This report is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.Letter from Wales
The University of Glamorgan received its charter about a decade ago. In previous existences it had been the Polytechnic of Wales and a school of mines. Its home is Trefforest, an industrial village on the River Taff a little to the south of the town of Pontypridd and, to the casual observer, hardly now separable from its larger neighbour. Those who have wondered about the geography of Auden's lines 'Glamorgan hid a life / Grim as a tidal rock-pool's in its glove-shaped valleys' will be glad to know that the Rhondda Fach and the Rhondda Fawr, the thumb and forefinger to the pedantic, join at Porth and flow united to confluence at Pontypridd with the Taff, which has begun north of Merthyr Tydfil and is itself already swollen by the Cynon, the river of Alun Lewis's Aberdare. The Taff is the river that flows by Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and into the barrageprotected bay where the National Assembly is housed in a nondescript office block while politicians get themselves ever deeper in the mire over a dispute with Richard Rogers about his design for a new Assembly building. In pre-barrage days the tidal Taff, topped-up with floodwater from the regularly drenched moorland and valleys, could on occasion seep into the city streets. At Cardiff Arms Park (a name far preferable to 'Millennium Stadium') in December 1960, I watched Wales lose to South Africa in a continuous downpour. The tide was coming in as the match entered its final stages and not long after the crowd had dispersed the pitch was drowned beneath two feet of water. So much for local colour.
The University of Glamorgan, which, as its separate charter implies, is not a constituent institution of the University of Wales, has grown spectacularly in its short existence and already has a number of academic strengths, including creative writing and English. Among the staff in these areas are several familiar to readers of Anglo- Welsh literature. Sheenagh Pugh is there and Christopher Meredith, who has a wellearned reputation as both poet and novelist; Tony Curtis was appointed Professor of Poetry some time back and more recently Jeremy Hooker and Meic Stephens have been awarded chairs. Last year Professor Dai Smith, an outstanding historian of modern Wales, quit a top job with the BBC in Cardiff to become Pro-Vice Chancellor. Here are intellects and talents enough to strike sparks in the Valleys communities with which the university is determined to maintain a lively connection. Early in November, Dr Stephens's inaugural lecture attracted a large audience, a few of whom might have known him since boyhood, for he was born and brought up in Trefforest. And last summer I attended the launch on the campus of Imagining Wales: a View of Modern Welsh Writing in English, Jeremy Hooker's first book since his return.
Readers of PNR will know Hooker as a poet and critic of distinction but may be unaware of his commitment to Welsh writing in English. In an 'Afterword' to his book he confesses that when he first arrived in Wales (in 1965) he 'had no idea that there was a living literature in Welsh or a significant English language Welsh literature, since [his] knowledge was confined to a few individual writers, such as Dylan Thomas, R. S. Thomas and Alun Lewis'. What followed he describes as an 'education' and among his teachers he lists David Jones, Edward Thomas, whom he had previously associated only with southern England, and Roland Mathias who, as editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review, invited him to review The Lilting House (1969), a major anthology of twentieth-century Anglo-Welsh poetry edited by John Stuart Williams and Meic Stephens. Mathias had early recognised that Welsh writing, in either of its languages, rarely received a decent hearing from metropolitan critics who were accounted the only judges worthy of note. He also believed that criticism had a role in raising literary standards and, if he could not look to London for the considered opinion on Anglo-Welsh writing that he sought, then he would strive to develop home-grown critics for the job in the pages of his magazine. He set an example of painstaking reading, scholarship and fine literary judgement in his own reviewing and was delighted to find the same meticulous attention to the task, and perhaps a similar moral concern, in Hooker's critical writing. Furthermore, Hooker was English and, though resident in Wales, deeply attached to the landscape and history of his Hampshire home and Richard Jefferies' England: whatever his critical opinion, he could not be thought parti pris. It must have stirred in Mathias some sense of editorial satisfaction, mingled with concern, to read in that review of The Lilting House (AWR No. 42) Hooker's identification of 'a discrepancy in quality between the work of the older poets and that of all but a few of the younger generation... [which] reveals a deep malaise - a softness and failure of astringency - in some of the criticism to which the modern Anglo-Welsh poet is subjected, especially in his own country'.
Hooker was soon caught up in the excitement of being a pioneer in the teaching and criticism of Welsh writing in English. His essays reveal how intrigued he was by the lack of egocentricity in Welsh writers compared with their contemporaries in England and America. They were concerned with identity, but not their own; rather they saw themselves in relation to a community. He quotes Alun Lewis's promise: 'When I come back I shall always tackle my writing through Welsh life and ways of thought', sadly unkept. Lewis was an early and absorbing interest but others soon followed, notably David Jones and, among writers of fiction, John Cowper Powys and Emyr Humphreys. With the benefit of a fresh perspective he was able to expose the self-disgust that motivated R. S. Thomas's bitter denunciation of the monolingual Englishspeaking Welsh; he observed Gillian Clarke striking out in a new direction with her 'sensuous recreation of a woman's apprehension of the world' and, having seen through the concentrated metaphor and compacted language to the Puritan seriousness at the core, produced the first substantial treatment of Roland Mathias's mature poetry.
When he arrived in Aberystwyth, Hooker says, 'In literary and academic circles in and outside Wales [Anglo-Welsh literature] commonly elicited hostility or disdain,' I well remember that Gwyn Jones, Professor of English there a few years earlier, would not countenance work on Welsh writing in English although he was one of the outstanding figures in the field. Change came slowly but, unquestionably, it has occurred. Today, we have the Universities of Wales Association for the Study of Welsh Writing in English, which has a yearbook of critical essays and an annual conference, and publishes 'collected works' of key writers in conjunction with the University of Wales Press. A number of acute and well-informed minds are regularly bent to the explication and assessment of Anglo-Welsh literature and the products are readily available. Hooker 'can scarcely recognise the subject' that he began to teach in Aber. Among the critics for whom he has particular regard he mentions Tony Conran, John Pikoulis, Jane Aaron, Belinda Humfrey, Walford Davies, Tony Brown and M. Wynn Thomas.
The last named is an all-rounder, writing with equal authority on literature in Welsh and English and having an extensive knowledge of American literature; as a recognised expert on Walt Whitman, he has twice been visiting professor at Harvard. The seven essays in his book, Corresponding Cultures; the two literatures of Wales, (UWP, 1999), impressively demonstrate the breadth of his scholarship and the incisiveness of his analysis. Whether the subject is Henry Vaughan, the 'Anglophile neoclassical' who nevertheless chose to declare himself a 'Silurist', or the complex fertilising effect of the twentieth-century American experience on a goodly number of poets from Wales, including T.H. Parry-Williams and Pennar Davies among those in the Welsh language, Leslie Norris, Tony Curtis, Mike Jenkins, John Davies and Robert Minhinnick in English, and Gwyneth Lewis in both, he is freshly informative. He is equally bold and perceptive in discussion of gender issues raised in the poetry of Gillian Clarke and Menna Elfyn and has the rare talent of being able to discuss lucidly socio-political and more broadly cultural matters in the context of a wide range of literary reference. This is clearly an advantage where Wales is concerned. He is right when he says that we, the Welsh, have 'scarcely begun... to examine the ways in which our two cultures can be co-operative - can make history and make literature, at the same time and in the same place', but he has already made a major contribution to mutual understanding and harmony.
Early in November, the University of Glamorgan was the venue for the Rhys Davies Centenary Conference, one session of which brought together Dannie Abse and Les Murray, a stimulating contrast in vocal and poetic style and size. Davies was born in Blaenclydach, a short and steep sideshoot of the Rhondda Fawr. As a boy he walked the three miles or so home from grammar school in Porth to save the tram fare 'for other purposes' (a secretive formulation, it now seems). From Porth it was and is another moderate walk, downhill, to Pontypridd. Davies, then, is a local boy whose mind first caught fire (if you can believe him) when the headmaster, standing in for an absent English teacher, read an extract from The Odyssey to the class. He decided that he would write and spent much of his life in bedsits in London doing just that. His autobiographical Print of a Hare's Foot, reprinted by Seren in 1998, is an entertaining, if not wholly reliable, account of what he did when he rested his pen.
The conference was also the occasion of the launch of Rhys Davies: Decoding the Hare (UWP), a book of critical essays to mark the centenary of the writer's birth, in which M. Wynn Thomas's examination of the coded fiction of the gay writer out of his time is both keynote and last word. Davies has two undistinguished poems in Keidrych Rhys's anthology Modern Welsh Poetry (Faber, 1944) but their appearance there might have involved a deal of arm-twisting: he was a novelist and a short-story writer par excellence. (His service to the poetic muse was confined to providing the clandestine means by which Lawrence's Pansies were sent safely from Nice to his London publisher.) The new book, edited and introduced by Meic Stephens, is further proof that literary criticism in Wales has progressed since Jeremy Hooker first arrived among us.
This report is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.