Swansea University - Slanderous Tongues

Slanderous Tongues: Essays on Welsh Poetry in English 1970-2005, ed Daniel G. Williams

Bridgend: Seren, 2010. Hardback: 220pp, £24.99; Paperbacck: 274pp, £14.99

Slanderous Tongues 

Contributors to Slanderous Tongues “address what seemed to them the most interesting themes, debates and modes of expression in contemporary Welsh poetry …,” as editor Daniel Williams puts it in his introduction. While the time is right for criticism that considers postmodern Wales and challenges simplistic formulations of identity, nation, and belonging – my reaction to the collection was mixed.

Slanderous Tongues starts off well with Matthew Jarvis’s survey of “Poetry after the Second Flowering,” tracing the development of identity politics and national feeling in Anglophone Welsh poetry since the 1960s. Later essays by Jo Furber (“Gender and Nationhood”) and Hywel Dix (“Class and Poetry in Wales”) address their specific issues thoughtfully. Nicholas Jones’s essay on “ambivalence” in the nationalist poetry of Harri Webb explores unexpected complexities, though the argument is somewhat marred by a patronizing comment on Webb’s nationalism: “There is … an incongruity about similar ideas [to those of Irish nationalist Padraic Pearse] being expressed by a local authority librarian.” To which one replies: are local authority librarians such as Harri Webb not to express strong political opinions?

Tudur Hallam’s essay “When a Bardd Meets a Poet” tackles a fascinating and tricky topic: Menna Elfyn’s decision to publish her Welsh-language poems with facing page translations by accomplished English-language poets. The essay provides in-depth analysis of why Elfyn has received harsh criticism from some Welsh-language critics, focusing in part on how the facing page format elides the original poems in favor of the translations. However, what is perhaps an over-long piece could have been abbreviated by the editing of sentence-clogging jargon as, “In the absence of a spatio-temporal border between both texts, one might suggest that the ‘sign’s self-referentiality’ implies ‘the inevitable end of the process of semiosis … thereby ceasing to be what Peirce called a “medium of communication”’. 

A resistance to allowing poets to explore cultural material of his or her choosing is a feature of two essays, Daniel Williams’s “American Freaks: Welsh Poets and the United States” and Jasmine Donahaye’s “Identification, Rejection, and Cultural Co-option in Welsh Poetry in English.”
Daniel Williams looks at three poets who respond to the culture (more accurately, some of the cultures) of the United States: Jon Dressel, Nigel Jenkins, Duncan Bush. While connections between Welsh poets and the United States is a rich area for study, Williams makes pronouncements – especially regarding Dressel and Jenkins – not supported by the poets’ work. His contention, for example, that “Dressel’s thought [in “The Road to Shiloh”] is in danger of reinforcing … the ‘white supremacist’ reading of the Civil War” is quite astonishing, given that the poem undertakes a forthright analysis of racism – not just overt racism but also internalized racism that is “chronic,” “in all of your brains,” as the ghost of W. E. B. Du Bois tells the white narrator. A Southern white supremacist encountering “The Road to Shiloh” would more likely be enraged, not reinforced, by Dressel’s assertions that “the Civil War was ultimately about slavery,” that “it was right, and hugely so, that the North prevailed,” and that “black slavery makes a profound difference in the American equation.” Williams’s comment that “one feels that the poet would prefer to put [the African American voices of the poem] aside so they may cease to worry his construction of ‘the South’ or of ‘Wales’ is equally untenable: the African Americans Woodrow, Juke and Du Bois are self-evidently integral to the sequence and to Dressel’s presentation of the South and its culture.

In her essay “Identification, Rejection and Cultural Co-option in Welsh Poetry in English,” Jasmine Donahaye navigates the treacherous waters of cultural and political nationalism in Wales. She acknowledges the value of preserving local culture and its threatened language yet poses tough questions about unexamined national allegiance and “hierarchies of belonging.” But when Donahaye turns to the issue of “cultural co-option,” the essay turns unsubtle and proscriptive. She devotes much of this argument to Pascale Petit’s The Zoo Story, asking if Petit has “the authority to use … cultural imagery [of the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rain forest],” asserting that “In the case of Petit, the cultural material is being used not in order to say something about that culture, or her response to it, but in order to say something about her own individual experience, which has little or nothing to do with it.”  But poets must write out of whatever material creatively compels them. There are innumerable first rate poems that use cultural material outside the poets’ provenance “to say something about … [that poet’s] individual experience.” Since I, for one, do not object to Sylvia Plath’s “co-option” of holocaust imagery to explore her unrelated individual experience in poems like “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus” (for example), I similarly cannot object to Petit’s use of the Yanomami culture in The Zoo Father. The real issue should be whether Petit renders that material convincingly in poetry. 

The most disappointing essay is Nerys Williams’s “Peter Finch: Recycling the Avant-Garde.” Finch is well-deserving of attention to his work. But Williams’s essay is marred by murky prose, misquotation, and incorrect citation, instances of which accrue disastrously. To give one example: after describing Finch’s “dialogue with earlier modernist techniques,” Williams continues, “It is this sense of a recuperated and adaptive modernism which enervates a reading of Welsh cultural history and its evolution without returning to struggles with poetic precedents.” “Enervates” is not clear; perhaps its opposite, “energizes” was intended? Later Williams quotes the following passage from her own interview with Finch – incorrectly cited in the bibliography as Poetry Wales 40.1 (Spring 2005): 22; the interview is in PW 40.4 and the passage is on p. 23): “I was fascinated by Raymond Garlick’s proposition that the very first Anglo Welsh poet was a 14th Century poet Roland ap Cydyll. Cydyll wrote a poem half in English half in Welsh.”  In the published interview, Finch in fact says:  “I was fascinated by Raymond Garlick’s proposition that the very first Anglo Welsh poet wrote a poem half in English half in Welsh.” Finch can only be referring to Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdwal. He does not mention Roland ap Cydyll (of whom I have not heard).

The essays in Slanderous Tongues do tackle interesting and important “themes, debates and modes of expression in contemporary Welsh poetry” as the Introduction states. I wish they’d done so with greater subtlety, clarity, and accuracy.

David Lloyd, Department of English, Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York, USA