THERE SHE BLOWS! New Welsh Writing

Rediscovering a Modernist Classic: Lynette Roberts (1909-1995)
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Lynette Roberts. Photo courtesy of Angharad Rhys.
Roberts book cover_1511
Carcanet: Lynette Roberts Collected Poems
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Lynette Roberts. Photo courtesy of Angharad Rhys.
Patrick McGuinness
The Argentine-born Welsh writer Lynette Roberts published two collections of poems as dramatic, varied, and innovative as any experimental poetry written in the twentieth century in English. T.S. Eliot, her friend and editor at Faber, praised her work and encouraged her poetic ambitions, publishing her two books of poems in 1944 and 1951. Roberts Graves, who drew on her expertise as he researched for The White Goddess, wrote: 'Lynette Roberts is one of the few true poets now writing. Her best is the best'. Her friends included Edith Sitwell, Alun Lewis and Wyndham Lewis, and Dylan Thomas was best man at her wedding. She broke off her engagement with Merlin Minshall (racing driver, spy and self-confessed model for Ian Fleming's James Bond) and married Keidrych Rhys, the flamboyant magazine editor and man of letters, in Llansteffan, on the West Wales coast, in 1939. The couple lived in the small village of Llanybri, the setting of Roberts's finest poetry, throughout the war, and had two children, Angharad (in 1945) and Prydein (in 1946). Roberts's first collection, Poems, appeared in 1944, when she was thirty-five. A second, Gods With Stainless Ears, subtitled 'A Heroic Poem', came out in 1951. By her early forties she had stopped writing, become a Jehovah's Witness, and took no further interest in her work or literary reputation. By the time of her death in 1995 in Ferryside, only a few people had heard of her. Her poetry, out of print for nearly half a century, was unknown beyond a small circle of poets and critics, though Roberts had become something of a cult among the avant-garde writers of Britain and America.

The opening poem of Poems, 'Poem from Llanybri', is a welcome-poem to soldier and fellow-poet Alun Lewis:

If you come my way that is ...
Between now and then, I will offer you
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic red with dew
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank

In the village when you come. At noon-day
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a 'lover's' spoon and a chopped spray
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,

In the old way you'll understand. [...]

This poem celebrates community, both in the village, here described for its uniqueness, and within the circle of poets. It takes pleasure in the Welsh words and phrases - 'cawl', 'savori fach' and place names such as 'Cwmcelyn' - but also in the Welsh speech-patterns that make their way into English: if you come my way that is .... 'Poem from Llanybri' celebrates poetry both as living language and as heightened, ceremonial language. It is fresh, direct, seemingly artless in its tone; but even as it is powered by future verbs, it is reaching back, to the 'old ways', the old customs. It asserts continuity of tradition, speech and community: 'Can you come? - send an ode or elegy/ In the old way and raise our heritage'. That small word, 'our', is revealing too: Roberts was born in Argentina, educated at art school in London, and had been in Wales, married to a Welshman, less than two years. Though her parents' families, Australian for generations, had originally come from Wales, she was Welsh by choice and cultural commitment. Her poetry reveals a marked interest not just in the developments in American and British poetry of the period, but in the Welsh-language poetry tradition - Welsh strict metre forms influence her own attitude to sound and rhythm, and she models several of her poems on the Welsh englyn.

Poems marked Roberts out as a poet of startling originality. In the dustjacket notes to her first book, Poems, TS Eliot wrote:

She has, first, an unusual gift for observation and evocation of scenery and place, whether it is in Wales or her native South America; second, a gift for verse construction, influenced by the Welsh tradition, which is evident in her freer verse as well as in stricter forms; and third, an original idiom and tone of speech.

Just how original Roberts's poetry was became apparent with the publication of Gods With Stainless Ears, a great modernist war epic. Briefly put, Gods with Stainless Ears tells, through 680-odd lines of mainly five-line stanzas, prose 'arguments', epigraphs and notes, a dreamlike war narrative of shifting perspectives and time zones. Set around the West Wales Coast, its protagonists are a man and a woman - the 'soldier and his girl' - and the poem fuses the mythical and the futuristic modes to extraordinary effect.

'The subject is universal, and the tragedy one of too many', Roberts writes in her preface, the language composed of 'congested words and images, and certain hard, metallic lines':

when I wrote this poem, the scenes and visions ran before me like a newsreel. [...] But the poem was written for filming, especially Part V where the soldier and his girl walk in the fourth dimension and visit the various outer strata of our planet.

Roberts was not the first to imagine poetry and film joined - Auden and Britten had collaborated in the mid-thirties on GPO films such as 'Night Mail' and 'Coal Face' (1936). Though Roberts may certainly have learned something from their approach, theirs was a collaboration: Britten wrote a score to accompany lines by Auden which are no more or less intrinsically 'filmic' for being written for film. Film was for them part of the medium; for Roberts it was part of the conception. In an unpublished reminiscence we get an insight into what Roberts had in mind:

We spoke of the next war... I suggested that during that no doubt people would attend films of poetry with unseen voice as opposed to the poetry reading [...] I said I hoped poetry would soon be filmed.

This idea of the 'unseen voice' fits well with the narration of Gods - the poem is told by the woman, from inside and outside her own story, while the prose 'arguments' at the beginning of each section are impersonal and have the scene-setting function of script or screenplay directions. The poem opens with a sort of poetic tracking shot:

To-day the same tide leans back, blue rinsing bay,
With new beaks scissoring the air, a care-away
cadence of sight and sound, poets and men
Rediscovering them. Saline mud
Siltering, wet with marshpinks, fresh a slime stud

Whitening the fields, gulls and stones attending them;
Curlews disputing coverts pipe back; stem
Plaintive legs deep in the ironing edge, that
Outshines the shale, a railway line washed flat,
Or tin splintered from a crab-green cave.

This is Saint Cadoc's Day. All this Saint Cadoc's
Estuary: and that bell tolling, abbey paddock
Sunk. - Sad as ancient monuments of stone.
Trees vail, exhale cyprine shade, widowing
Homeric hills, green pinnacles of bone.

There is something radically modern, almost futuristic, about Gods with Stainless Ears - Roberts's work stands out for its originality of conception, its bold and experimental use of language, and for its conviction that the present is as dramatic, extreme and finally as heroic as anything to be found in the world of myth and legend. Here for instance the poet-narrator, a machine-age Penelope awaiting her warrior lover, is at the sewing machine:

... My own work slightly below him. In
Sandals and sunsuit lungs naked to the light,
Sitting in a chair of glass with no fixed frame
Leaned to the swift machine threading over twill;
'Singer's' perfect model scrolled with gold,

Chromium wheel and black structure, firm on
Mahogany plinth. Nails varnished with
Chanel shocking! Ears jewelled: light hand
Tipped with dorcas's silver thimble tracing thin
Aertex edge: trimmings, and metal buttons

Stitched by hand. Slim needle and strong sharp
Thread. Coats' cotton twist No. 48. Excelling always as
Soldier shirt finished floated down to earth,
But cold at night. We wrapt our own mystery
Around us; trailed in cerulean mosquito nets

As kale canopy lifted from cooler zones below...

By 1948, the marriage with Keidrych had broken up. Lynette left Llanybri and moved temporarily to a caravan in Laugharne, the village that inspired Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood'. Her address, written at the bottom of several of her unpublished poems, was 'The Caravan, The Graveyard, Laugharne'. The couple divorced in 1949, and she returned to London. She had put together another full collection, The Fifth Pillar of Song, containing eighty-odd pages of new poems, which was sent to Eliot in 1951. It was never published, and Roberts stopped writing poetry soon after. She published her last book, The Endeavour, a novel about Captain Cook, in 1954. Eliot judged her final poems to be uneven and underworked, but several of those intended for The Fifth Pillar are worthy additions to her published work. In 'Brazilian Blue' for instance we find Roberts returning to the more limpid, conventionally lyrical mode of her first book:

If I could create one tree
And hang it in the sky
And spray it with the living
Gold of the sun, and hold
The natural pattern of its growth,
I would say that I had done
More than enough.

But observe when the sun
Has set against the black
Edge of the leaves,
How other leaves seem
To drift from one
Branch to another, or
Were they birds against
This darkwinged Brazilian sky?

Wings that edge the
Sao Paolo woods.
This flitting by,
This sudden appearance,
And inconsequence of time,
Is the moment I would
Hold before you;
Tomorrow evening it will
Have gone.

In 1955-56 Roberts set up the Chislehurst Caves art project in Kent, which ended after an accident in which a cave ceiling collapsed and seriously injured the sculptor Peter Danziger. In 1956, and partly as a result of the project's failure, Roberts had a mental breakdown, and later that year, while still recovering, Roberts became a Jehovah's Witness, and remained one for the rest of her life. In 1970 she returned to Llanybri, moved to Carmarthen, and then, in 1989, settled in Towy Haven residential home in Ferryside, overlooking Llansteffan on the other side of the bay. In December 1994 she fell and broke her hip while dancing, and later had a heart attack in hospital. She died of heart failure on 26 September at Towy Haven, and was buried in Llanybri churchyard. Her gravestone reads simply: 'Lynette Roberts Poet 1909-1995'.

In her commitment to describing the life of women, she shares something with the great women modernists such as Mina Loy and Hilda Doolittle. Her poetry deserves to stand alongside the work of Pound and Bunting and Eliot, but perhaps the only Welsh writer to whom she can be compared is her fellow epic poet David Jones, whose work she knew and admired. A new edition of her poems, including her two published books and several dozen unpublished poems, appeared from Carcanet in November 2005, edited and with an introduction by poet and critic Patrick McGuinness. Her prose, including a war diary, an autobiography and uncollected or unpublished articles and memoirs, will appear, also from Carcanet, in 2007. Her republication is a major addition to our understanding of the British modernist tradition, and to Welsh poetry's contribution to it.

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