Beginning with Bendigeidfran
Gillian Clarke's Journal
by Gillian Clarke
It seems to have begun with Bendigeidfran, his rhythmic syllables, the imprint of his huge foot on the shore, and the rocking stone on the headland that had been the apple in the giant's pocket.
A hundred yards from the door of the farm that had belonged to my grandmother from before I was born until I was almost grownup, there lies a small cove between cliffs that extend parallel arms north-westward into Cardigan Bay. Its black shingle, the grey Atlantic seals that swam in its translucent green waters, the strangely hollowed, footprint-shaped pool in a rock at the foot of the cliffs close to the bay, and the story my father taught me to associate with it, have haunted me longer than almost any memory. According to my father, the giant Bendigeidfran set off from the beach in such a terrible rage to wade the Irish Sea to rescue his sister Branwen from the Irish court, that his foot had printed a hollow into a black slab fallen from the cliffs. Those rocks lying broken on the shore and jutting jaggedly from the sea still have an air of turmoil about them for me. They loom out of dark times for which I have no certain explanation, but which cast up old tales of war and shipwreck and bear messages that seem to be coded or in languages I could not understand.
Seamus Heaney has said that his poetic imagination is rooted in childhood fear. When pressed, he added that every poem he had ever written began in the sharp emotions of childhood. Most poets would recognize that poetry is rooted in the deepest experiences, in memory kept too far down to name, stored in the senses rather than in the filing-system of the conscious mind. It is those feelings and experiences at the edge of language, where words are newborn, that the poet needs to draw upon. No wonder Keats said, ‘O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts.' I would further argue that this rich source of poetry is especially available to women. The girl-child often has an early advantage in language skills, is likely to talk earlier, to learn to read sooner than a boy, and to prefer imaginative literature. Words store memory, 'Nothing is until it has a word' ('Llŷr' 1982). Women oftener record memories of babyhood than men and thus draw more deeply on the first physical, animal sensations of infancy, where body and mind are single, fact and imagination indivisible. It is not that men never share this characteristic, as Heaney proves, but that it is rarer in men, and might even be said to be commonplace in women.
For me poetry is a rhythmic way of thinking, but it is a thought informed by the heart, informed by the body, informed by the whole self and the whole life lived, so that being a woman and being Welsh are inescapably expressed in the art of poetry. I tire of the old, critical debate, the tired question: 'Is there an Anglo-Welsh literature?' The term 'Anglo-Welsh' has rightly been abandoned for the clumsier but more accurate 'Welsh writing in English'. Our writers in both languages are connected by the relative classlessness of Wales. Our place-names and our English speech are haunted by Welsh, as the ends of the streets in our towns and cities are haunted by hills and far blue mountain landscapes. We share history, ancestral connections with farming, Nonconformism, heavy industry, and an enduring respect for and ambition for education. There are striking biographical connections between the writers of Wales. It is a small country, a real place, whose writers tend to say 'we', rather than 'I', but we write in as many ways as do the writers of more confident and powerful nations.
My parents were, in their different ways, both word people, despite the impoverished formal education available in their youth. Both were Welsh-speaking and from families with their root and culture in an old, rural Wales, my father from Carmarthenshire, my mother from Denbighshire. My paternal grandfather farmed and worked on the Great Western Railway. His forbears were Baptist ministers, farmers and preachers. My mother's father farmed and milled corn, as had most of her known ancestors. My sister and I were the first members of the tribe to be brought up with English as mother tongue. By the time I was born, my father had joined the BBC in Cardiff as an outside broadcast engineer, and my early childhood in that time of war was spent partly in Cardiff, then Barry, and partly at 'home' in Pembrokeshire at the farm to which my grandmother had moved from her native Carmarthenshire. Both parents valued words, literature, books. Both thought education the way forward for their daughters. My father treasured both his languages, but for my mother the way up and out of hardship was to speak and teach her children English only. A child of a tenant farmer, she noted that her father's landlords were rich, privileged and English, and she made up her mind in bitterness to escape her own heritage. She went to one of those insidiously anti-Welsh grammar schools that destroyed the self-confidence of so many of her generation, trained as a nurse, and gave it up to marry. Determined that her daughters would be educated, she spoke nothing but English from the day I was born, taught me to read before I went to school, and allowed Welsh a grudged place in my father's life. I knew that he spoke it everywhere except at home, so for me, too, Welsh took on the nature of a forbidden tongue, a language of secrets from which I at first felt merely excluded, and later learned to value as something stored away for my future by my father, against my mother's wishes.
It is a history very like that of many writers of my generation.
My mother left the tall tales to my father too. The myth of Branwen and Bendigeidfran is not associated with Pembrokeshire, but, though the imagination thrills to name the stones, rivers, caves, islands or mountains as the grave or the birthplace of Branwen, Grainne or Europa, the geography of myth lies in the mind. The family version of the tale gave me possession of what was rightly mine, and should belong to all children. It offered me a place in the myth, and gave myth and naming a place in my imagination. By the time I first saw King Lear when I was ten, I already knew the sad story of Branwen, the beautiful daughter of Llŷr. My first bookcase was full of folk and fairy tale and the mythologies of several cultures, and my head full not only of Enid Blyton but also of the Mabinogion. I recall no real book of the latter, no illustrated collection specially for children, only a version of some of the stories told to keep me occupied in the car on the frequent journeys from Cardiff, to keep up my pace on a walk, or to get me to sleep at night. In fact they kept me awake. I heard the giant Bendigeidfran breathe, cough, stamp and rage in the waterfalls, tide, winds and storms at Fforest, and in the rumours of war on the radio or in the headlines of newspapers. The fact that literature, from nursery rhyme and fairy story onwards, was so closely associated with the natural world, has played a strong part in making me a country person, not an urban one, even during the long years of my life spent in the city. Literature hallowed the natural with the supernatural. It made the stones sing. It populated the countryside with animals, seen and unseen. It made natural phenomena reverberate with mythological meaning, turned a rocking stone to a giant's apple, a rock pool to a footprint.
Childhood in the 1940s was also dominated by a world war which even a child happily evacuated to the loving care of a grandmother, in what still seems like paradise, could not escape, and my earliest memories of Fforest coincide with the war years. To a child it was a legendary war, a giant's war of stormy seas, shipwreck, armies that crossed rivers on the body of their commander, bombs that fell from the sky. There was a monstrous enemy leader, and could we but kill him we would all be saved. Bendigeidfran was on our side, but I was not at all convinced that he was a sensible friend. I was not keen on his policy of revenge under those black skies of the early 1940s. Like most children, I found the quarrels of adults painful and bewildering, and what was going on up there and out there was all too raw a re-enactment of the unease in my own parents' marriage, symbolized by their difference over which language they should speak to their children. From all this turbulence Fforest was a refuge that felt, and indeed was, far safer than a bomb shelter under the stairs in a house in a south Wales port. In my grandmother's house and yard, Welsh and English, birth and death, the real and the imagined, were all equally natural and elemental and as necessary to each other's definition as the sea is to the land.
That poetry is for me both a creative and a thinking process is illustrated by the very slowness of the thought-journey towards an understanding of these things that has taken place since I began to take poetry seriously in the 1970s. From first publication in Poetry Wales in 1971, I began to give poetry due attention, in days of intense work between months of devotion to other things, such as rearing children, and earning a living. At first it was the live moment and its present tense that informed the poetry, and the present was made up in those early days almost entirely of familial matters and domestic relationships, which were the subject of the first book, The Sundial (1979). My later books have explored the subject of ancestry, first the women's story in Letter from a Far Country (1982), then the men's in the sequence 'Cofiant' in Letting in the Rumour (1989), in an attempt to find the meaning of the present in the past. Now, among a tangled personal mythology of literature and reality, of real childhood memory and story memory, of legendary and real war, of father country, mother country and the rich turned ground between, new subjects are clamouring for attention. They seem objective and external, but they take their source and root from a lived past.
The first of these new interests is the world made intimate by the media and by travel. My generation's first journeys were made by radio in the time of war, when wireless 'let in the rumour, grief on the radio' (1989). Insights into the mysterious adult world, awareness of the movements of history as it happened, glimpses of great emotions that would otherwise have been beyond the experience of a child, came as the family listened to news bulletins, and some came from radio drama, especially serialized novels. I associate Jane Eyre with Sunday evenings in winter, my father absent, away at work in the reserved occupation of broadcasting, which exempted him from war service. About thirty years later, when I had become a published poet, came the first real visits to other countries, literary festivals, poetry exchanges with communist regimes keen to demonstrate their enthusiasm for the arts, and American universities supplementing their creative writing resources with visiting writers from the land of Dylan Thomas.
The second new subject I will call the ‘new nature’. It no longer seems merely the sentimental concern of what used, until quite recently, to be called 'nature poets' to protest at the spoliation of the earth. Reviews of my first collection, which appeared in 1978, spoke somewhat patronizingly of my concern for domestic issues and the natural world, and I and those who shared my concern were regarded as writing about marginal matters, away from the centre. Many of the writers most concerned with these matters were women, made alert to the danger and concerned for the future of an increasingly sick earth by motherhood, and a passionate desire for a good and wholesome tomorrow for their children. It was once seen as sentimental nonsense to fear nuclear war. It seems strange now to recall that the notion of the deterrent was popular, in the form of the school cane as well as the bomb. I left education largely in ignorance of science, but I acknowledge now that the excitement of the facts of physics, biology, mathematics, were begun on those westward journeys with my father when, between the stories, he taught me about electricity, how radio worked, how he sent messages in morse code during his years at sea as a wireless engineer, where the weather came from, what stars were. An interest in natural phenomena and the living world arises directly from our night watches for otter or badger, listening for curlew, or spotting a kingfisher, hunting for a rabbit or a trout to supplement wartime rations. ‘New nature’ poems are scientific rather than lyrical, concerned but not romantic. They aim to match the precision of metaphor and word-patterns to the clarity of the fact. They relish the patterning of things, the connections between the worlds of nature and ideas. They are hard at work redeeming the new jargon and making use of every fresh discovery in search of an imagery to match the times we live in. As Eavan Boland writes in 'The Journey', 'odes on/ the flower of the raw sloe for fever' are all very well, but we must make poems to antibiotics too, lest 'every day the language gets less/ for the task and we are less with the language' (Boland 1987). R. S. Thomas, more than any poet in the English language in Britain, has consistently written of science and the new nature, warning of the calamity the earth faced long before it was fashionable to do so. 'Over the creeds/ And masterpieces', he has said, 'our wheels go' (Thomas 1972). Pauline Stainer and Helen Dunmore in England, Christine Evans, Jean Earle in Wales and the American Anne Stevenson, are among many women poets who have used the themes and imagery of science.
We need Bendigeidfran too. He embodies the strangeness within natural phenomena and provides us with the myth we need to explain it all to ourselves: Giants 'are the metaphors that shift the world':
Tonight as Concorde folds her tern-wings back
To take the Atlantic,
I hear a giant foot stamp twice.
You can still see the mark he made,
A black space in the stars.
From poem 9, The King of Britain’s Daughter
Boland, Eavan (1987). The Journey and other poems (Manchester, Carcanet).
Clarke, Gillian (1979). The Sundial (Gomer Press)
- (1982). Letter from a Far Country (Carcanet)
- (1989). Letting in the Rumour (Carcanet)
- (1993), The King of Britain's Daughter (Carcanet).
Thomas, RS(1972). H'm (London, Macmillan).
First published in Our Sisters’ Land, The changing identities of Women in Wales
edited by Jane Aaron, Teresa Rees, Sandra Betts, Moira Vincentelli
University of Wales Press 1994