An Old Review
Why have I chosen to reproduce a review I did a number of years ago? There are four reasons. The first is that it was high time I replaced the frivolous BOING!!!, especially since the gimmickry didn't work well with the newer web browsers. The second was that the review itself only appeared in the small-circulation magazine Troglodyte and on the now-disappeared website Poettext. The third is that reviews are an important aspect of writing. I have written very many over the years, yet this is the only review by me on the site. The fourth and most important reason is that the book itself, Welsh Verse by Tony Conran, is excellent and I'm only too pleased to give it another mention.
Translations by Tony Conran Seren ISBN 1-85411-081-0
In one of the more intriguing attempts to define poetry, Robert Frost said that it 'is what gets lost in translation'. As someone who has a particular interest in poetry in translation, I have often been irritated by the accuracy of this pronouncement. And, since Welsh was the language of my family, up to but stopping with my father's generation, I was especially mindful of Robert Frost's words when I approached this volume a few years ago.
How would Tony Conran deal with cynghanedd, the name given to the deft metrical patterns operating within a line of Welsh verse? What would the verse of the semi-mythical Taliesin read like in English? Would ancient verse in praise of this or that minor lord or princeling have any relevance to me today? These and other questions were in my mind when I picked up this book. In myself Tony Conran was always likely to be faced with an unreasonable critic, all the more so if I admit to something of a resentment at having to approach the poetry of my forefathers through translations.
Let me say straight away that Tony Conran has done a remarkable job of illuminating a poetic tradition that stretches back fourteen centuries, of bringing its unique qualities to robust life for readers who have little or no Welsh. Beginning with a scholarly but very readable introduction, Conran brings to us a wide selection of Welsh poetry in translation, from Taliesin writing on the borders of Scotland in what was still at that time a new language derived from old Brythonic, through the times of the prifardd and their cywyddau mawl (poems of praise), and coming right up to date with poets like Alun Llywelyn Williams and Nesta Wyn Jones. Then, too, the appendices are an integral part of the book and not an awkward afterthought: these are the places to look for careful and helpful descriptions of the traditional metrical forms; to find such fascinating scraps of information as the geographical location of Catraeth and the correct name of King Arthur's wife (Gwenhwyfar); and even to find help with basic Welsh pronunciation.
For anyone who already has even a passing knowledge of the traditional forms the pre-eminent question will be 'how has Tony Conran attempted to render them in English?' The answer is the best possible one: he has given priority to the meaning and imagery, but tried to give something of a feeling for form in imaginative and original ways. With non-Welsh forms like the sonnet, for example, he has tried to follow the original in matters of rhyme scheme and line length. With the Welsh free metres, he has where at all possible used the Welsh schemes in his translations, and elsewhere tried to find a roughly equivalent English scheme. His greatest challenges came from cywydd and cynghanedd. In the case of the former, he has adapted an Irish form, the deibhidhe, which uses couplets of seven-syllable lines, to achieve a reasonable compromise between metre and cadence. In the case of the latter, he has realised the danger of producing tongue-twisters, and only used cynghanedd to anything like full extent in single lines, as in the last line of this englyn written by Euros Bowen of Dylan Thomas:
He had harvested the poem's familiar tips
Till his two lips were red;
Truth on the grapes, till, drunken,
He fell dead; widowed the wine.
Not all readers will be interested in form and such matters as the adaptability of the englyn for writing in English. For them, there is much in the way of content. A poet like Dafydd ap Gwilym, writing in the fourteenth century, speaks more clearly to us through Conran's translations than do many writers of today. Take his mock-lament to The Ladies of Llanbadarn, which begins:
Plague take the women here -
I'm bent down with desire,
Yet not a single one
I've trysted with, or won,
Little girl, wife or crone,
Not one sweet wench my own!
I'll look at the alabaster statue of Dafydd ap Gwilym in Cardiff City Hall a little differently from now on.
Even the cywyddau mawl, which might appear to belong to ages past and so be irrelevant today can have a special kind of interest. When Dafydd Nanmor, in Praise of Rhys ap Maredudd tells us that:
He buys the drink from the vineyards - rich
Over the South waters
Eighteen loads, and still there's eight,
Eighteen ships full of winecasks...
it means just that little more when we realise that the number eighteen is chosen not for factual accuracy but to represent plenty: 'eighteen' is deunaw - twice nine - or twice the number of fullness, thrice three, the number in the trinity. At all events, this was a remarkably rich consignment to land at the little port of Tywyn.
Space prevents me from giving further examples. I'd love to quote lines from poems like Thomas Gwynn Jones' Argoed, or from The Moment by Waldo Williams, or even bring in something harder-edged like The Deluge by Saunders Lewis. Instead I'll just say that this book holds treasures in plenty - deunaw - for a host of potential readers. For anyone with an interest in poetry, especially anyone with an interest in formal poetry who might wonder if forms like the englyn can be used in English, its attractions should be obvious. But for anyone with any kind of interest in Welsh culture who may find the linguistic aspects of Pura Wallia a little intimidating, and dare I say especially those on the other side of Offa's Dyke, this book is a must.