Mike Jenkins introduces a new anthology of Welsh radical poetry
These are left-wing poems from Cymru rather than ‘Wales’. Why do I stress this?
As the Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn rightly points out in notes to her poem ‘Neb-ach’, the very words ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ are both associated with being ‘foreign’: we call ourselves what others have chosen to call us – namely the English.
I choose Cymru because it means ‘fellow-countrymen’ and is intrinsically about belonging and co-operation. Poetry also has always been about social solidarity – it is fundamental and not peripheral to our society. Every year at the National Eisteddfod we crown a bard for his/her free verse and chair another for their work in cynghanedd (an ancient verse-form).
During the ceremony the Archdruid (who is, at present, Myrddin ap Dafydd, and is represented in this anthology) calls for ‘Heddwch!’ and the entire audience responds by calling out that Welsh word for peace.
Bards have traditionally come from many different backgrounds and one of the most renowned was ‘Hedd Wyn’ (bardic name of Ellis Humphrey Evans) who was a shepherd who fought and died in the 1st World War. An avowed pacifist, he was chaired posthumously at the Eisteddfod in 1917, when they draped a black cloak over the Chair in his absence.
In Cymru, poets have also invariably had close associations with their ‘milltir sgwar’, areas of belonging and identity, and you can see this in the work of many here, such as Ness Owen from Ynys Môn (Anglesey) and Gemma June Howell with her Caerffili dialect poems.
Ness writes in both Welsh and English, with the language and her feminism at the fore in her work –
excusing our way through
we breath in Mamiaith
Gemma hails originally from a working-class estate in Caerffili called Graig yr Rhacca. She writes in the voices of its inhabitants, for all their faults so full of humour and energy –
A’rite? Nairmz Rhiannon
an I leve on thuh Rock.
I luv drinken ciduh
and I luv sucken cock.
As co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine for 26 years (we annually publish left-wing poetry from Cymru and beyond) I am acutely aware of the importance of socialist and republican politics to our poets. Most of them have appeared in that magazine over the years. In particular I think of Herbert Williams, Alun Rees, Tim Richards and Jazz, who were there at the very beginning.
The power of satire is vital to these poets, and Rees’s ‘Taffy is a Welshman’ deservedly won the Harri Webb Prize. It takes a well-known nursery rhyme and develops it into a scathing look at the history of the Welsh working class, fighting imperialist wars –
He’s fought the wide world over,
he’s given blood and bone.
He’s fought for every bloody cause
except his bloody own.
For many, their poetic heroes have been the likes of Idris Davies and Harri Webb, uncompromising poets never afraid to take on the burning issues of their times: Davies dealing with strikes and the Depression and Webb with the rise of Welsh nationalism and sense of Cymru as an oppressed colony.
In the 60s when Alun Rees, Herbert Williams and Sally Roberts Jones came to the fore, the worlds of Welsh and English language poetry were largely separate. Nowadays, poets like Siôn Tomos Owen and Rufus Mufasa move between both their languages, often within individual poems. Rufus is also a quite amazing performer, somewhat like Kate Tempest but with more singing and an emphasis on dub rather than rap. Her work on the page is quite distinct from her performance poetry, though both move easily from Welsh to English –
Y bwrdd cadarn, caer / our fortress made of blankets
From the multicultural society of Cardiff to former industrial heartlands of slate, iron and coal, there are a strong feelings of injustice and anger shared by many working-class communities throughout the British Isles.
One younger poet, Hanan Issa (who I met and read alongside at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff) draws on her Muslim background, here reflecting on an incident in Marrakech –
Immersed in the maelstrom
of a Marrakech market.
It has to be said that the emerging and enthusiastic independence movement, which many of these poets are part of and which is led by non-partisan groups like Yes Cymru, has created a sense of hope more akin to Scotland in recent years. I wanted to reflect this in the title ‘Onward/ Ymlaen!’ which I took from Patrick Jones’s poem ‘The Guerilla Tapestry’ to encapsulate this spirit –
Following the dream of emancipation
Your power we shall decline
Jones’s own journey from Labour supporter to embracing the emerging Indy movement is one which truly reflects our politically fluid times. And the same word is echoed in Phil Howells’s poem about the Merthyr Rising which took place in my home town in 1831, when the ironworkers rose up against their masters to take over the whole town and, it’s claimed, raise the red flag for the first time.
In Welsh the slogan we’ve used for decades has been ‘Fe godwn ni eto!’ (We will rise again!). Until now it seemed like the futile call of the few. Today, it is a real possibility for the many. Despite the Tory victory in the Westminster election, there is still plenty of room for optimism and these poems are sure indicators that the spirit of 1831 and the Chartists live on.
Onward / Ymlaen! An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, with a Foreword from Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS, and with images by Gustavius Payne. 170 pps., £10 plus £3 p. and p. ISBN: 978-1-912710-16-4
from Onward / Ymlaen!
by Rebecca Lowe
Children are playing across borders,
A Mexican girl with curly pigtails
Tests her balance against
Her American counterpart –
She edges nervously
Before whirling upward,
Giggling, giddy, arms outstretched
To the sky.
Children are playing
Through barriers built by grown-ups,
Smiling through walls of steel and barbed wire,
The universal language
Who's up? Who's down?
It's a balancing act, this,
A seesaw diplomacy,
Who will falter first?
As the walls are built
What will it take
To make them tumble,
To make them fall?
For now, the only sound
You can hear is laughter,
The child beyond the border
Throws back her head and, grinning,
Flings herself in open embrace:
Above her, the sky is endless.
(Note: In July 2019 artists placed pink seesaws through slats in the fenceposts across the US-Mexico border, allowing children from both sides of the border to play together, despite the physical barrier of the fence.)