A Laureate’s Life
Commissioned and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in April 2008, at the start of my period as National Poet for Wales
by Gillian Clarke
I finished my reading at a Poetry Live day for GCSE students, and strolled with my son into the sunshine of a city street, thinking about having a nice lunch somewhere, when the call came. It was the Welsh Academi. How does the call come to the new laureate in England? Does the Queen phone? Or the Prime Minister? A committee of the Welsh great and good had decided that I was to be the next National Poet of Wales. The Academi reached me on my mobile phone. Was that a first?
Nothing could have been further from my mind. I was only half aware that Gwyn Thomas, my predecessor, who writes in Welsh, would come to the end of his two year appointment in a month or two. In fact, every crowned bard since the 6th century wrote in Welsh. I write in English. I was thinking about lunch, not fuss, photographs and interviews in two languages. I asked for two hours to think about it. Two hours and two glasses of wine later I agreed. It seemed mean to say no.
As a Welsh poet, I feel ghosts at my back, a poetic lineage going back to the dark ages. From around the 6th century, we know that the bards of the islands of Britain, using the British language, performed a significant social role. That responsibility lingers. Welsh still uses the old bardic word for poem: ‘cerdd’, ‘a song’, poetry as song and dance of sound and meaning. A shadow of that tradition survives in the notion of what a poet is in Wales today, even with the English-speaking majority. A tradition translated. It’s possible in these parts, when asked one’s profession, to reply ‘poet’, without embarrassment. Often the questioner responds that his auntie, great-uncle or grandfather was a poet too. Cardiff taxi-drivers with bardic ancestors are surprisingly common. So a ghost of the old magic survives. We don’t read snide remarks about the National Poet’s commissioned work in the Western Mail. There is no call here for a populist versifier rather than a serious poet to take on the role, and while in post we are treated with more respect than we deserve. A farmer neighbour whom I’ve known for 40 years called in to shake my hand when he heard of my appointment. I was no longer myself. I had been translated. I was the Bardd Cenedlaethol.
Fragments of the work of the first named poets of Britain - Taliesin and Aneurin, - and many anonymous poets, passed from generation to generation to survive in 13th and 14th century manuscripts made in the scriptoria of monasteries. Those early bards, the Poets of the Princes, Beirdd y Tywysogion, were professionals, members of a Guild of Poets, their duties and rights enshrined in Welsh Law. They trained for years before being appointed to praise and celebrate their princes and heroes. When Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales, was killed in 1282, the aristocracy assumed the patronage of the poets. ‘Bardd’, from which we take the English word ‘bard’, is still the Welsh word for poet today. The poet is the voice of the tribe. Later, many a poet-troubadour took to the road with his knapsack of songs. The great medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, uses in a poem the word mangonel, a French weapon of war, within months of its invention in France. Words on the move, traded, contraband brought home to augment the old British language already enriched by the tongue of the Romans.
My first commissioned poem was for the retiring laureate, Gwyn Thomas. At a handover ceremony a framed copy of the poem, and one translated into Welsh, were given to Gwyn. ‘Y Fflam’, ‘The Flame’, remembers poetry’s old story. We take turn to keep the flame burning.
For so long the flame has flickered,
at the cromlech, at the crossroad,
in encampment, hovel and castle,
in the courts of minor princes.
Song by firelight, gleam of a sword,
the quiver of a harp string,
reflected in the faces
of those tranced by listening.
But the word is out. It crosses
centuries, each one a flame,
every syllable a heartbeat,
every song a torch in the dark.
Gwyn, we meet at the ford
to speak in tongues,
to pass on simple truth,
to torch the lies, the weasel words,
burn off the fog of politics
with poetry’s flame,
the mind’s manuscript.
