamantly masculine that women literally never enter the picture.
However, in choosing Gwyn Alf Williams as her guide to Welsh 'tradition', Elfyn chooses an altogether different, and far less severely gendered, figure. In her elegy, immense respect is compatible with immense affection, and the blend of the two results in a companionableness, a sense of common cause and common purpose that goes deeper than gender difference. Part of the reason for this is, no doubt, that if, as a woman poet, Elfyn has been made 'conscious of the silences which have preceded her, which still surround her' (to repeat Boland's words), she has also become aware 'that these silences have been at least partly redeemed within the past expressions of other poets, most of them male'. One such 'poet' was Williams, and in paying tribute to him Elfyn is, like Gillian Clarke, affirming that her experience of her own Welshness has made it impossible for her to prioritise gender as the single most intimate determinant of her own identity. For both Elfyn and Clarke, their situation as Welsh women poets therefore seems closest to that of the Irish woman poet, as scrupulously indicated by Eavan Boland in the concluding paragraphs of Object Lessons:
I am neither a separatist nor a postfeminist. I believe that the past matters, yet I do not believe we will reach the future without living through the womanly angers which shadow this present. What worries me most is that women poets may lose their touch, may shake off their opportunities because of the pressures and temptations of their present position.
It seems to me, at this particular time, that women have a destiny in the form. Not because they are women; it is not as simple as that. Our suffering, our involvement in the collective silence do not - and will never - of themselves guarantee our achievements as poets. But if we set out in the light of that knowledge and that history, determined to tell the human and poetic truth, and if we avoid simplification and self deception, then I believe we are better equipped than most to discover the deepest possibilities and subversions within poetry itself. (OL, 254)
1 All quotations here from 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', originally published in Transformations, are taken from Helen Vendler (ed.), The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 269 73.
2 Alicia Ostriker, 'The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking', in Elaine Showalter (ed.), The New Feminist Criticism (London: Virago, 1993), 314 38.
3 Delyth George, 'Blodeuwedd – Dymchwelydd y Drefn', in John Rowlands (ed.), Sglefrio arEiriau (Llandysul: Gomer, 1992), 100 14. Jane Aaron, 'Y Flodeuwedd Gyfoes: LIên Menywod, 1973 1993', in M. Wynn Thomas (ed.), DiFfinio Dwy Lerryddiaeth Cymru (Cardiff:University of Wales Press, 1995), 190-208.
4 'Blodeuwedd', in Gillian Clarke, Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanct, 1985), 81 (hereafter SP).
5 For a useful discussion of aspects of 'Blodeuwedd', and of Clarke's view of women, see Linden Peach, Ancestral Lines (Bridgend: Seren, n.d.), 76 94.
6 An English language version of Saunders Lewis's Blodeuwedd is The Woman Made of Flowers, tr. Joseph P. Clancy in The Plays of Saunders Lewis, vol. 1 (Llandybïe: Davies, 1985), 45 98.
7 A good introduction to Saunders Lewis's plays is the essay by Bruce
Griffiths on 'His Theatre', in Alun R. Jones and Gwyn Thomas (eds.), Presenting Saunders Lewis (Cardiff. University of Wales Press, 1973), 79-92.
8 'Gender in Poetry: A Symposium', Planet, 66 (1987/8). Gillian Clarke's contribution is pp. 60 1.
9 'Letter from a Far Country', in Gillian Clarke, Letter from a Far Country (Manchester: Carcanet, 1982), 7 18.
10 'The King of Britain's Daughter', in Gillian Clarke, The King of Britain's Daughter (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993) (hereafter KBD), 1-20.
11 Gillian Clarke has published important essays on the biographical background of 'The King of Britain's Daughter': see 'Beginning with Bendigeidfran', in Jane Aaron, Sandra Betts, Teresa Rees, Moira Vincentelli (eds.), Our Sisters' Land (Cardiff:University of Wales Press, 1994), 287-93, and 'The King of Britain's Daughter', in Tony Curtis (ed.), How Poets Work (Bridgend: Seren, 1996), 122-6. Other important discussions by Clarke of her work may he found in Susan Butler (ed.), Common Ground: Poets in a Welsh Landscape (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1985), 195-8. 'Interview with Gillian Clarke', in David T. Lloyd (ed.), The Urgency of Identity: Contemporary English Language Poetry from Wales (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1994), 25-31. introduction to her own work, in Meic Stephens (ed.), The Bright Field.. An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from Wales (Manchester: Carcanet, 1991), 54. 'Gillian Clarke: The Poet's Introduction', in Judith Kinsman (ed.), Six Women Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 1.
