One of the good things to come out of 2010 has been the refurbishing of the Welsh avant garde. Avant garde! We don’t do that in this country I hear some of you say. And for decade after decade in Wales that’s largely been true. Anyone operating even slightly outside the straight line of the artistic straight and narrow has been derided. Eisteddfods celebrating maps made from mud have been declared a total waste of public money. Painters who don’t actually paint have been laughed at. Musicians making music without instruments have been silenced. Conceptual artists who sit in fields thinking have had their grants cut to the bone.
When Gwyneth Lewis’s now massively famous poem was first installed on the front of the brand new Wales Millennium Centre it took a bit of persuading some people that this wasn’t a giant size bilingual cut up in the style of William Burroughs. Yes, like many an avant garde piece of verse you could read the thing in multiple directions. Yet underneath there was a traditional, potent and appealing message. In These Stones Horizons Sing. The past pointing at the future. What we are moving towards what we will be. Beautifully done.
Most of the performance poets, with an honourable exception or two, have spent the past ten years roaring their articulate in-your-face verses much in the style of the pioneers who did the same thing before them. Energising, entertaining, and enjoyable - but rarely really new. Even the liberating possibilities of sampling have somehow found themselves side-tracked into hip hop. Rhys Trimble aside most Welsh-based stand-ups take the old fashioned route. I’m not knocking them, far from it, but offering poetry as a form of bar room entertainment is not at all new. Maybe new is not what we now need to be. Perhaps good would be sufficient enough.
But in Wales, at the end of the new millennium’s first decade, things are waking. It’s taken us forty years but now that we’ve opened our ears we are reborn.
In the past months I’ve spoken with at least four teams of researchers from literary magazines, university departments and media companies – all bent on uncovering Wales’s contribution to twentieth century literary modernism. Angel Exhaust has a special issue devoted to The Welsh Underground, edited by John Goodby and Andrew Duncan. “Each Aeon free after the first one”, it proudly announces. Zoe Skoulding’s Poetry Wales, filled with risk takers and contemporary boundary pushers, is now the magazine I’d always wished it could be.
Pretty soon the critical studies will appear and the barren and straight-jacketed Welsh past I lived through will appear instead to have been a liberal and prolific period, populated by dozens of Welsh experimenters playing to insatiable audiences. History is malleable. It’s always been so.
An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail #181