REVIEW by K Iolo Jones

NWR Issue r33

The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry 1966–2018

by John Goodby & Lyndon Davies (eds)

Cover of The Edge of Necessary edited by John Goodby and Lyndon Davies

One of the areas explored by avant-garde poetic practice is the notion that words – and the ideas, categories and concepts they embody and express – are slippery, unpredictable things. Words and their meanings are not fixed, but dialogic and dynamic: always evolving, swimming through shifting environmental streams and currents. Perhaps words are a bit like whales. Whales certainly swim about in some marvellous words.

In the early Eocene Epoch, around 50 million years ago, Artiodactyla, or ‘even-toed ungulates’ – hoofed land mammals – began to spend more time in the water. Over the course of some 15 million years, some of these ungulates evolved into fully aquatic ceteceans. Dwelling in turbid prehistoric oceans, these creatures needed a way to hunt that did not rely on their eyes alone. They developed the capacity to echolocate – to navigate largely by sound. This enabled them to migrate and hunt freely, and in the process, travel vast oceanic distances.

Whales, like words, can leap unexpectedly before us, breaching their natural habitat to surprise and inspire. Sadly, some of these majestic creatures are boxed into tiny tanks, forced to perform humiliating, unnatural public displays. Others, though still inhabiting the oceans, can become disturbed by conflicting human-made signals that interfere with their ability to echolocate, and drift far outside their natural migration routes, finding themselves in dangerously shallow waters, rivers, or, worse, beached on dry land. There is often little hope in these instances of ‘cetacean stranding’. Usually, these creatures perish quickly due to dehydration, or even drowning as their blowholes become covered by inflowing tides. Some collapse under their own weight. Many are dead on arrival.

What is ‘Welsh innovative poetry’? Is it a practice, a form, or a genre? Is it possible to define? If not, why not? If so, what shapes does it take, and is it possible to outline a specifically ‘Welsh’ innovative poetry? These are questions that are not fully addressed in John Goodby and Lyndon Davies’ introduction to The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry 1966–2018. Beyond a few scattered descriptors, the essay contains little detailed analysis. What we are told is that innovative poetry is ‘radical’ (p15), ‘alternative’ (p15), ‘vibrant and forward-looking’ (p32), and that, despite the efforts of the Welsh critical ‘establishment’ (p31), those fusty ‘apologists for the status quo’ (p32), and their persistent efforts to debar it, this scrappy anthology is out there to fight its corner. And yet, oddly, for a book lauding the radical, unpredictable energies of the avant-garde, its editors are at pains to remind us of the importance of scholarly collections such as this, that this is the ‘first-ever’ (p15), that ‘there has been no anthology of this kind before’ (p16).

What we do get from this introduction is a vivid sense of the editors’ assessment of ‘mainstream’ (p15) Welsh poetry in the English language. Bravely speaking truth to power, they trace the weak genealogy of anglophone poetry in Wales, explaining that much contemporary activity can be identified by its ‘blandness and predictability’, stemming as it does from the ‘identity-obsessed’ (p24) Second Flowering of the 1960s and 1970s. For Goodby and Davies, the Second Flowering had been a hyphenated poetry shaped by the petty affectations of bourgeois Welsh nationalism, resisting ‘anglicisation’, yet in doing so ironically aping the apparently authentic, ‘very English phenomenon’ of the Movement (p18). The result was a ‘backward’, ‘ingratiat[ing]’ (p18) poetry that paled in comparison to the real thing, expressing itself through ‘transparent’ language use and ‘mild symbolism and metaphor’ (p17). Despite ‘renewing its cadre’ in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued in ‘its aesthetic and ideological standpoint’ to be ‘still very much bound up with the discursive/lyrical/empirical register of orthodox Anglo-Welsh versification’ (p20). Its contemporary practitioners are today risibly ‘unaware’ (p31) that they are the inheritors of ‘an increasingly enfeebled scion of a once-vigorous English tradition’ (p31). Almost the same, but not quite.

I am wary of appropriating Homi Bhabha’s phrase about colonial mimicry, perhaps because that might identify me as a member of the shadowy Welsh critical elite, which can be sniffed out by its tendency to ‘[finesse] essentialist positions under cover of selectively-applied critical theory’ (p22). Indeed, what we also get from this introduction is a full sense of the might of Welsh critical ‘officialdom’ (p31). The editors boldly expose the ‘critical and financial power-nexus’ (p18) centred around elite institutions like the Welsh Books Council, Literature Wales, Seren Books and the Association for Welsh Writing in English, members of whom meet annually at Gregynog Hall in mid Wales, where they shadily conspire ‘ideological opposition to literary experiment of almost any kind’ (p16). Mercifully, this cabal is rather introverted, the result being a ‘lack of clout in the larger world of English literary studies’ (p22).

It goes without saying that describing Welsh Writing in English as a ‘critical and financial power-nexus’ is as laughable as Jeff Bezos complaining that poses an existential threat to Amazon. This does not, however, prevent the editors firing decidedly unnecessary cheap shots at a ‘critical culture [un]worthy of its avant-garde’ (p27), while studiously failing to make any substantive analytical observations of its own. Neither do they mention any of the extensive critical work, past and present, on numerous writers whose searching poetry, while perhaps not ‘innovative’ in the ways not defined by the editors, nevertheless consistently ironised and problematised ‘essentialist’ notions of ‘Welshness’: R.S. Thomas, John Ormond, John Tripp, to name only a few. This is presumably because these were poets who spent considerable time and energy advocating and contributing in material ways to the social, cultural and political development of this small nation. However, in these editors’ view, ‘political radicalism’ cannot match the ‘linguistic radicalism’ of avant-garde poetry, which, they insist, is the only cultural form able to ‘offer any kind of serious challenge to the settled language of power’ (p20).

What should be said is that the book itself is a fine collection of poetry inhabiting a range of forms, themes, and possibilities. The voices heard here certainly do deserve further critical attention, and will no doubt receive it when the critics in this small field find time between thanklessly defending the few meaningful institutions they have worked tirelessly to build. That said, the poetry here, by its nature, far exceeds any attempts to build critical aquariums to contain it – it swims freely in its own waters.

Sadly, there is no hope for some, and disposing of a beached whale is no easy task. There are no standard procedures. A stranded cetacean can cause innumerable problems: such very large corpses are difficult to move, and a rotting carcass can pose a serious risk to public health. Worse still, toxic gases can build inside the decomposing carcass of a large specimen, and there are recorded instances of whales spontaneously exploding. One option is to tow a dead whale back out to sea, though this is, logistically, a tricky exercise. For some maritime authorities, the last resort is to dynamite dead whales where they land: a tragic, yet undeniably exhilarating spectacle.

K Iolo Jones writes satirical reviews.


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next review: John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?


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