Tag Archives: Wales

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/

An Interview with Gillian Clarke

Born in Cardiff in 1937, Gillian Clarke is The National Poet of Wales since 2008 and a remarkable figure in British poetry. She is a poet, playwright, editor, translator, lecturer and translator. Her work – including Poetry Book Society Recommendations, Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993) and Five Fields (1998) as well as her T.S. Elliot Prize shortlisted Ice (2012) – are emotionally laden with feminism, politics, life events, and are heavily centered around the theme of Place. Clarke is a poet who’s cultural upbringing in Wales shines through her work. Her work is studied in the GCSE and A-Level curriculum and she was on the panel of judges for the poetry competition named Anthologise, where school students aged 11-18 sent anthologies of their own poetry. Her contribution to the arts are widely recognised. She received the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry award in 2012.

Clarke provides The Luxembourg Review answers to questions about life as the Poet Laureate of Wales, the inspiration of traveling and its effect on poetic practice and advice to young poets who are interested in practicing the craft of poetry.


How much does the natural world inspire you?

I live in Ceredigion, 900 feet up, 6 miles in from the Irish Sea, which is visible between hills. We have 18 acres of land, and live several miles from the nearest village. This is our life. Being alive is what I write about. Wales has a low density population, and most of our towns and cities are close to the coast. Even when I lived in Cardiff we were surrounded by the countryside, in sight of mountains, and the sea visible from everywhere I have lived.

Is poetry an extension of our relationship with the physical forces of nature which govern us in our day-to-day experience?

I am sure that is not true. Poetry is art, and like all art, it is about what human imagination makes of what we see, hear, think etc. A main characteristic of being human is our pleasure in rhyme and rhythm, and poetry in its simplest forms (nursery rhymes, song lyrics) is natural to all. Its sophisticated forms are refined versions of human language. It’s word-music?

How important is nationality in defining yourself as a poet as your work can be accessed across the globe by a multitude of cultures?

I am Welsh, and I don’t know a life as anything else. I never think of ‘defining myself’, and did not call myself a poet. Other people did. The attention my nation gives to poetry and poets is supportive and nurturing. My parents (not educated people) had a great love for words, books, stories and poetry, in both langages. However, being Welsh is just one way of being human. The best writers are true to their culture, and are most universal when they express themselves through their own culture. W.H.Auden says:

“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine example, most Irish, most universal. Small countries look outward. Because my work is on the GCSE and A Level syllabus, it reaches wherever English is studied. I receive a steady stream of emails from students all over the world, and I answer them all.

gillian
Gillian Clarke with Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review Shehzar Doja at Chapter 1 bookshop, Luxembourg City.

Do you find that travels away from your homeland – to countries such as Luxembourg and Bangladesh – help your poetry go in new directions? Do you find these experiences pave the way for  new and varied inspirations?

Travel turned my focus from children, home and the domestic about thirty years ago. Every new place is fascinating, stimulating. I am an observer. I write what I know. It’s made me friends in many countries, taught me that the human being is the same everywhere, though coloured by a multitude of cultures, languages, ways of life. I must write from my own version of being human.

In 2008 you became the Third National Poet of Wales. What new challenges has this given you? Has this brought more pressure on you to write your poetry with Welsh readers in mind?

I like deadlines. That goes back to the weekly school essay! Over the past eight years I must have written well over a hundred commissioned poems and poems to support something. The commissioned, or requested poem is a tradition in Welsh culture that goes back to the 6th century. It is a ‘village’ tradition, here in Ceredigion, that poets rise to the occasion, as long as it’s an honourable subject. I write in English, but have ensured that all my public poems are translated into Welsh by a poet-friend whose first language is Welsh. So, on the Literature Wales website the poems appear in both languages. I have several poems placed on buildings, walls, pathways, as part of public places, and I usually use both Welsh and English in their writing –  except the most recently completed work by an artist in a long wall in a car park, in Newport, Gwent, five 6-line verses on the Welsh Chartists. In English.

With social media and online blogs making it simple to share poetry across the globe, do you believe the Age of Information has been beneficial to the poet? Do you think this has saturated the market in a way that devalues the art of poetry?

I don’t use social media, so I don’t see these works. It’s an open space for expression, which is good. It will have no effect on great poetry, and its enduring value. The internet as a tool, an infinite library, is wonderful. As I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and delete all invitations to connect, I can choose my correspondents, and my poets.

Some believe that poetic talents are innate or, at least, the potential is. Many fancy themselves as poets. What is your best advice to aspiring poets?

No, it is education, listening, reading, culture and family that make a poet. Had I been the daughter of painters, maybe i would have been an artist.

In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, what advice would you give young poets look to get their work out there and noticed?

Advice: read, and listen. Be alert to language. Forget being ‘noticed’. A real writer wants to learn and improve, rather than ‘be noticed.’ Submit poems for competitions. Book a week at a poetry course at Tŷ Newydd, our beautiful Writers Centre in North Wales, and be tutored by published writers.

Poetry is an art-form that most people believe they can take on. If someone pens a piece with a bit of rhyme and structure, there is a small potential they can claim themselves to be a poet. If someone were to sit at a piano and hit the keys without any prior instruction, I do not feel they would fancy themselves as a pianist. Do you feel the intrinsic nature of poetry is such that it allows people of all abilities to call themselves poets?

It is because language belongs to all humans, and a love of rhyme etc is a child’s natural way forward. Instead of taking the piano as comparison, take singing. All can sing, though not all are the greatest. If a person wants to write, I salute them, and welcome them aboard. Advice, apart from ‘read’: write to enjoy it, and don’t expect fame, money, publication.

Poetry, including nursery rhymes, seems to be loved in childhood. Poetry is read at life events such as weddings and funerals, through which can they leave a powerful impact. The emotional nature of poetry is not the issue, but people’s desire to read or listen to poetry outside of these contexts presents a significant problem in poetry’s popularity.

This is an out-of date view. If ‘poetry’s popularity’ is a problem. how come so many Literary/Poetry Festivals in Britain flourish – more every year? Why do so many young people contact me, all year round? How are so many readings by the best-known poets sell-out events?

Does modern poetry do enough to connect new readers as well as stimulate the majority of existing readers?

I have no idea. It varies from good amateur to truly great poetry, as all art does. A poet has to write true to herself, himself, and if it is appreciated, that is an extra bonus.  My emails from everywhere, those sell-out events, the two hour queues at Hay Festival signing books, the requests for a poet, special poems for events, buildings, public squares, tell how popular poetry is in Britain. It is a phenomenon, and the envy of many other countries.

____________________

Interview conducted by Nathan Hassall.