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This item is taken from PN Review 64, Volume 15 Number 2, November - December 1988.

DEAR EDITORS: Michael Schmidt writes in the editorial to PN Review 63 that "literary nationalisms impoverish". Taking the remark in its context it is difficult to disagree with it. Certainly there should be no competition, among poets, at least not in the sense of Eliot's comment to that effect. But it is important to remember that both of these statements could only have been made within the context of a dominant language. Walcott's colonials who "left only their language / which is everything" must have a double edge for those conscious of another language made inferior by the tradition which overlays it.

The moral imperative for poets writing in the Welsh language, for example, is not so much one of respect for practitioners of the art elsewhere (though they might well be better disposed to other minorities than many English writers) as the need to define a tradition that deserves its own respect among the literatures of Europe. How the question is raised by an African writer who might wish to use a native language rather than the all-pervasive English I can only guess. But for a bilingual Welshman such as R.S. Thomas the question poses itself as an intense moral dilemma. He is quite able to speak and write a more than serviceable prose in Welsh. But his education and early upbringing were English and he has said that it would be creative "suicide" for him to write poetry in Welsh. He wishes to contribute to Welsh culture but must produce his most significant cultural artefacts in English. I can think of nothing else but a national literary identity which will do service to writers in this dilemma. 'Welsh writers', of course, are writers in the Welsh language. But for their compatriots who write in English, and thereby contribute to English culture, only a national identity will do if they are to continue to work alongside the older language.

This may be seen as muddying the waters of a debate which should be clearing on quite another perspective. Yes, language is the living centre. But not all languages are equal and those which must coexist with English often feel themselves threatened as a result. Do the Welsh, the Africans or whoever else accept the dominance of English and give in graciously or continue trying to compete? There are, it must be said, poets in Wales who have thrown in their lot with the English tradition within which all writers of English must work. But I would suggest that those who have happily abandoned any attachment at all to the Welsh language tradition are also those who are writing what Michael Schmidt calls "descriptive, mimetic and dramatic language". For writers in Wales to enact the sense of place to which they belong, they must be aware of another language, another tradition. This generates a dichotomy of sensibility which 'Anglo-Welsh' - a term suggesting both literary nationalism and a tension between two traditions - fully describes. I suggest that the fact that this term is now going out of favour among some writers reflects a drift to reductionism and an attempt to avoid difficulties. I am, then, suggesting an extra dimension to the loss of "registers of language... seriousness ... feeling" noted in your editorial. A moral dilemma indeed!
Greg Hill

This item is taken from PN Review 64, Volume 15 Number 2, November - December 1988.

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