7th March 2013, A.B. Paterson Auditorium,
The National Poet of Wales took to her podium, in a cavernous, half-filled space, flanked and dwarfed by two large textile artworks. Her task was monumental; addressing an audience that was unlikely to include many Welsh speakers in Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) and speaking about “The Black Book of Caernarvon”. That was never going to deter Gillian Clarke.
As a prelude to her talk on “The Gododdin”, the poet paints a portrait of her parents both native speakers who elected to bring their children up as Anglophones without any Welsh. Clarke attributes this decision to maternal snobbery. Indeed, she describes her learning of Welsh as teenage rebellion:
and all my lost mountain syllables sing
and her frozen, loosening tongue
Clarke then turned to the oldest-known poetry by anamed poet in these islands, “The Gododdin”. In its written form, the poem dates from between the 9th and 11th centuries, but orally, from as early as the 7th. Containing the earliest recorded reference to King Arthur, Clarke accords it a status “equal at least” to theIliad, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. It is indeed a gold seam. Although held in the National Library of Wales, Clarke rightly terms The Gododdin “not Wales’ possession, in a cultural sense”, but there for the “safe-keeping for all”.
Forging a comparison between this early recorded work and the first utterances of childhood ( a connection reminiscent of themes explored by Helena Drysdale, inMother Tongues) Clarke passionately hammers home the enduring “stability and solidity of language in the hands of poets”: What makes a language work? What keeps it with us? “Poetry remembers with words”. Clarke questions Seamus Heaney’s stated belief that he was driven to write by childhood fear. Was it really fear? He felt it was, she describes instead awe.
Though the comparison is well-made, it is important to recognise that The Gododdin is in no other sense child-like. Its beginnings are unearthed in the Chief Bards’ stories, sung to the harp, not recited, at court. Here we have the formalising of the alliteratively stressed consonantal patterning of Cynghanedd. Even today, it is believed that that structure, with its 24, highly defined metres, is the most sophisticated sound pattern system of any world poetry.
Certainly, it is not the place of this review to decode or transcribe that complexity, but Clarke’s audience understood. Her quotations were wide-ranging, illuminating what in unpoetic hands might have been consigned to the dustiest library shelf. Some resonating examples came from her own most recent collection, others from the giants of Welsh poetry, from Gerald Manley Hopkins, from Dylan Thomas, even from the other side of Offa’s Dyke in Ted Hughes. Carol Ann Duffy regularly returns to the theme of the Cynghanedd. Back in the nursery, we hear “hickory, dickory dock”. Clarke’s argument is expertly wrought: “… thought making its way into physical and rhythmic being.”
Queen Elizabeth I imagined she could subdue the creative, cultural vigour of England’s first colony by replacing Welsh surnames with Biblical names, polished off with a terminal “s”. Here, she was proved eternally wrong. Warm and encompassing, Clarke finished with a smile towards “the etcetera of the terraces” for that weekend’s coming family feud at Murrayfield.
Those privileged enough to hear Clarke later, in performance with our own Makar, certainly heard theCynghanedd sing through Ice. If The Gododdin is truly “not Wales’ possession”, that spiritual generosity also applies to Gillian Clarke herself.