Half-told tales

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch has become one of the most notable of Wales’s post-1997 cohort of poets. Published now by Picador, her latest volume is Banjo – a collection which Alice Entwistle praised to the heights in summer 2012’s NWR (‘mesmerising’, ‘precision-tooled contents’, ‘beautifully calibrated’ – even ending with a warning of ‘how far short a review like this must fall’ of properly conveying the quality of the work).

It can be interesting with poets who develop into significant figures to recall where they came from. So I thought I’d look again at a few poems from SWR’s first volume, the pamphlet Stranded on Ithaca, which came out from Bradford’s Redbeck Press in 1998.

What’s striking for me is just how strong the techniques are – strong, I mean, in the sense of being strongly apparent. Like a strong flavour. The first few poems manifestly set the tone. ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’ (the opening piece) displays a language that is heavy with descriptives and mots justes: there’s the finger of a castle beckoning ‘jaggedly’; the sea is ‘unconsoled’; the wind is ‘bandaging’ towers; there are seagulls that are ‘disenchanted’ and ‘mim[ing] agony’; and, in the final lines, the air in the throat of the poem’s protagonist is ‘uncertain’. This is language, in other words, that’s marked by a regular reaching for the special word, the linguistic moment that will elevate the tone of the whole above the ordinary. Poetry, if you will, as a counterpoint to linguistic plainness – although done with judicious care, without pushing such a trait to extremes.

But what’s more important, I think, is how this particular poem uses narrative. In his chapter in the 2010 book The Cambridge History of English Poetry, when he is discussing British poetry of the 1980s and early 1990s, Peter Barry suggests that ‘the tricksy, decentred “secret narratives” of James Fenton and Andrew Motion pleased a public which seemed to enjoy a moderate amount of narratological teasing with its poetry’ (p. 970). This draws on Barry’s earlier book, Contemporary British Poetry and the City (2000), in which he describes the ‘secret narrative’ approach as being about ‘the use in poetry of obliquely told, often fragmented and unanchored narratives, emotive but obscure in character’ (p. 135, note 7). ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’ fits this pattern very neatly, with its manifestly unanchored narrative of someone undertaking an unexplained and somewhat unusual activity (the eponymous ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’) which moves to a conclusion that is itself unclear – viz. does the protagonist fall or just give up climbing because of the heat? Narratological teasing indeed: or to put it differently, the poem as slightly tricky, half-told tale.

The pamphlet’s second piece, ‘Pope Gregory XI’s Bedroom’ proceeds along related lines. The language is no less careful, although it’s a bit less concerned with conjuring up recurrently striking words (notwithstanding the bathetic shift of ‘some Italian / jerk’ in the fourth stanza). What the poem offers up in place of this, however, is a sequence of striking images: ‘rhyming wallpaper’ (which still puzzles me); a dome made of ostrich feathers; the fear of choking on quails; eggshells crushed between teeth; a river seen as filled with blood. Poetry, if you will, as dramatic images; a counterpoint, then, to conceptual plainness. The images in this second poem, in other words, are doing the same sort of work that language did in the first.

As for the narrative – well, it wouldn’t do to call it ‘secret’, really. If you don’t know about Pope Gregory XI (last of the Avignon popes), an encyclopaedia will soon sort you out. But what’s vital is that the poem doesn’t do that work for you. Its air of evocative mystery is created by not saying. By giving you fragments of the story (‘that odd Dominican who / writes continually, insisting that he / give it up, come back to Rome’), but not the whole thing. It’s a clever technique: the frisson of a puzzle; the sense that we’re seeing a tale through a glass, darkly.

And the third poem in the pamphlet, ‘One Way Ticket’, does precisely the same thing. There’s a man on a ship, thinking about his troubles – presumably the troubles that have resulted in the ticket of the title. And then, right at the end, we’re told that he still hears ‘the shot’ at Soar-y-Mynydd. Was someone shooting at him? Was there a duel? Was there some feud? Did he hear the shot of someone’s suicide? The point is that the poem doesn’t tell us. It’s all about the half-told tale, the mystery of the not-really-explained event. Even the very precise Welsh reference to Soar-y-Mynydd does the same sort of thing, causing this reader at least to wonder whether there’s a nod to a particular community tale here, a tale drawn from the upland region around the Camddwr valley – but a tale, of course, that this poem is certainly not going to reveal.

