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Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre- A History

Translations:

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre

 

A History and a Little Bit More

 

The language of Wales is vivid and vivacious. To hear it spoken is to listen to music and to understand it is to be part of a culture that has existed for centuries. There is more to Wales than its language (and I’m not talking about food), Welsh poetry has been influenced and written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd since at least the fifth century.  It is a part of our culture that has evolved directly under the influence of the Welsh language.

 

The cerdd dafod (Welsh poetic forms) and cynghanedd (Welsh metre) remains in use throughout modern Wales, with the most notably example being the annual Eisteddfod. The cerdd dafod comprises of twenty-four poetic forms that involve internal and end rhyme with many stanzas ranging from two to four lines. The cynghanedd is made up of four metres that use alliteration, rhyme and consonantal harmony to balance the sounds within a line. These twenty-four poetic forms and metre date back to when Wales was an independent nation and the courts of the Princes of Wales were informed by the poetic voices of master craftsmen.

 

One of the most famous and earliest examples of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd in Welsh medieval poetry was during the fifth and sixth century where poets such as Aneirin and Taliesin, the great bards of Wales, wrote in these forms and metre. There is no known beginning of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd but it is certain that as the Welsh language evolved Welsh poetry matured alongside it. During the following centuries the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd underwent a critical transformation but it wasn’t to be formally codified until the thirteenth century.

 

The most striking transformation took place during the twelfth and thirteenth century amidst the battle for Welsh independence. Prior to the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, poets were afforded the privilege of being a respected member of court. These poets were known as the Poets of the Princes (‘Beirdd y Tywysogion’).

 

The highest position that a poet could hold in a royal household was that of the ‘Pencerdd’, a literal translation would be ‘master craftsman’. It was a great honour for a medieval poet and the position would have brought with it many benefits as well as responsibilities: through the patronage of his prince, a poet could trust to receive a formal pay structure, swords and other weaponry but, counterbalancing this great luxury, he would have been expected to participate in battles as a warrior fighting by his prince’s side. It is of little surprise that medieval poetry during these centuries focused predominately on the reality of the battlefield, often describing the aftermath with horrific accuracy.

 

When battles were not being waged the ‘Pencerdd’ held a chair in court. Religion and superstition empowered the medieval court poet: they were believed to be able to predict the future (prophecy) as well have a strong connection with God. The ‘Pencerdd’ would use his position to advise the prince; before battle he would declaim a poem to God and another that would honour the prince or his ancestors’. Royal blood in medieval Wales was cherished. Many held the belief that a prince was chosen by Divine rule and by composing verse that praised his ancestors’, the poet was still honouring the living prince. This form of praise poetry is common in medieval Wales with its practise commanding a great deal of respect. That is not to infer that a ‘Pencerdd’ was a corrupt figure, indeed, many were fiercely loyal to their patrons choosing to risk their life on the battlefield. The elegy was a widely used poetic form during this time. It depicted absolute grief at the loss of a patron. The most beautiful example of an elegy poem was written by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch entitled, ‘Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf’.

 

“See you not the way of the wind and the rain?

See you not the oak trees buffet together?

See you not the sun hurtling through the sky,

And that the stars are fallen?

Do you not believe God, demented mortals?”

 

There were two lower positions within a royal court for a poet still learning his craft. The ‘Bardd Teulu’, the literal translation would be ‘poet of the household’; the lowest was that of the ‘Cerddor’, the literal translation would be quite simple ‘musician’. All positions within the household would have had formal and informal duties, although the role of ‘Cerddor’ is not completely known but it is safe to assume that they would have required the ability to play the harp or lyre. The ‘Bardd Teulu’ was one of twenty-four officers at court. He was expected to perform his poetry before battles and to entertain the Queen. The duties of medieval court poets would have included the role of chronicler, oral archivist and entertainer, three vital responsibilities to a society that depended on oral traditions for its religion, history and entertainment (which would have most likely been a concoction of praise poetry, history and morality).

 

A court poet did not originate from a position of privilege although they would have been of noble birth. Their training was long and arduous. If they did develop an attitude of self-importance then they could hardly be blamed. It would take nine years to master the necessary skills to become a court poet and upon completion of training a ‘Pencerdd’ would demand twenty-four pence and the right to the ‘amobr’ (the virginity of the ‘Cerddor’s’ daughter). A court poet would be required to recite extracts from the Bible and famous verses from memory; he was also expected to be a master at composing verse written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd within his head and at the whim of his prince. For all its requirements and demands, a court poet still held an enviably position within medieval Welsh society.

 

After 1282 and the loss of Welsh independence, the Poets of the Princes suffered a great indignation: they became uprooted and dispersed, thrown out of their royal residencies and into the age of the Poets of the Gentry (‘Beirdd yr Uchelwyr’). To survive they began a tradition known as ‘clera’; this demanded that the poet undergo an expedition, wandering from manor to mansion seeking food, coin and anything else that would assist in their survival. These expeditions enabled them to continue receiving the patronage of their princes, now demoted to gentry by English rule, keeping the practise of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd flourishing within Welsh culture. If the twelfth century established the practises of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd, then the thirteenth century defined them.

 

A Little Bit More…

 

The tradition of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd remains vibrant throughout Wales. It is far from being forgotten, evidenced by the continued popularity of the Eisteddfod. My study, entitled Translations: a poetry project, researches how Welsh poetic forms and metre could be used to reconsider, engage and accurately represent the changing cultural identity of modern Wales. It does this through two considerations, firstly, a critical analysis of three relationships: the coastal and industrial landscapes of Wales; Welsh, Anglo-Welsh and English speaking poets; and, mainstream and grassroots publishing. Secondly, the creative response translates the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd into the English language and applies that translation practically in the shape of two poetry collections each with an accompanying epic poem of substantial length.

 

The project has two aims: to engage with a wide readership by promoting the use of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd through myself and modern poets; to discover all the voices that define the modern Welsh cultural identity; to challenge mainstream and grassroots publishing and by doing so establish a national platform where all the voices of modern Wales have an equal representation.

 

The study is in its primary stage and in order to remain loyal to its values and principles, the project researches and experiments with the ideology of direct translation. It uses a Welsh perspective to inform these translations through interviewing Welsh speaking poets who have knowledge of and write in these forms and metre in Welsh and English. My MA thesis, Grandiloquent Wretches (then titled Hiraeth) translated the cerdd dafod into the English language. It is a poetry collection that combines history, mythology and Welsh poetic forms to create an urban fantasy. It doesn’t focus exclusively on Welsh mythology and history; instead, it draws from a wealth of international identities, all of whom live and contribute to the social, economic and culturally wealth of modern Wales.

 

The cerdd dafod’s twenty-four forms are made up of two to four lined stanzas. The collection reconsidered these forms to develop a modern variation that had a more visual relationship to that of a sonnet. This supported the use of poetic devices, such as an octet and sestet, which provided a formal narrative structure. Grandiloquent Wretches achieved this by experimenting with the stitching together of two complementary and, at times, conflicting poetic forms to create a sound that a modern readership would appreciate. For example:

 

Justice*

 

 

Let us just play this arid game,

if we lose then you should not blame

them, you got cocky, let bedlam

dictate where the pious venom

strikes in righteous indignation;

 

 

war sought the tired Thracian

lilt, invoked wrath from lethargy

and called it justice. Liturgy

transformed from sacred to mundane,

fudged fingers gouged out his left brain.

He had cold justice on his side;

least the Imp took the time to chide

 

 

him with keen doe-eyed promises;

justice lobotomises…conscience.  

 

*Poetic form: Cyhydedd Fer (Welsh sonnet).

 

The Wolf’s Honey**

 

 

The rat snatched the wolf’s honey;

sore, he tore its soft, bunny

flesh into a gunny mess, bejewelled

he bugled an umbrae

with sugar-snapped bayonets;

laced with perse, cloud silhouettes

will make the plaster sweat; hope to previse,

incise these mottled webs;

the spider drank flaxen cider,

drunk, the piper used the barrels

to play a sniper’s tune, cipher

tasseomancy from pyre ashes;

hope that it was not your fault.

Suck a lolly dipped in salt,

thwart their strikes with rumour, club her cries

to equalise and escort

her moans with guided patience,

mistake twists for gyrations

of pain, stained laces tremble at the scream,

cetirizine harks, chases

the tussles that burst the bubbles

as convulsions spilt drooling

from silver buckles, sand knuckles

with piteous justice mewling.

 ** Poetic form: two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir; two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir.

 

 

The collection is unapologetically baroque in language and style, revelling in its past through the use of Welsh poetic forms whilst firmly set in the present. Translations: a poetry project places a higher value on a cohesive narrative but it does not deviate too far away from its grandiloquent nature. See the poem below taken from The Silver in the Water, Chapter Three.

 

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather***

 

                                                   Wyled**** curdled the stomach;

                                           Cistern snagged the Bittern co…pse.

                                              Scourge dirge steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; skim milk

                   to the broth,                              froth                 this relief;

        temper                                                     this heather                    charnel****

                                                                                                                           with carrion,
virion******

river

     malingers

       and infers

                                                                                                                          sea.

 

 

***Poetic form: Cynghanedd Sain. Seven syllables per line. The poem uses a rhyme scheme between the first and second caesura of the line; the second bar decides the consonantal harmony for the third bar and third caesura creates a bridge over additional consonants to create a harmony with the two. For example: X X dog | bog | B (N D N) B. The final syllable in the second and third is stressed.
 ****“Wyled” means to deceive or entice; it also means sorcerer.
 *****“Charnel” short for charnel house; associated with death.
 ******“Virion” means the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell.

 

These poems use internal and end rhyme along with consonantal harmony that has been demonstrated by the use of alliteration. Swatches of Empyrean Heather follows the pattern of cynghanedd sain. The writing of Welsh poetic metres has a strong similarity to a line of music: the line is broken into caesuras ( | ). These sections dictate where the rhyme, stress and consonantal repetition fall. See the example below for a visual breakdown of the poem’s structure:

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather

 

                                                   Wyled | curdled | the stomach;

                                           Cisternsnagged the Bittern | co…pse.

                                              Scourge | dirge |steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; |skim | milk

                                                   to the broth,                        |froth |   this relief;

                                temper  |                                                      this heather  |                  charnel

                                                                                                                           with carrion,|
virion |

river

malingers  |

                                                         and infers  |

                                                                                                                            sea.

 

Ultimately Translations: a poetry project ensures that the forms and metre continue to evolve into modernity. Preserved, not like a museum artefact but as a living organism; an organism that is open to failures as well as successes and, most importantly, informed by its history and culture, constantly evolving, harmonising to the needs of its society.

___________

Rhea Seren Phillips is a Ph.D student at Swansea University. Rhea specializes in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd (Welsh poetic forms and metre) and is reconsidering them through the English language for a modern Welsh readership.

Twitter: @MissRheaSeren

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/grandiloquentwretch

Website: https://rheasphillipspoet.wordpress.com/

The Woman on the Other Side – A Review

To purchase the book from Doirepress, click on the image
To purchase the book from Doire Press, click on the image

 

TS Eliot once remarked:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding)

Stephanie Conn’s debut collection “The Woman on the Other Side” is a book of exploration. The poetry invites the readers into a world of fragments, between physical and internal landscapes. The collection is set in various locations and timelines, beginning from the opening passages inspired by the Dutch countryside and drawing a subsequent inspiration from its’ historic painters. However, Conn manages to superimpose her own vision and interpretation onto the paintings and leaves her written version lingering distinctly, like a melodious mid note hanging unobtrusive, in some corner of the readers mind…”He painted the lands lies below -/led us through small windows, into narrow interiors,/half-lit rooms draped with silk and shadow”( Vermeer’s Nether Land). The use of half-rhymes is used masterfully throughout the book to accentuate the significant pause for the readers to appreciate the same vivid details which was emanating from her spurts of inspiration. This reinterpretation is also given to other prominent painters in other locations, such as Chagal who resided primarily in the village of St Paul De Vence in the south of France; “Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/and the winding paths that always lead you back,/how your father held a scythe in his dark hands,/” (The Village)

In a 2016 interview with the Irish Times, Stephanie stated:
“Consumed by grief after my mother died, I felt terribly isolated and poetry offered comfort. The fact others had experienced this pain and survived also gave me hope” and the residue of this haunting grief and the resolve of hope can be seen and felt in the simplicity of lines like “it is June/but the curtains are pulled/and the candles lit/ … in an empty room/a fourteen year old girl/pores over her mothers diary” (Her Diaries).

Desolation and Resolution, a constant tug of war between the senses, ephemeral and empirical, act as a constant motif throughout the book. Attempts to balance between allowing the audience to gaze into her psyche and creating barriers play off each other in a manner that is truly remarkable. In Eclipse for example; “They said it would happen,/warned not to observe the sun/directly. I had been indoors” and “June.Again/ There have been too many/ birthdays and deathdays” (Abacus). The lines mimic the motion of a heaving breath but upon its release, we are left to somehow simmer in its bittersweet resolution.

Stephanie Conn was the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, a prize awarded to her for the poem “Lavender Fields” .The line from the poem that could truly encapsulate the mesmerising quality of this book is summed up here;
“All this grew from a small bag of aromatic seeds”

___________________________________________________________________________

Review by Syed Shehzar M Doja

This review was published in the inaugural print edition of The Luxembourg Review.

Of Rebellion, Genesis and Refuge…

The author writes this article “In Honour of Ashraf Fayadh”…

It is simple enough to recognize the poet as a being, as no glamorous exception to that entity of human flesh. We can, of course, eschew variant cases of Shakespeare or Ovid to whom evidences of actual portraitures are lost. One cannot completely discard the wild possibilities of alien mutations. But then, we merely depict ‘WILD’ to push forth such staggering notion. Somehow, the poet is an embodiment of this curious wildness; and it is, in most instants, not simple to recognize him as such. In other words, it is easy to gaze upon a poet, relish conviction and say, ‘This is a man!’ Yet, it is oft a herculean task to demystify the motif around the next evaluation which is: ‘What sort of man is he capable of being?’

This abstract nexus of inquiry is perhaps the essential gulf that lies between the poet and the poem, between one area of identity and another. It is impossible to probe this space without fortuitous inferences from the primal debate of beauty as a poetic component, of whether knowledge spawns imagination or vice versa. In the case of concrete self, it is the debate of whether the poet breeds the poem or vice versa! Such rumination—as is expected of any serious artist to accommodate—begets resolutions which, in turn, beget the very foundation upon which poetic artistry must be consecrated.

Usually, it is a complex phase, one where the poet either steers away from hubristic overtones as escape from that restrictive sedition for logic or surrenders to intuitive powers and risk self-willed severance from real life. And yet the poet does not, for that reason, fail to distinguish between himself and his energies, between his realm and the realities, or sacrifice his aesthetic independence on the temple of a hysterical and heterogeneous audience. After all, poetry is beauty. Beauty is self-terming. To co-opt Lisa Samuels—perhaps, one of the fiercest critics of the vintage Bysshe Shelley—I like to poise the poet on the same axis with the very nature of beauty. The duo are resistant structures, imaginative structures that present an impenetrable model of the unknown. Beauty, like the poet, is therefore endlessly talk-inspiring, predictive rather than descriptive, dynamic rather than settled, infinitely serious and useful.

In morally fragile societies, while every possible effort is made to thaw the pen, to glaze fissures on that creative cauldron of cosmic powers, poets must understand that the communal journey to conscience is not a smooth passage of rapid rectifications, but prone to  the penchant of cynics and invasion of monsters. A firm reconciliation with one’s own ‘ideo-poetic’ choices is thus imperative to transact the business of identity from external interrogations. That principle of reconciliation is every bit as important as the impulse that nerves the aesthetic faculty. The most passionate impulse has not resolved stylistic instabilities, alienation, lingual dissonance and strictures for the poet, not even essentials such as virtues. How then can anyone answer the question of what sort of man a poet is capable of being, or prescribe limited definitions for his limitless artistry if the poet himself has not asked his heart, reconcile demarcations between concepts and non-concepts?

What gives hope for reconciliation is the very unique capacity of the mind for self-dialogue, and the budding poet must indulge. I use the word ‘indulge’ deliberately, because this act of inquiry is internal and inculcates definite methodologies of questioning. These are found within the precincts of what I term the ‘trilogy of poetic identity’. You must exonerate the overreachingness of that coinage. It is amazing that contemporary poetry has contented itself with merely trivializing established valuations—a blind concession to determinism—since it cannot altogether comprehend the ‘rigidities’ of conceptual forbears. Even within the liberal festivities of contemporariness, it is vital to teach identity, to impart the need for poet and poem to reconcile themselves upon the makeup of rebellion, genesis and refuge.

So, what are these terms? What are these stances? What exactly are their imports and how precisely have they sprung into existence as sole determinants of poetic identity, or say, reconciliation?

Well, there are no superfluous denotations to these except that I, a poet, have only asked myself: why are you a poet? Is it fostered or genetic? Assumed, perhaps? Fortuitous ordainment from an anonymous divinity? A poet should be as fascinated with himself as his audience! That self-impelled curiosity leads to direr revelations: I am a poet because I must be; and because I must be, I must also become a rebellion against life’s reality, a genesis against life’s mortality and a refuge against life’s hostility!

So there it goes – the triple bulwark of inevitable circumstance. Should a poet deform his daily challenges or should his daily challenges form him? Should he be a creator of experiences or should experiences create him? Should he console or be consoled?

The poet only begins to exist—that is, transcend the basic recognition of “being”— after he has answered these questions. I have answered mine.

___

Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: a Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly.