Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Taking Criticism Seriously

A nation’s culture has come of age when that culture begins to talk about itself. In Wales we have a poor history of doing this but there are signs that things are changing. Back in the days when the poet laureate of the left, the late Adrian Mitchell, was resident writer at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, a bright examination paper compiler put one of the great man’s works on the syllabus for the GCSE. Mitchell was flattered and asked if he could try the exam himself. Permission was granted and, along with hundreds of schools kids half his age, Mitchell duly sat the paper. His entry was marked. He failed.

There was a gap between what the examiner thought Mitchell had meant and what the poet actually had. “The syntax of the last two lines…create tension and ambiguity by allowing both narrative closure and apostrophic openness,” writes the critic James A Davies in a discussion of Dylan Thomas’s keynote poem in Deaths and Entrances. Did Dylan have this in mind as he wrote? Or was he, instead, simply caught up in the magic tumble of words flowing from his fingers.

The new critics of Welsh writing in English are emerging in force from the departments at Cardiff, Bangor, Glamorgan, Aberystwyth, Swansea and Carmarthen. Kirsti Bohata, Matthew Jarvis, John Goodby, Daniel G. Williams, Damian Walford Davies, Francesca Rhydderch, Jasmine Donahaye and others. It’s the first time in a lifetime that Wales has been able to muster this many quality literary analysts, essayists, in-depth commentators, refiners and redescribers of our burgeoning culture.

Their work takes the literary surface and fixes it hard into the heart of the cultural engine. The Welsh Wordscape rolls on but now we know why, to where and with whom. We know every detail of our cultural nationalism, tradition, displacement, marginal colonial discourse and the way in which we have found ourselves flooded with post-modernists at a time when elsewhere the world seems to be giving up.

Seren’s Slanderous Tongues, a volume of essays edited by Daniel Williams, covers the past thirty-five years of our literary longings. Matthew Jarvis writes on poetry after the second flowering. Jo Furber covers gender and nationhood. Daniel Williams writes on Welsh poetry in the USA. Tudur Hallam looks at Menna Elfyn’s bilingualism. Nicholas Jones discusses Harri Webb and the place of literary nationalism. Hywel Dix ponders on the place of class.

In the middle of all this Nerys Williams looks at how the avant-garde has been managed in Wales. She concentrates largely on my own work. And, I have to say, largely gets it right. Critics rarely talk to their subjects. They don’t phone and check. They extrapolate from what you’ve written. She tells us what I mean and how I write. Would I pass the exam? I’m not saying.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #176

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