I think that much of Stranded on Ithaca owes a great deal to this particular narrative technique. Even the longish title poem, with its grounding reference to the figure of Penelope in The Odyssey, is a narrative puzzle in so many ways. Indeed, that’s a poem for which Peter Barry’s description of ‘secret narratives’ as ‘emotive but obscure in character’ fits the bill pretty much perfectly (perhaps especially for sections II and III.) So when there are poems in which the narrative seems to be fundamentally clear (‘Flavia’s Curtains’, ‘The Ballroom’), the difference comes almost as a shock. ‘The Ballroom’, for example, dramatizes the washing of a paralysed nonagenarian woman by a carer, in the context of a nearby photograph of the same woman when young, in which she is captured ‘in a sepia waltz with some man’. Whilst the half-told tales are very clever creators of atmosphere, ‘The Ballroom’ – in its relative narrative clarity – is a poem that I find much more directly moving. Obviously, that’s an entirely personal response to the difference in technique. But that difference in technique is important for demonstrating, precisely by means of the contrast it creates, one of the primary methods of poetic construction at play in this volume.

There’s much more to say about this undeniably interesting poet, even just in terms of Stranded on Ithaca – her use of vignettes, for example, being another of her approaches to partially rendered narrative; her humour, both on the scale of a complete poem (‘Mona’) and in a playful phrase such as ‘So many men, so little wine’ (‘Stranded on Ithaca’); her rich range of cultural references. But, for me, it is probably those half-told tales which most stand out here: the poet not quite as mystery-maker, but crucially as playing with that-which-is-not-said.

Devolved Voices – Transparency and Trust

Peter Barry

In our work on the ‘Devolved Voices’ project so far, we have tried to spell out precisely what we mean by some of our key concepts. We are studying ‘emergent’ poets of the post-1997 period in Wales, but what exactly is ‘emergence’? We tried to define it precisely and objectively in one of our first documents. I think we were right to do so, as we want the principles by which we are making our choices and emphases to be as transparent as possible.

However, I haven’t always felt exactly as I do now about transparency. I edited an academic journal for 20 years, during the period when the notion of peer reviewing was becoming established in the UK as the litmus test of academic quality. But at the heart of every journal is an inner core of day-to-day practice which is simply unknowable to outsiders. Exactly who decides what, and exactly how, is not always open to external audit, and is not necessarily the same as official policy might dictate.

For instance, I would sometimes receive an essay from a famous academic, accompanied by an oddly self-effacing note. I would think, ‘That can’t really be the famous Prof X – s/he wouldn’t write a cover-note of that self-deprecating kind’. But on a number of occasions, involving different people, it really was the Prof X.

It was evident to me that having a piece by this person in the journal would be noticed, and would improve our standing. What should I do? Should I render it anonymous, and send it out to two academic readers, letting it take its chance, as if it were the work of an early-career beginner? Or should I make the decision myself and take responsibility for it?

If the article turned out to be not so good, even that might be a noteworthy and significant fact, simply because it was by Prof X, and would give some indication of that person’s latest thinking. As a fairly new editor, whenever I went against this principle of seizing an opportunity and taking editorial responsibility, I later regretted it and felt I had been over-timid.

The submission which focuses this issue for me now, was written by a household-name. It was a speculative article about the sex-life of the young George Eliot, based on an interpretation of the coded sex diary of a figure associated with her. I agonised about it for several weeks, and have never before mentioned it to anybody. Was this not a sexist piece, I said to myself, irrelevant to the novelist’s worth and standing as a writer? Should I not high-mindedly reject it? And so on. Eventually, I did reject it, in that self-flattering spirit, but I now know I was wrong.

It would have been an unmistakably news-worthy item, and I should have had the courage to publish it, tipping off national media in advance about its contents. That is what a proper editor would have done, one who was an editor through and through, in spite of the obvious personal and academic risks involved

So what lessons do I take from that experience for Devolved Voices? It’s something like this: Yes, I want our procedures to have the maximum possible transparency, and, yes, I want us to be able to show the principles by which we are working. But in the end, we have to make the judgements, and we have to take the responsibility for doing so. In the last analysis, that is what the money entrusted to us is for.

National identities: some thoughts about data from the 2011 Census

I’ve been interested by statistics to do with national identities in post-devolution Wales for quite a while, and the recent Welsh Devolution in Perspective conference at the British Academy got me thinking about the issue again.

Cardiff University’s Professor Richard Wyn Jones was one of the speakers at the event, and references he made to the 2011 Census made me realise that there were things in the Census data that might well be important for our understanding of national identity in the post-devolution period. And this is an issue that is clearly important for Devolved Voices: the project crucially challenges us to address potential relationships between post-1997 Anglophone Welsh literature and the socio-cultural milieu out of which it emerges.

What RWJ said, then, was that the results of the 2011 Census question about national identity indicate a weak sense of British identification and a strong sense of Welsh identification in the Welsh population. (These are the results for Question 15 in the ‘Individual questions’ section of the 2011 Census questionnaire: ‘How would you describe your national identity?’) Strange, I thought: if that’s the case, don’t the results about Britishness conflict with existing information about national identity in Wales?

As RWJ pointed out to me in a subsequent conversation, the Census hasn’t asked this particular national identity question before. (The row about the lack of a Welsh tick-box in the 2001 Census was, of course, to do with the question in that Census about ethnic identity.[1]) So, in the strictest sense, the 2011 Census results about national identities exist without comparative context. Or to put it slightly differently, the information drawn together by the Census isn’t directly comparable with previous statistical considerations of the same broad issue, as earlier surveys have (for example) been collected along different lines and under different conditions from the Census itself.

Admitting this caveat, what Richard Wyn Jones had said at the conference still surprised me. Turning to Martin Johnes’s recent volume Wales Since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 431 very helpfully offers a table of Moreno scale surveys of national identity in Wales from 1992 to 2007 (table 14.3).[2] Just a little data-crunching from the figures in this table suggests that, in recent years, a significant percentage of the population of Wales has had some level of identification with British identity – either alone or in some sort of combination with Welsh identity.

To get the amounts of people identifying in some way with Britishness, you need to exclude respondents identifying with the ‘Welsh not British’ label, as well as anyone who does not identify themselves at all with the various Welsh/British options offered by the Moreno scale. If you do this, Britishness plays a part in the various surveys as follows: 71% of respondents in 1992 considered themselves in some way to be British; 80% in 1997; 76% in 1999; 73% in 2001; 73% in 2003; and 72% in 2007.[3] Even if you exclude the weaker British identification suggested by the ‘More Welsh than British’ category of respondents, the figures come out as follows: 51% in 1992; 51% in 1997; 57% in 1999; 50% in 2001; 46% in 2003; and 51% in 2007. Some sense of Britishness, in other words, has apparently been a substantial player in the national self-identification of the Welsh population in recent years.

Then we have the 2011 Census. The national identity question allowed respondents to choose multiple identities, although not (and by contrast with the Moreno scale) to indicate their comparative importance. The upshot – according to the separately downloadable chart associated with Figure 4 of the ONS document Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011 – was a level of British identification across the Welsh population which was around half as large as the latter set of figures cited above: 26.3%.

But what if we consider the data Johnes cites in terms of what it tells us about Welsh identification? Well, in that case, we see the following: 85% of respondents in 1992 identified in some way with Welshness; 78% in 1997; 79% in 1999; 86% in 2001; 85% in 2003; and 84% in 2007.[4] Again, if you remove the weaker element of Welsh identification (the ‘More British than Welsh’ category), you get this: 78% in 1992; 68% in 1997; 72% in 1999; 75% in 2001; 77% in 2003; and 74% in 2007. The Census tells us that 65.9% of respondents self-identified with Welshness (either alone or in combination).[5] In other words, there is far less of a difference between these figures than there is between the corresponding figures for Britishness. Or to put it differently: identification with Welshness seemingly holds up between the two different survey approaches, whilst identification with Britishness does not.

Of course, as I said above, detailed or direct comparisons are difficult to draw between the Moreno scale data that Johnes’s book gives us and the rather different form of the data obtained by the Census. Nonetheless, the detailed breakdown of 2011 Census data provided in the ONS data sheet 2011 Census: National identity (detailed), local authorities in England and Wales (document QS214EW) does give some pause for thought.

From this more detailed Census data, then, we discover that British-only identifiers in the Welsh population come in at 16.9% – interestingly not much below the 19.2% for England. Moreover, that 16.9% also broadly resonates with at least some of the figures that Johnes cites for the proportion of ‘British not Welsh’ identifiers since 1992: 14% in 1992; 15% in 1997; 14% in 1999; 11% in 2001; 9% in 2003; and 10% in 2007.

Turning to Welsh-only identifiers in the Census, we find that this cohort comes in at an average of 57.5% across the country as a whole – with the highest percentage figure being found in Rhondda Cynon Taf (73.3%). By contrast, the ‘Welsh not British’ cohorts in Johnes’s table never reach past 28% (in 1992). (In the years of the devolution ‘yes’ vote in 1997 and the establishment of the WAG in 1999, the figures for ‘Welsh not British’ identification were 13% and 17% respectively; the most recent figure cited by Johnes, 2007, was 22%.) Even taking into account that the Census data set is structurally different from the sets cited in Johnes’s book, the broad suggestion of difference here is striking.

It is, however, in the combination of British and Welsh identity that such a ‘broad suggestion of difference’ is perhaps most startling. Even if we only consider the ‘Equally British and Welsh’ cohort of the data sets given in Johnes’s book (i.e. if we exclude the ‘More Welsh than British’ and ‘More British than Welsh’ categories from a combined British and Welsh identification), the percentage of such identifiers is as follows: 30% in 1992; 26% in 1997; 36% in 1999; 28% in 2001; 29% in 2003; and 31% in 2007. Indeed, in all the sample years except 1997, ‘Equally British and Welsh’ was the plurality category of national self-identity. In the Census, however, respondents who identified themselves as both British and Welsh (with no other identifiers chosen alongside those two) came in at just 7.1% across the whole of Wales – a figure that is, it should be noted, less than English-only identifiers, whom the Census indicates as accounting for 11.2% of the population of Wales.

As merely an interested observer rather than a trained political scientist, I’m cautious about trying to draw anything like precise conclusions from two clearly different sorts of data. Indeed, I would be very pleased to hear from any experts about what implications the differences in data collection and question construction might have for the sets of data themselves – and for how they might be read against one another.

However, I find it hard get away from the fact that there are apparently some very substantial differences between the broad suggestions about national identity in the surveys cited in Johnes’s book – surveys, of course, going back a number of years – and the results of the 2011 Census. The large size of the cohort in the Census that self-identifies as Welsh-only is one striking thing; the small percentage of those who identify as both British and Welsh is a second; and the modest level of British self-identification as a whole is a third. Then there is what I suggested above: that identification with Welshness seemingly holds up across the Moreno scale surveys and the Census; levels of identification with Britishness, however, do not.

It would, I think, be somewhat naïve to draw those final observations to the defence of a position that sought to argue, in a very straightforward manner, that Wales-associated literary production is now taking place in the context of some sort of newly dominant Welsh identification on the part of the population of Wales. However, I’m tempted to speculate that there may be something here about the apparent resilience of Welsh identity – in other words, that self-association with Welsh identity in the Welsh population is something that does not seemingly disintegrate in the change from one sort of survey to another. Might any political scientists care to comment? Because if this is the case – this notion of the resilience of Welsh identification – then it’s an issue that certainly demands some thought in the context of a project that requires attention to the socio-political contexts out of which poetry emerges.

1. The 2001 ‘Wales Household Form’ is available to download from http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/census-2001/about-census-2001/census-2001-forms/index.html. Question 8 in the sections for each individual ‘Person’ in the household is about ethnic identity; there is no question about national identity. For a brief explanation of the rationale behind the new question on national identity in the 2011 Census, see the ONS document Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011, p. 10.

2. The Moreno scale asks respondents to place themselves in one of the following categories: ‘Welsh not British’, ‘More Welsh than British’, ‘Equally Welsh and British’, ‘More British than Welsh’, ‘British not Welsh’, ‘None of these’.

3. These figures draw together the following cohorts: ‘More Welsh than British’, ‘Equally Welsh and British’, ‘More British than Welsh’, and ‘British not Welsh’.

4. These figures draw together the following cohorts: ‘Welsh not British’, ‘More Welsh than British’, ‘Equally Welsh and British’, and ‘More British than Welsh’.

5. As in the previous paragraph, this figure is drawn from  the separately downloadable chart associated with Figure 4 of the ONS document Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011.

Graphic Thinking

The latest addition to the ‘Materials’ section of our website is based around a couple of graphs which present trends in poetic publication (collections/pamphlets) since 1997, with the data divided up according to gender.

Responding to existing suggestions about the particular importance of female writers amongst recent Wales-associated poets, Matthew Jarvis’s graphs offer up numbers and percentages for our post-1997 poetic cohort.

To read the research, please follow the link to Graphic Thinking.  We are, as always, particularly interested to hear your responses, so please post your comments below or – if you’d rather – you’re always welcome to contact the team directly via email at devolved.voices [@] aber.ac.uk.