In Pontneddfechan, head of the Neath Valley, out in the fields beyond where the frosts grip in any usual winter stands Glynmercher Isaf. Poet’s cottage. Built on a ley line that runs from the standing stones on the top of the Brecon Beacons, through the grave marker on the Roman Road of Sarn Helen to the Christian sites of the valley itself. A place of strange power. Here lives Chris Torrance, bard, Welsh resident since the 1970s, and an inspiration to hundreds. Yet in this age of rampant everything and massive permanent availability he’s still without the Torrance Collected Poems he so richly deserves.
Chris Torrance, Carshalton Beatnik and Bristol hippie, has been working the mystic for as long as I can remember. His open and engaging poetry has appeared in pamphlets and small collections sporadically through the decades. He’s a champion of the open field, a way of writing derived from North Carolina’s Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson, Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley. Here the finished poem is not the end. Rather each line is poem itself. The sound of speech is vital. Engage in immediate perception and then move on.
In a world constrained by form and addled by convention Torrance’s poetry is a liberation.
For years he inspired others with his series of Adventures in Creative Writing classes taught evenings at Cardiff University. Pupils would come back year on year for the sheer enjoyment of using the Torrance method, of finding themselves able to write without fear of rejection or failure.
A decade ago the classes failed, a victim of steadily increasing regulation and budgetary constraint. When we have something great going for ourselves in Wales we usually manage to mess it up. Could we find a way of accommodating Torrance’s brilliant but eccentric approach? No. He retired and retreated to his National Park cottage and the open skies.
His lifework is The Magic Door, a sequence, written sporadically over a period of some 35 years. Citrinas. The Diary of Palug’s Cat. The Book of Brychan. Slim Book / Wet Pulp. The Book of Heat. Path. Loosely autobiographical. Rich with Arthurian legend, Welsh mysticism, Egyptian mythology, stretches of geology, weather watching, personal loves and losses. There’s a touch of Ginsberg, Pound, and of Gary Snyder in the Torrance approach. But mostly it’s him.
And despite celebrations put on by William Ayot at On the Border in Chepstow and a rich cult fan-base you still can’t buy him in Waterstones. You need to watch the small presses and pounce when something comes out. There’s another opportunity soon. Working with guitarist Chris Vine and in his PoetHeat poet and rock band persona Torrance releases a new CD titled RORI. The launch is at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 23rd February, 8.00 pm.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #184