Hello, Goodbye

It’s easy to forget how innovative Robert Graves was both as a poet and as a critic. He’s best known now for two of his historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and for Goodbye to All That, the memoir that made his name in the 1920s, although there is also The White Goddess, his study of poetic inspiration, as well as The Greek Myths (possibly more bought than read). As a poet, he’s probably better known from anthologies than collections.

The fact that his reputation as a war poet rests more on the prose of Goodbye to All That than on the poetry itself is unsurprising, given that he suppressed the poems — not destroyed them, as he claimed — during the 1920s. They were revived by his son, William, in Poems about War (1988) and one of the great strengths of Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s recent biography, Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895-1929), is that she makes full use of them.

It is well known that it was Siegfried Sassoon who helped Wilfred Owen to escape his Victorian and Georgian influences and write more directly about the War (“the poetry is in the pity”), but Sassoon developed his own plain style under the influence of Graves, in particular his poem, “A Dead Boche”. Graves himself seems to have attributed Owen’s success to shell-shock. In the extract from an article that prefaces Poems about War, Graves says: “The mental rhythm of the typical war neurosis was one of jagged ups and downs: the up-curves represented a despairing nervous energy, which, when converted to poetic use, resulted in poems terrifyingly beyond the patient’s normal capacity; the troughs meant listless, inept melancholia.” This may be true, but unfortunately we’ll never know what Owen might have written had he survived the War.

Graves’ criticism was no less influential. As Moorcroft Wilson points out, it was his emphasis on close reading that stimulated William Empson to write Seven Types of Ambiguity and Graves can therefore claim to be the precursor the New Criticism. The inspiration for his own ideas came from W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist who treated  Sassoon and Owen for shell-shock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh and who also became a friend of Graves. Graves’ first critical book, On English Poetry (1922), developed Rivers’ theory about suppressed emotions and memories from the War emerging in dreams by laying importance on the “underlying association of words, rather than their surface meaning” when analysing poetry. Mark Thompson also touched on the connection in an article about Empson in PN Review (May-June 2017), saying that: “The first links in the chain from Sassoon and Rivers through Graves to Empson seem overlooked by scholars, perhaps because Empson never acknowledged them,” although — as Moorcroft Wilson makes clear — he did acknowledge his debt to Graves himself. The two books in which Graves set out these ideas, On English Poetry and Poetic Unreason (submitted as his Oxford BLitt thesis), were written before his association with Laura Riding, despite her claim to be an originator of New Criticism.

One of the discoveries Moorcroft Wilson has made is of Sassoon’s own annotated copy of Goodbye to All That. But while it’s interesting to read his furious comments, I didn’t find them as revealing as I’d imagined from reading reviews of the book. For me, one of the most illuminating aspects of her book is the extent to which Graves remained part of a family. As far as I recall, his relations were rather written out of his own memoir — in particular, the help his poet father gave him in getting his early work into print, despite Graves’ insistence that his father never gave him any assistance with the poems themselves. It reminded me of Gareth Reeves’ poem, “Bob Tombs”:

‘Difficult being in the poetry biz
with your dad,’ he said to me once

(I didn’t know till then that I was),
‘I had that problem too.’

His father, the poet James Reeves, had been a friend of Graves:

What irked Father was not so much
stooging while the great man

went off with the latest goddess
as that he began to believe his own bunkum.

Speaking of which, I don’t think I’d realised, until reading Moorcroft Wilson’s book, quite how completely bonkers Laura Riding, Graves’s mistress, muse and literary collaborator, actually was. Graves wrote Goodbye to All That partly because he needed money to cover hospital bills incurred as a result of Riding’s having thrown herself out of the window of their third-floor flat in London, when the Irish poet, Geoffrey Phibbs, left the ménage-à-trois she had conducted briefly with him and Graves. “It is rarely that one sees the spinal-cord exposed to view especially at right-angles to itself,” was the comment of the surgeon, Mr Lake, who nevertheless managed not only to save her life, but get her walking again. “How do you know I didn’t invent Mr Lake?” Riding said, when Graves’ sister, Rosaleen — a doctor herself, who had pulled strings to have Lake operate — praised his work. An egomaniac of Trumpian proportions, Riding’s main project had been to try and find a way of stopping time.

Although I was familiar with the story of her attempted suicide (exiting with the words, “Goodbye, chaps”) and of Graves landing unscathed beside her, having followed through a second-floor window, I didn’t know that, not long before, Riding had tried to get Graves’ seven-year-old daughter, Catherine, to jump, sitting with her on the sill and telling her that she could reach delicious sweets, hidden behind the leaves of the tree outside, if she stepped out of the window and let a magic staircase rise to catch her. In the end, Catherine resisted, but kept the story secret until 1993, Riding having warned her that the police would punish her if she told anyone. Moorcroft Wilson says that Riding was fond of Catherine and must therefore have believed her own story. It’s something to ponder, if you’re ever tempted to think there is anything romantic about poetry and madness.

Finally, on a purely personal level, I discovered that the flat where all this took place — 35A St Peter’s Square, in Hammersmith — is just across the road from the place where I take my  daughter for her monthly chiropractic appointments. A small world indeed!

Moorcroft Wilson is working on Graves’ life beyond 1927, so there’s more to look forward to.

E. Powys Mathers

For a crossword compiler to have called himself after the Spanish Grand Inquisitor may seem natural enough to those of us who have a sado-masochistic relationship with cryptic clues and you might imagine that  “Torquemada” himself was a rather austere and ascetic man. In fact, E. Powys Mathers, inventor of the cryptic crossword and the first of only three setters since 1926 of the difficult puzzle in The Observer, was described by one of the people who knew him as being the most benevolent man he’d ever met, although it seems that much of the beaming benevolence was due to drink. Mathers was an alcoholic. He was also bisexual.

In my post about the current Observer setter, Azed, I noted that Mathers was also a poet and that Carcanet had published Black Marigolds & Coloured Stars, a pairing of his first two books. It was, in fact, published by the Anvil Press, which merged with Carcanet when Anvil’s founder, Peter Jay, retired in 2015. Although the book is out of print, I was able to borrow a copy from the (excellent) National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It has an introduction by Tony Harrison, no less, who has been a fan of Black Marigolds since he first read it in the 1950’s and buys up books by Mathers whenever he can. One can see the attraction. Despite their exoticism and occasional tendency towards hyperventilation, Mathers’ translations do have a freshness and directness that gives them a timeless feel.

Black Marigolds — his first book, though printed here after Coloured Stars which appeared in the same year (1919) — is a version of the Chaurapanchasika. There are apparently different sources for this, but Mathers says in his introduction that it is a two thousand year old Sanskrit poem, written by Chauras, while he was awaiting execution in Kanchinpur for his illicit relationship with King Sundava’s daughter, Vidya.

Mathers had only a smattering of Sanskrit and all his Eastern poetry was translated “at second hand”. The original was said to have been composed in the last few hours of Chauras’s life and Mathers claimed “my rendering was finished in 1915, in two or three sessions on a box by the stove in hutments” where he was billeted. Each of the fifty stanzas begins, “Even now”, a phrase which Harrison says Mathers took either from a translation by Sir Edwin Arnold, although Arnold varies the phrase, or from A History of Sanskrit Literature by Arthur A Macdonell. Whichever is the case, it provides a very effective, quasi-hypnotic framework, which Mathers described as “a recurring monotone of retrospection”. It’s a poem that works very much by its cumulative effect, as the poet looks back at the illicit love which has brought him to this fate:

Even now
I call to mind her weariness in the morning
Close lying in my arms, and tiredly smiling
At my disjointed prayer for her small sake.
Now in my morning the weariness of death
Sends me to sleep. Had I made coffins
I might have live singing to three score. 

Coloured Stars, on the other hand, is an anthology of “fifty Asiatic love poems” from a wide variety of sources — linguistic and geographical. The problem is with the reliability of the sources. At least two of the poets whom Mathers “translates” are invented personae: J. Wing, said to be an American-born, Chinese valet; and John Duncan, a lowland Scot, who left Edinburgh after a disastrous love-affair to live the rest of his life with a tribe of nomadic Arabs. Yeats included one of Mathers’ Wing poems, “English Girl”, in his Oxford Book of English Verse. As Mathers was not a linguist, but had “a scholar’s knowledge” of French, his sources for the Eastern poems — other than those he wrote himself — were apparently collections in French translation.

The theme that links the poems in Coloured Stars is love, although there are some good hate poems here as well:

Oh! Leila!
In your heart are three things,

All the yellow cobras of Burma,
All the deadly fungi of Bengal,
All Nepal's poison flowers;

and the Altai warriors in “War Song” seem to be more in love with the accoutrements of war than the charms of their women:

To bodies yielding under the struggle of love
And rearing under the red fire of kisses,
We prefer our horses tricked with silver and gold,
Our horses that yield not beneath us
And bound only at the sight of the blood of battles.

Knowing that Mathers was such a trickster, a non-expert begins to doubt the authenticity even of the poems not written by his alter egos. Take one of the six poems called “Song”, for instance. However highly prized goats may have been in Tibet, did the people there really write love songs comparing the beloved to a goat or goats? It seems a little too much like a cultural stereotype.

Although Mathers went on to “translate” more Asiatic love poems and a version of One Thousand and One Nights, he was disappointed that he did not achieve as much as he wanted to as a writer, something for which his fame as Torquemada failed to compensate him. Anyone interested in crosswords would probably regard it as fame enough, but there is a case for the poems to be better known. Harrison’s own assessment is that: “Mathers, erotic aesthete, cocktail-shaking Chinese-American, honorary Arab nomad, bhang-chewer, Turkish bisexual, tormenting puzzle-setter, was a true if minor poet whose assimilation of Eastern modes should rank with Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound, and whose name and achievements should be much better known than they are.”

Poem: “Armistice Day 1918”

This is a revised (and shortened) version of a poem I had published in the online supplement to the “Requiem: The Great War” edition of Agenda (Autumn/Winter 2014). I am posting it today, a hundred years after the signing of the Armistice. The epigraph is from Sassoon’s poem, “Everyone Sang”. Agenda have used quotations from the same poem for the cover of their recently-published “1918” double issue.

Armistice Day 1918

“the singing will never be done.”
— Siegfried Sassoon

Everywhere people are singing;
dead people are singing.
They sing in black-and-white photos.
They sing in newsreels silent as the grave.
They sing in old letters and diaries.
They sang in memories once.
They’re singing because the war’s over.
They’re singing because the Armistice has been signed.
They’re cheering, waving, singing.
They sing the songs everyone knows —
“Jerusalem”, “Britannia”, “The King”.
They sing music-hall songs.
They sing trench songs the soldiers sang.
They’re here because they’re here.
They’re here because they’ve come through.
It isn’t the war dead singing.
It isn’t the war dead dancing in the streets.
There are strangers dancing with strangers.
They dance together in pairs.
They dance in a line, arms linked.
They skip along, holding hands,
as they do in the Dance of Death.
Light passes through them;
they flicker across the screen.
Listen! There’s nothing to hear —
the sound of dead people singing.

“Cuba” Revisited

Writing in my previous post about the two version’s of Zaffar Kunial’s poem, “Stamping Grounds”, reminded me of an interview that Paul Muldoon gave a couple of years ago to The Poetry Review (Winter 2016). It included a discussion of the poem, “Cuba”, from Why Brownlee Left, which had appeared in an earlier magazine version as “Cuba 1962”. The interviewer, Maurice Riordan, the Review’s co-editor at the time, was sufficiently intrigued by the revisions to have handed a Muldoon a copy of “Cuba 1962” for comment. Both versions were appended to the interview.

In the poem, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Muldoon’s sister arrives home “In her white muslin evening dress”, having stayed out all night at a party. Their father, angered by this and worried about the threat of war, tells her she should make her peace with God. In the confessional, the best (or worst) she can come up with — apart from lying once and being disobedient once — is that a boy touched her. The poems ends:

‘Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest?
Did he touch your breast, for example?’
‘He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.’

The differences between the two versions are seemingly slight. The final version excludes the following lines from the girl’s return home:

She had limped into the kitchen
Holding one sandal at arm’s length
And dropping it into the bucket,
‘I’m sorry, Da. I’ve broken a heel.’
‘That’s not the half of it, I’ll warrant.’

and these from the subsequent confession:

‘How long is it since your last confession?’
‘I’m not right sure. A month maybe.’
‘A queue a mile long to the chapel
And you can’t remember so small a thing?’

Asked about this killing of his “darlings”, Muldoon says he doesn’t know why the changes were made. Riordan sees the them as positive (“There’s a ruthless pursuit of the form.” “Some people would have rested on that first version…”) However, apart from the removal of the unnecessary date from the title, Muldoon himself is less sure (“I’m looking at this first version, thinking it’s not too bad at all.” “It’s not absolutely deplorable. Not in a way that you can see why that was cut ‘because it’s crap’.”) Riordan puts these second thoughts down to the move away from stanzaic forms in his later poetry. But Muldoon, seemingly unable to shake off the question, returns to it later in the interview: “Now I’m looking again at this other version of ‘Cuba’, I’m thinking — it wasn’t that terribly bad. Or maybe my standards are slipping.” “Or changing,” Riordan suggests.

Muldoon ends by saying:

“… As with ‘Cuba’, I’ve always edited things. I could probably do with editing more. In those days, in the late 70s, there were a lot of people around who were reading my poems, and who were helping me with them — which is a fabulous thing to have. The various people in Belfast, and God knows they may have said that’s rubbish, that’s extraneous, cut that. So I think if one can’t edit oneself, one really needs an editor. My wife is an editor and she’s very good. You have to take advice. One can’t trust oneself — it’s just a fact. Once you start thinking that you know what you’re doing and nobody else knows what you’re doing, you’re probably in trouble.”

In spite of this, one can see Muldoon’s point about the original version of “Cuba”. It isn’t at all bad and, in fact, for me the first version reads more naturally than the final, tidied-up poem, the first stanza of which seems a little staged. Given that it is supposedly an anecdotal poem, that counts for a lot, even though in his book on Muldoon, Tim Kendall points out that: “The poem only masquerades as autobiography — Muldoon’s sister is called Maureen, not May, and she is his only, and younger, sister, not his ‘eldest’.” The queue for the confessional is, on the other hand, an actual memory.

Kendall says that the lines about the confessional queue were dropped, because otherwise the priest bullies her so much that he personally, rather than what he represents, appears repugnant. “Cuba”, he says, is a parable of innocence destroyed, rather than preserved, by the sanctimonious codes of suspicious-minded authority-figures. In the same way, you could say that focusing the father’s objections on his daughter’s dress by excluding the more vividly suggestive image of the broken heel also evokes a more repressive society, the objection being as flimsy as the dress itself.

In this reading, the Cuban crisis simply provides the background. However, it is possible to read it as a symbolic parallel to the events in the poem. In the end, the Soviet ships carrying the missiles turned back and war was averted, just as fears about the loss of May’s virginity turn out to have been a false alarm. However, the threat of war was real and for the parallel to work properly the father’s concerns about his daughter need to be real as well. The original version, I think, makes this clearer, the dishevelment suggested by the broken shoe and the father’s “That’s not the half of it, I’ll warrant” giving greater substance to the possibility that more than a heel has been ruptured. In the same way, the detail of the mile-long queue to the confessional emphasises the reality of the nuclear threat.

The poem isn’t written by an omniscient narrator, but by the poet supposedly recalling events from his childhood. Muldoon has to make his sister older than himself, if she is to be able to go to dances in 1962, but this also serves to emphasise his own youth as a witness to scenes which though clear in his mind may at the time have been only partly understood. It is the boy’s innocence rather than May’s that is being lost and the detail of the first version seems to me closer to the sharpness of a child’s recollections.

As far as I know, “Cuba 1962” hasn’t been restored to the Muldoon canon, but reading it helps provide an insight into the final version, “Cuba”.

First Version, Best Version?

Zaffar Kunial’s eagerly-awaited first collection, Us, which has been shortlisted for this year’s T. S. Eliot Prize, includes two poems called “Stamping Grounds (Earlier)” and “Stamping Grounds (Later)”. (One is the fourteenth poem in the collection and the other the fourteenth poem after that.) It’s increasingly common for poets to include poems with the same name in a single collection (two called “Circumnavigation” in Matthew Francis’s Mandeville and two called “The Radio” in Leontia Flynn’s — what else? — The Radio). But these aren’t just two poems with the same — or similar — titles; they are two versions of the same poem.

Poets frequently revise poems after publication. Wordsworth and Auden were notorious for it, as was Marianne Moore. Robert Lowell turned his interim Notebooks into material for the three books that followed. But — scholarly editions apart — it’s rarer for different versions of a poem to appear in the same collection. W. D. Snodgrass, whose Heart’s Needle, about the breakdown of his marriage and separation from his young daughter, inspired Lowell’s discovery of “confessional” poetry, included an account of the process by which he revised the sixth section of the poem to give what he felt was a more honest account, but this was appended more as an afterword.

Poets’ revisions are not always a success. Wordsworth was criticised by contemporaries for working on poems after the initial inspiration had died and Marianne Moore famously pruned back one of her best-known poems, “Poetry”, to little more than a stump: the first three lines and even those shorn of the words, “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”, which gave A. Alvarez the title for his book of essays. In the process, Moore sacrificed the “imaginary gardens with real toads” image, for which the poem is probably best remembered. If not exactly “first thought, best thought”, there is the question of whether a poet’s first completed version is usually the best version.

In the case of “Stamping Grounds”, I have to say, the answer is probably not. Like a number of Kunial’s poems, it’s about making connections as a means of exploring identity and establishing roots. In both versions of the poem, connections are made between the funerals of his mother’s father and his mother, at each of which he threw earth (the “ground”) onto the coffin; between his grandfather’s burial in Polesworth and his mother’s in the Welsh Marches, coincidentally the start and finish of John Donne’s journey in “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”; between the post office, where his mother was brought up (and where there was presumably “stamping”) and “post” meaning “after”; and between his grandfather’s initials and (I am assuming, though it is literally not spelt out) those for a “stamped addressed envelope”.

“Stamping Grounds (Earlier)” is in two sections, almost twice the length of the later poem and written in a generally looser style. It makes extra connections (between the grandfather’s name and the word for “land” in his own father’s Kashmiri dialect and between his mother’s delay in erecting a headstone for her father and his own delay in doing the same for her), but otherwise the material omitted might be best described as extraneous detail.

“Stamping Grounds (Later)”,  which is more sharply focused, is organised into four, six-line stanzas (although both poems use free verse). It’s perhaps worth noting that the slightly prosier, more loosely structured first version has an epigraph from Dickens’ Great Expectations, whereas the tighter, stanzaic second version takes its epigraph from Donne’s Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward. Both poems end with the revelation of the grandfather’s initials, SAE, but the first version describes them as “a kind of ground, or earth / I’d only picked up on today”, whereas in the second version, “it’s like a present / in the post — a coin of earth — held up to this day.”

The latter makes a more coherent image, but — even so — I wonder whether the connection between the initials is really strong enough to support the poem. Poets are, of course, familiar with SAE’s — they’re what rejection slips come in (or more probably acceptances in Kunial’s case — he has been a prizewinner in the National Poetry Competition and winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, as well as a Faber New Poet). They were also more common pre-internet, when people used to “send away” for things. However, you post them yourself as an enclosure; they don’t properly convey the idea, for which the poem seems to be reaching, of a long-lost letter suddenly arriving from the past.

To see the poem’s evolution is nevertheless fascinating and Kunial’s search for connections, linguistic and otherwise, is used to much better effect in poems such as “The Word”, “Hill Speak”, “Self Portrait as Bottom” and the title poem itself. But why did he include both versions of “Stamping Grounds”? Couldn’t he make up his mind, or couldn’t he reach agreement with his editor? I prefer to think of it as a demonstration of assurance gained in the process of writing — a better sense of how he and everything else fits. It may be unusual to revisit the same poem in a single collection, but a stamping ground is, after all, somewhere you return to.

Busty London Escort

Three of the quirkiest poems I have read this year appeared in collections by Leontia Flynn, Ocean Vuong and Richard Osmond, all of which were published in 2017.

The Radio is Leontia Flynn’s fourth book. As well as some fine poems about her childhood in Northern Ireland, I particularly liked her versions of Catullus. Others have appeared in The Poetry Review, so with any luck we may eventually have a full set. Many of her poems use rhyme and the book contains some sonnets, a villanelle and a splendidly McGonagallish “Ode to Moy Park”. There are also concrete and prose poems and three verse dialogues. The most eye-catching, however, is “Poem about all the Space I Told My Husband I Needed”, which — apart from the title — is just a blank page. You can “read” it as representing not only the space she demanded, but also her subsequent inability to fill it. There have been many poems about failed inspiration and some very fine ones (Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode”, Hopkins’ “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend”, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”), but what could be more honest than a blank page? It’s a concrete poem, if absence can be concrete.

Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is the much-lauded debut by a young poet who arrived in the USA at the age of two, as a refugee from Vietnam. Poems in the book, which won the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, deal with subjects such as war and exile, as well as with the poet’s sexuality. They do so with an extraordinary freshness, which may partly reflect the poet’s struggle with dyslexia. One poem, “The Seventh Circle of Earth”, is nearly as empty as Leontia Flynn’s, but not quite. It has the numbers 1 to 7 scattered over two pages, referencing footnotes to an otherwise blank text, the poem being contained in the footnotes. Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell was reserved for those who had committed crimes of violence. “The Seventh Circle of Earth” focuses on the location of the crime and its the victims. Below the title is an epigraph from the Dallas Voice about the deaths of a gay couple “murdered by immolation in their home in Dallas, Texas”, immolation here not in its strict sense of sacrifice, but meaning death by fire. The poem is addressed by one of the dead men to the other among the ashes (footnotes) of their razed home. It is a powerful conceit and one that encapsulates both the marginalisation of gay people in some sectors of society and the idea that a homophobic intent to erase them from the face of the earth has been subverted by the poem’s living on among the footnotes. It ends ironically: “6. … Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still // 7. American.”