I am often asked if I mind writing to a commission. Wouldn’t I prefer to wait for inspiration? But what is inspiration? It feels like a bolt from the blue. A few words, an image, appear at the edge of your mind the very moment a restless energy has your brain stirred anyway. The buzz of those two wires touching can occur when, researching for a commission, discovering a new subject, a fresh lexicon and imagery, a poem offers itself. Then the experience is hot as ‘inspiration’. However it comes about, the arrival of a poem can take your breath away. Put yourself in the way of ‘inspiration’, and you find it. Last year, before taking on the laureateship, I was asked to write a poem about Welsh gold. I went gold-digging. It led me to a surprising fact: most of the world’s gold lies unrecoverable in the sea, and a vast horde is stored in human blood, bones and organs. That the gold we carry secretly in our bodies, or glimpse in sunlit waters, can never be grasped, counted or spent, can never corrupt us, gave me the poem.
Most poetry reaches a small readership, yet the most enduring of its lines touch us all. People know more poetry than they realise. In love and grief many turn to it. Today, with events broadcast instantaneously across the world, we are all in it together. A hurricane. An earthquake. The fall of the twin towers. The suffering in Gaza. In experiencing a shared terrible or glorious moment as it happens, we hunger for language. Finding words for public events can be like sharing them with just one person. We instinctively turn to someone, perhaps a stranger, to say, ‘Isn’t it awful?’. I have written about public events: a train crash, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, war. I wrote ‘Lament’ at the time of the first Gulf war, but I think the poem still has something to say about a troubled Middle East. There are seven three-line verses, but the list might grow and grow, an endless litany of people, creatures, lands and oceans, truth and languages, for which we might still ‘Lament’:
For the green turtle with her pulsing burden,
in search of the breeding-ground.
For her eggs laid in their nest of sickness.
For the cormorant in his funeral silk,
the veil of iridescence on the sand,
the shadow on the sea.
For the ocean's lap with its mortal stain.
For Ahmed at the closed border.
For the soldier in his uniform of fire.
For the gunsmith and the armourer,
the boy fusilier who joined for the company,
the farmer's sons, in it for the music.
For the hook-beaked turtles,
the dugong and the dolphin,
the whale struck dumb by the missile's thunder.
For the tern, the gull and the restless wader,
the long migrations and the slow dying,
the veiled sun and the stink of anger.
For the burnt earth and the sun put out,
the scalded ocean and the blazing well.
For vengeance, and the ashes of language.
The National Poet is not required to praise anyone, not royal person, not government, not First Minister. The Welsh Assembly Government keeps its distance. I read at official events in the Senedd, or Senate, building, write an occasional new poem, and I will join the team of artists in Washington this summer when Wales is the featured country at the Smithsonian Institute’s Folk Festival. Do all laureates get to travel? The Hay Festival in Segovia took me with them in September 2008, and I travel with the Hay team to the Alhambra in May. I, who for the sake of the planet have given up flying anywhere on holiday, find myself airborne for poetry.
So laureateship and Welsh culture are easy with each other and the bard must sing for her supper. During my first year requests have come in steadily, via the Academi, which administers the post, or from those who phone, email or write me a nice letter. Two poems have recently queued for attention in the shady scriptorium of my mind: one private, an epithalamion for an August wedding, the other a commissioned poem to mark an RIBA event in Wales. The subject is Richard Rogers’s airy, elegant Senedd building, called ‘Slate, Oak, Glass’
Mountains spent time on this:
the slow settlement of silts,
mudstones metamorphosed to slate,
prehistory pressed in its pages.
Rock blown from the quarry face
and slabbed for a plinth, a floor,
a flight of stairs rising
straight from the sea.
The forest dreamed it:
parable or parabola,
a roof like the silk gills of fungi,
the throat of a lily.
A man imagined it:
the oak roof’s geometry
fluid and ribbed as the tides
in their flux and flow.
He cools us with roof-pools of rain
that flicker with light twice reflected,
a wind-tower of steel to swallow our words
and exchange them for airs off the Bay.
Inside this house of light
you can still hear the forest breathe,
feel the mountain shift underfoot,
hear the sands sift in the glass.
