ESSAY But How Familiar-Strange Your Voice and Presence

NWR Issue 120

Dr Siriol McAvoy

How should we imagine a tradition of women’s poetry in Wales right now – and do we need to? Virginia Woolf’s declaration in A Room of One’s Own that ‘we think back through our mothers if we are women’ is now so familiar that it is easy to forget quite how radical it was in 1929, when poetic tradition was still imagined as a ready-made bank of skill and memory, passed down from man to man. ‘Thinking back through our mothers’ became an important – sometimes all-consuming – task for women poets in the 1970s and 1980s. In this country, Gillian Clarke initiated her own quiet revolution with a new kind of poetry that presented a bruised, breastfeeding nipple (‘tugging pleasure / Of bruised reordering’) as a site of poetic power and reflection equal to any territory charted by canonical male poets, and paved the way for subsequent Welsh women poets’ sensual, probing delight in their own embodiment.

And yet, how to talk about an identifiable trajectory of women’s poetry in Wales when women have been denied familiarity with their predecessors by male-centred patterns of canon-making, where force-fields of nation and imperialism have historically suppressed women’s voices? The poets of Clarke’s generation are often perceived to have emerged fully formed from a void, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but that isn’t the case. In fact, there were several important women poets working in Wales during the earlier twentieth century whose legacy has been eclipsed by the heroes and high priests of modern Welsh letters. Not only did these women work with and influence these male writers, but they also brought their own experiences to bear in the creation of radically experimental, linguistically dextrous and sensuously embodied forms of poetry whose resonances can still be traced in Welsh women’s poetry today.

Poets such as Sheenagh Pugh have baulked at being cantoned off as a ‘woman poet’, and recent years have brought welcome recognition to a spectrum of queer, trans, and non-binary gender identifications. But women poets have produced, and been produced by, this conflicted terrain in important ways. To recover these ‘forgotten poets’ is to give a history and a significance to poetry by women that extends beyond the individual, opening the way for a diversity of new voices in the future...

Siriol McAvoy is a researcher and writer based in Cardiff, specialising in Welsh writing in English and experimental women’s writing of the twentieth century. She is editor of Locating Lynette Roberts: 'Always Observant and Slightly Obscure', published by University of Wales Press this year. She teaches gender studies and literature in the Department of Continuing Education at Cardiff University, and writes her own poetry too.

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previous essay: Why Is It Always a Poem Is a Walk?
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