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.