Though not obliged to accept a commission I am usually tempted. My favourite early request came from the Bevan Society for a poem to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the National Health Service. Its creator, Aneurin Bevan, was a hero in my childhood home. Here’s ‘A Sonnet for Nye’.
London was used to trouble from the Valleys,
People who lived close, loved song and word,
Despised the big men’s promises and lies.
With them the socialist vision struck a chord.
Colliers, who hated class and privilege,
Whose work was filthy, dark and perilous,
Spared a portion of their paltry wage
To pay a stricken neighbour’s doctor’s bills.
They sent their man to Parliament. Who dares
Wins. A fierce man with a silver tongue,
He hammered stammered words in the hallowed air
Of the House, an Olympian among them,
Stuttering his preposterous social dream
Translated from ‘a little local scheme’.
Requests continue to arrive: a poem for the foyer of a women’s refuge; for the label of a bottle of spring water, with strict requirements: 40 words praising the Brecon Beacons, some in Welsh, to include ‘still’, and ‘sparkling’. I have no trouble praising mountains and relish a deadline so I took it on. Then 24 words, some Welsh, some English, to be cut in stone in a town improvement scheme. And a poem to be scribed in fine calligraphy to raise money for a local youth Eisteddfod. A few years ago I wrote for a Rugby tournament. After years in the doldrums, politically and sportingly, Wales had achieved its own Assembly Government, rediscovered its self-esteem, and found success on the rugby field too. Here is ‘Stadium’,
The legend goes like this:
the land was cold and bare,
when its people woke to a strange new hope
and a mood of devil-may-care.
There was one with a silver boot
and one with a raptor’s stare,
and all of them young and strung with steel,
ready to do and dare.
There was one with the speed of a hound
and one with the heart of a hare,
and millions to surge and urge them on
to fly on a wing and a prayer.
Mist lifted from the land,
the sun stood in the air,
when the ball sailed straight through the golden gate,
like a comet with streaming hair,
and bells rang and the people sang
and all was debonair.
In December 2008, the Academi requested a poem to send to Barack Obama for his inauguration as President. The poem flew the Atlantic. I don’t suppose he’s read it, but I was glad to celebrate hope, and a new era where language would be used for truth, tact, eloquence and conciliation. I wrote the poem on New Year’s day, 2009, the morning after seeing in the icy night sky of New Year’s Eve the beautiful conjunction of the new moon and the planet Venus. That sight helped me to begin the poem, to ground it under one moon in the countryside of Ceredigion, a small place like so many others in the world affected by the politics of the most powerful nation on earth. In the poem I describe an astonishing day, weeks earlier, just after Obama won the Presidential vote, when I and six other poets were performing in Birmingham to a multiracial audience of over a thousand 16 year olds. As I was leaving the stage, the chairman told the young audience that I had just been asked to write a poem for Obama. In the poem I record what happened next. The three words in Welsh at the end translate Obama’s famous three words. I call the poem ‘New Year, 2009’.
Venus in the arc of the young moon
is a boat in the arms of a bay,
the sky clear to infinity
but for the trailing gossamer
of a transatlantic plane.
The old year and the old era dead,
pushed burning out to sea
bearing the bones of heroes, tyrants,
ideologues, thieves and deceivers
in a smoke of burning money.
The dream is over. Glaciers will melt.
Seas will rise to swallow golden islands.
Somewhere a volcano may whelm a city,
earth shake its skin like an old horse,
a hurricane topple a town to rubble.
Yet tonight, under the cold beauty
of the moon and Venus, something like hope begins,
as if times can turn, the world change course,
as if truth can speak, good men come to power,
and words have meaning again.
Maybe black-hearted boys in love with death
won’t blow themselves and us to smithereens.
Maybe guns will fall silent, the powerful
cease slaughtering the weak, the rich
will not gorge as the poor starve.
Hope spoke the word ‘Yes’, the word ‘we’, the word ’can’,
and a thousand British teenagers at Poetry Live
rose to their feet in a single yell of joy
black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew,
faithful and faithless. Ie. gallwn ni.