Sunday, 26 December 2010

Gillian Clarke, Ceridwen of Wales

Congratulations to Gillian Clarke, who has been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Long overdue. Selected by a committee recommended by Carol Ann Duffy, this is another example of Duffy's generous drawing of attention to poets other than herself. The plethora of wonderful modern carols (poems to be set to music) published in the Guardian pre-Christmas,is another example and her invitation to poets for war poems, also published by the Guardian, which marked the beginning of her poet laureateship. But back to Wales' poet laureate or Welsh National Poet as they call it there.

You can read Gillian's biography, about her tireless work visiting schools promoting poetry writing, her work for Ty Newydd, the Welsh residential writing school, her public work as Welsh National Poet and listen to her mellifluous voice on the Poetry Archive or read some poems online via her website. (See links below.) The full story via the Guardian:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/24/gillian-clarke-queens-gold-medal/

I want to add some personal memories here in my journal/blog.

Gillian was the first poetry tutor who taught me how to pare down my poems. From a scrambled, rambling mess of notes, I spent several days drafting and redrafting the one poem until a tight, tiny version of itself emerged. It was during a long weekend in Southern Snowdonia in a former hunting lodge owned by the National Trust, built entirely of wood, with no electricity, cooking on gas and lit by candlelight, the day spent in poetry workshops or sitting in the window-seat with one to ones with the tutors or redrafting looking out over the solitary landscape of upland moors below Cadair Idris and the cloud shadows trailing over the mountains and lake, Llyn Cregennen.

They say about Cadair Idris that if you spend the night on it, you will come down mad or a poet.
Cadair means 'chair' and Idris was a giant. We were full of the Welsh myths and legends and the Tales of the Mabinogi (which I learnt is more correct Welsh since 'The Mabinogion' is a nonsense, an anglicization by Charlotte Guest who translated these epic poems in the 19th c.) I had already read Guest's versions and was fired up by the myth of Ceridwen, the witch or alternatively the goddess of poetic inspiration who left her servant, Gwion in charge of the cauldron where she was brewing a magic potion which would give the gift of wisdom to whoever drunk it. Intended for her ugly son, Bran (which means 'raven'), it is, of course Gwion who, being spattered by a drop as he stirs the cauldron, licks his finger and so gains the knowledge. ..after a long story he is eventually reborn as Taliesin (which means 'He of the shining brow) and became the first known Welsh poet. No wonder my idea of Ceridwen and Gillian with her long flowing silver hair got mixed up in my poem!

Amongst other writers there were Helen Simpson (the short story writer), and poets now making their mark: Angela Morton and Gwyn Parry who has now moved to Ireland and is published by Salmon Press.

This was back in the 80's, before Gillian was as well-known as she is today. My friend and colleague at Pimlico comprehensive, Barry Simner, (now poet and TV script writer) who was then Deputy Head of the English Department, asked me if I would like to spend the Easter break in the wilds of Gwynedd, Wales on a residential poetry writing course to be run by Gillian Clarke, Gerard Benson and himself. Gerard and Barry had run similar courses together before but they had decided they needed a third. A poet with mud on her wellies was the obvious candidate, since Barry who was a keen outdoor type, and mountaineer, wanted to incorporate walks and visits to beauty spots or places of historical interest to inspire poetry writing.

To get to the isolated hunting lodge (which to the shame of the National Trust has now been pulled down) we were met at Fairbourne Station by a landrover which would transport our luggage. We then walked several miles to the lodge over the upland moor and via a tunnel through rock which led to 'the blue lake'. Emerging into day light and the gem-like blue of that water (some kind of chemical - I can't remember what) was an extraordinary experience. (A bit of drama foreshadowing Barry's career as a TV drama scriptwriter?)

I went on a second course run by Barry and Gillian at Celmi (Welsh for 'sheltered place'), a 16th century manor house overlooking Cadair Idris from the other side of the mountain but from a valley floor, the Dyfi valley near Llanegryn, Tywyn (Gwynedd, Mid-Wales). This time we went on more walks including Llewellyn's castle in that valley. Hearing Gillian recite her first draft of her poem about that visit was a salutory lesson in itself - comparing hers to my paltry efforts. One of the most memorable of her poems was about a peregrine falcon swooping for the kill. I had not been on that particular walk but I heard everyone talking about it and so it was magic to read the poem later when it was published. The fact that you could start a poem on the spot about what happened to you, a direct experience, was new to me.

My third experience of Barry and Gillian's residential course was at Llanthony (near the Breckon Beacons) in South Wales. We stayed in the former smithy and visited the abbey. A very different setting from the open skies of the upland moor below Cadair Idris. This is a narrow enclosed valley overshadowed by woods and also with the mystical feel of an ancient holy place, but the shadow of violence: the destruction of the abbey, the burning of Walter Savage Landor's house by the locals (he was seen as an English colonial upperclass interloper) and the weird enclosed artists' community founded by Eric Gill with incestuous goings-on. The poet, David Jones was also a visitor here.

Again, a workshop assignment meant we were all writing about the same experience - details I also included in my poem, also appeared in Gillian's but again with what a contrast! I was not silenced by this experience, though possibly humbled - on the contrary, I had experience of early drafts, what was left out, what was developped and so this was enabling. OK. So how is it done, has always been my reaction to others' wonderful poems. That is a credit to Gillian (and Barry) as tutors. The idea of going out in the landscape, writing poetry almost as a journal experience, the physical, sensuous image capturing the felt experience but also harking back to memories or history, this is something I learnt on these trips and which I try to recapture still in my own poetry and when running my own courses.

On an even more personal note, I have Barry and Gillian to thank for introducing me to the area surrounding Cadair Idris, for this experience is the reason why my then partner (husband yet to be) and I when debating where to live together, decided to settle in a nearby valley- and thereby hangs a tale (13 and a half years in Wales).

http://www.gillianclarke.co.uk/home.htm

Gillian Clarke reciting some poems:
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=1507#

2 comments:

Kathryn Gray said...

It is indeed wonderful news. As well as being a gifted poet in her own right, Gillian has long been a generous supporter of – and friend to – new poets, as well as being a tireless advocate of poetry in an age that so often ignores it. It's also great news for Wales, too!

Stephanie Green said...

Thanks, Kathryn. Bendigedig yn wir.

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