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This report is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

Letter from Wales Sam Adams
I have been browsing James Keery’s Apocalypse – a big and bold collection of the ‘visionary modernist’ poetry that came rapidly to the boil in the 1930s and ’40s, simmered through middle of the last century and spilled over in splashes during a decade or so beyond. It promises food for the mind extending far into the future. Understandably, I hope, I turned first to familiar names, in whose company it has felt much like old times: the same whirling imagery and (often enough) the same bafflement. But what’s poetry for, if not to make us think?   

Keery acknowledges, with the minutest hesitation, that ‘the central body of work is that of Dylan Thomas’. Well, there’s a connection for a start: Thomas’s explosive entry into the literary world, 18 Poems, saw the light of day in December 1934, a few weeks after I did, and I was lucky enough to catch up with him at Aberystwyth in 1952, when, single-handed, he held a packed student audience enthralled. I do not exaggerate: I have attended many poetry readings since, some very fine and special, but none to compare with that evening in Aber.  

One or two reviewers saw in Thomas’s early published poetry the taint of surrealism, which they did not much care for. Tackled on the subject later, he forswore any influence or indeed knowledge of the movement. This was a fib. During the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, June–July 1936, he had carried a cup of boiled string around asking visitors whether they would like it weak or strong. In the introduction and notes to his ‘New Centenary Edition’ of Thomas’s Collected Poems (2014), John Goodby argues convincingly that the poet’s choice of word and image was conscious rather than generated in the surrealist unconscious, and reveals the multi-layered complexity of imagery and technical virtuosity displayed in poems selected by Keery: ‘Before I knocked and flesh let enter’, and ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, both products of his teenage years. ‘The Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’ indeed! I am reminded of Patrick McGuinness’s observation that the only way Thomas’s apocalyptic poetry can meaningfully be compared with the French poet’s equally youthful oeuvre is in being precise even when it is incomprehensible.     

By my count the anthology includes another fourteen Welsh poets, from David Jones (1895–1974) to Daniel Huws (born 1932), plus George Woodcock, a Canadian with a Welsh aunt, who was gathered into Keidrych Rhys’s 1944 Faber anthology Modern Welsh Poetry, together with Henry Treece, whose half-Welsh parentage may reveal itself in ‘the slag heap and steam-organ town’ (‘Song for an Ending’) in Keery’s selection, and Robert Herring, who, in his brief offering, supplies the apt phrase ‘first flames of the apocalypse’ and, with no discernible Welsh connection, brought out no fewer than five Welsh numbers of Life and Letters To-day. (There is a splendid account of the creative interaction between Herring and Welsh writers of the 1930s and ’40s, and much more beside, in Meic Stephens’ article ‘The Third Man: Robert Herring and Life and Letters To-day’ in Welsh Writing in English, Vol. 3, 1997.)

Apocalypse has two ‘Sonnets of the Madonna’ by John Ormond from Life and Letters To-day that reveal with stunning clarity the profound effect Dylan had on gifted younger poets. Ormond (or Ormond Thomas as he was at that time) heeded Vernon Watkins’ advice not to publish any more poems until he was thirty. In consequence, he destroyed a lot of work, and the sonnets do not appear in the Collected Poems edited by his daughter Rian Evans.

The title of R.S. Thomas’s ‘Maes-yr-Onnen’ means ‘ash-tree field’, but refers to the three-hundred-year-old chapel on an anciently gifted field in Radnorshire of particular significance in nonconformism: it was the first Congregational meeting house in Wales. This is the repository of ‘stale piety’ the Anglican cleric and dedicated twitcher is describing on a fair, blue, breezy day, though the twittering in the rafters that so surprised and delighted him he ascribes to ‘Rhiannon’s birds’, those creatures of magic in The Mabinogion the giant Ysbaddaden demands for the hand of his daughter, Olwen, in marriage to Culhwch, which (in Sioned Davies’s Oxford translation, 2007) have the power to ‘wake the dead and lull the living to sleep’.

Keidrych Rhys’s magazine, Wales, published many of those recruited to Apocalypse. Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas were close friends and frequent correspondents. Thomas, wearing a suit borrowed from Watkins, was best man at Rhys’s wedding to Lynette Roberts, a poet of assured apocalyptic status. Among the couple’s visitors at Llanybri in Carmarthenshire, were R.S. Thomas, Alun Lewis and Glyn Jones. Although temperamentally unalike, Dylan and Glyn Jones were friends: Jones was probably at the Surrealist Exhibition with Thomas. John Ormond and Dylan Thomas were friends; Ormond, with Daniel Jones, brought Thomas’s body back from Southampton for burial. Alun Lewis and Brenda Chamberlain, with her husband, the artist John Petts, collaborated in producing The Caseg Broadsheets – and so on. Few in the entire list were not subjected to the scrupulous analysis of Roland Mathias in books, articles and reviews. It’s almost as though all were neighbours in one terraced street, dropping in on one another, taking tea together, talking over the garden wall.

Glyn Jones’s contribution to the anthology is unique. His work appears twice, once under his own name, once, with the poem ‘Perfect’, in the guise of ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’. Keery presents this phenomenon as an example of ‘interfluentiality’:

I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,
All the bones pure white and dry, and chalky,
But perfect,
Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.

At the back, rising out of the beak,
Were twin domes like bubbles of thin bone,
Almost transparent, where the brain had been
That fixed the tilt of the wings.

The first line alone is MacDiarmid’s, the remainder taken verbatim from Glyn Jones’s story ‘Porth-y-Rhyd’. In the story, which, if prose were admitted, would stand as a fine example of apocalyptic writing, the description of the skull (it is a seagull’s) continues ‘ ... wings, with the contour of delicate sutures inked in a crinkled line across the skull, and where the brow-bone sloped down into the beak were two dark holes like goggles ... and lacing the weight of the beak upward to the skull were struts of slender bone, long and delicate, and taut as a hawser ...’ It is tempting to continue MacDiarmid’s find, amplify his poem, to end with the striking image of bones ‘long and delicate, and taut as a hawser’. With acknowledgement to both Glyn Jones and MacDiarmid, would it then be my poem?

‘Perfect’ was published, and reprinted, without reference to its source, though Keery makes clear it is a ‘found’ poem, and the story of where exactly MacDiarmid found it has long been known. It is told in Tony Brown’s excellent The Collected Stories of Glyn Jones (UWP 1999), while the fullest account is again supplied by Meic Stephens, in the New Welsh Review No. 23 (Winter 1993–94). Suffice it to say Glyn Jones was very annoyed about the affair, and took action through his agent. I met Hugh MacDiarmid, briefly, at Meic’s home in Cardiff in April 1974. Later the same day, Meic invited Glyn and his wife Doreen to dinner, where they were introduced to Christopher Grieve and Valda. The poets sat together on a sofa, one with a whisky, the other an orange juice, and agreeing, by that time anyway, there no embarrassment on either side, ‘engaged in an animated, wide-ranging conversation about books and writers’.

This report is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

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