How much of a mark do National Poets make? Wales’s first, Gwyneth Lewis, has a poem right across the front of the Wales Millennium Centre. Gwyn Thomas, the ebullient second, has words in the stones on the top of Snowdon. The seemingly unstoppable Gillian Clarke, the current National bard, has her work in the landscape at Barry and soon at Ebbw Vale and in the mouths and minds of nearly every Welsh school child. National Poets celebrate, concentrate, and elevate. They take poetry where it should go, out there to the people. They are ambassadors as much as they are creators. In their hands poetry becomes something we all own.
There may, however, be probles up ahead. In England, where the Poet Laureate was once a job for life and in its present incarnation still lasts for ten years, they have a population approaching 60 million and a pool of poetic talent as large as France. Once you’ve done your stint you get knighted. Arise Sir Gwyn. But in Wales that’s a fantasy – we have no civic honours of our own. Yet.
The real difficulty is our level of turnover. We are using up poets at the rate of one every eighteen months. It’s even faster with the National Children’s Poet, Bardd Plant, where the post-holders change on an annual basis. Our population is a mere three and a half million. Now I know we are a pretty talented people and have poetic ability well above the world average. But if we carry on as we are we are still going to run out fairly soon.
Currently the National Poet has world-wide recognition. Due in part to Gillian’s charisma, energy, talent and ability to put herself about the international stage the world knows of Wales. That’s a harder thing to do when you change language. Would the role of National Poet be less visible if its highspots came from the Welsh tradition? In the sequence we are following the next National Bard will be one who writes first in the older tongue. Will it matter that such a poet will be unknown outside our borders? Can the Wales of today really sustain a National Poet who works in one language only? On the other hand should not the National Poet be competent in both? And how many of those are there about? Even the late R S Thomas, language campaigner from the front lines, only ever delivered his verse in Saesneg.
There are arguments here for picking a winner and then extending the period of service. How different might things be if Gwyn Thomas, Gillian Clarke or Gwyneth Lewis had been appointed for five years, for ten or even for life? If you have a view please let me know.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 1st August, 2009