12 See Gillian Clarke, 'Hunter Gatherer or Madonna Mistress', Bloodaxe Catalogue, 1986 7, 20.
13 Diane Green, ‘”Making for the Open Sea", A Study of Gillian Clarke as a Female Poet' (University of Wales, Swansea, MA thesis, 1994). See also the same author's 'Gillian Clarke: Love Poet/Historian', Swansea Review, 16 (1996), 87 92.
14 Planet, 6 6 (19 8 7/8), 6 1.
15 'Belfast', in Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (London: Faber & Faber, 1980), 34.
16 R. Williams Parry, 'Drudwy Branwen', Cerddi'r Gaeaf (Denbigh: Gee, 1952, 1971 edn), 25 8. English translation, 'Branwen's Starling', in Joseph Clancy (tr.), Twentieth Century Welsh Poems (Llandysul: Gomer, 1982), 49-53.
17 'A Crown for Branwen', in Harri Webb, A Crown for Branwen (Llandysul: Gomer, 1974), 12-13.
18 For the paucity of Welsh literature by and about women, see Tony Conran, 'The Lack of the Feminine', New Welsh Review, 17 (1992), 28-31. Francesca Rhydderch, Between my tongue's borders": Contemporary Welsh women's Poetry', Poetry Wales, 33:4 (1998),
39-44. and the special women's issue of Y Traethodydd (1986). For discussion of women in Welsh society, see Deirde Beddoe, 'Images of Welsh Women', in Tony Curtis (ed.), Wales: The Imagined Nation (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1986), 225-38. For Gillian Clarke as a Welsh woman writer, see Peach, Ancestral Lines; also the following articles by Kenneth R. Smith: 'The Portrait Poem: reproduction of mothering', Poetry Wales, 24:1 (1988), 48- 56, 'Poetry of Place: The Haunted Interiors', Poetry Wales, 24:2 (1988), 59-65. 'A Vision of the Future?', Poetry Wales, 24:3 (1988), 46-52; 'Praise of the Past: the Myth of Eternal Return in Welsh Writers', Poetry Wales, 24:4 (1989), 50-8. The issue of Clarke and gender is also considered in ‘”A big sea running in a shell": The Poetry of Gillian Clarke', in Jeremy Hooker, The Presence of the Past (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987), 151-5; see also the same author's essay 'Ceridwen's Daughters: Welsh Women Poets and the Uses of Tradition', in Tony Brown (ed.), Welsh Writing in English: a Yearbook of Critical Essays 1 (New Welsh Review, 1995), 128 44. and M. Wynn Thomas, ‘”Staying to mind things": Gillian Clarke's Early Poetry', in Menna Elfyn (ed.), Trying the Line: A Volume of Tribute to Gillian Clarke (Llandysul: Gomer, 1997), 44-68.
19 Marilyn Reizbaum, 'Canonical Double Cross: Scottish and Irish Women's Writing', in Karen R. Lawrence (ed.), Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth Century 'British' Literary Canons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 165-91. 1 am grateful to Dr Suzanne Hagemann, University of Mainz, for drawing my attention to this essay.
20 For Clarke and Boland, see Green, ‘Making for the Open Sea’.
21 Quoted in Reizbaurn, 'Canonical Double Cross', 177-8.
22 Eavan Boland, Object Lessons (London: Vintage, 1996) (hereafter OL), 237-8.
23 Menna E1fyn, CellAngel (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1996) (hereafter CA), 17.
24 Menna Elfyn, Eucalyptus (Llandysul: Gomer, 1975) (hereafter E), 77.
25 'The Windhover', in W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (eds.), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 69.
26 Rowlands (ed.), Sgleffrio ar Eiriau, 28.
27 Menna Elfyn, 'Beyond the Boundaries', Planet, 66 (1987/8), 54-5. See also 'A Poet of Industry and Difficulty: Jon Gower Profiles Menna E1fyn', New Welsh Review, 36 (1997), 14 16.
28 'Marwnad Syr John Edward Lloyd', in R. Geraint Gruffydd (ed.), Cerddi Saunders Lewis (Cardiff.. University of Wales Press, 1992), 31-3,. translated in Joseph P. Clancy (tr.), Saunders Lewis: Selected Poems (Cardiff.. University of Wales Press, 1993), 31-3.