After that, it is something of a relief to turn to one of the poems in another first collection, Useful Verses by the English poet, Richard Osmond. No, not Richard Osman, the TV presenter — the poet’s bio says he works as a wild-food forager. The book won the Seamus Heaney First Collection Prize and was shortlisted for the Cost Book Award. Anyone expecting a cross between a self-improvement guide and a book of conventional nature poetry will be in for a surprise. These are intelligent and sophisticated poems by a poet who, as Picador’s blurb says, views flora and fauna through a wholly contemporary lens, involving things such as quantum physics, online gambling and social media.

Unlike the poems by Leontia Flynn and Ocean Vuong, which leave text out, Richard Osmond’s “A Game of Golf” adds a subliminal message in. It concerns a pair of marketing-agency types, one of them the speaker in the poem, who play golf with a visiting client, a neurologist from America. Having not only tactlessly won the game, but then found that their car has been clamped, the speaker hopes “to salvage the afternoon with the promise / of erotic massage”, which he proceeds to suggest to the client, using a technique drawn from an earlier project: boosting the online presence of a network of escort services by curating a blog in which the keywords “busty”, “London” and “escort” were used as frequently as possibly both overtly and concealed like “hidden clues” in cryptic crossword puzzles. This happens not only in the words spoken to the client, but throughout the whole poem, as in “robust Yankee”, “WatermelonDonut?”, or “E-series Cortina”. Whether it worked on the client isn’t revealed. What it might do for this blog remains to be seen.

“The Mabinogi”

I’ve been rereading Matthew Francis’s “The Mabinogi”, which was published last year. It’s his verse rendering of the first four branches (books) of “The Mabinogion”, a mediaeval collection of Welsh, prose tales, themselves a transcription of much earlier oral myths. I’d read a library copy earlier in the year, but bought my own, because it’s a poem I’m sure I’ll return to and because I specifically wanted to read it a second time, having looked again at the original in an English translation I’ve had for years. (Like many people, I was introduced to “The Mabinogion” through “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves’ eccentric exploration of poetic myth and inspiration.)

As Francis says in his introduction, the narrative logic of the tales, with its digressions and ellipses, its reliance on magic and a dreamlike switching between this world and the otherworld (“Unland” in his version), is not like anything we are familiar with in modern fiction and he felt that the very aspects that made a prose treatment difficult could prove a strength for poetry. I confess that when I first read them all those years ago, I found the tales rather hard to take. By contrast, Francis’s treatment of them as poetry really was an eye-opener, prompting me to go back to the originals themselves and see them in a different light.

One of the strengths of Francis’s poem is the economy and deftness with which he builds up a narrative out of a series of elliptical episodes, helped by the use of marginal notes (like those in “The Ancient Mariner”, but more functional), so that the “problems” of the original become an integral part of the poem’s strategy. His version is much shorter than the original. Not only has he made cuts, but he has also changed the motivation of at least one of the characters to  tighten the overall structure. There are omissions you might regret. In my case, it was the episode in which the seven men taking the head of the giant, Bendigeidfran (just Brân in Francis’s version), from Ireland to London for burial spend fourscore years in a royal palace in Gwales (the island of Grassholm, west of Skomer) unageing and in a blissed-out state, until one of them opens the forbidden door looking out towards Cornwall and it all ends with what sounds like the biggest drugs comedown of all time.

Although he teaches at Aberystwyth University, Francis is neither a Welsh-speaker nor Welsh-born and has been accused of cultural appropriation in a recent review in “Poetry Wales”. The reviewer nevertheless admits that it works as poetry and recognises an author’s right to deal with his material in his own way. Although I am only half-Welsh, I don’t see there is a real problem here. There are many examples of poets translating in collaboration with linguists and/or using prose cribs and “The Mabinogi” is not really a translation at all, more a reimagining.

The main strength of the poem lies in its cumulative effect and although individual quotes can’t convey this, I should like to add a few to those picked out by the reviewer in “Poetry Wales”. Take Francis’s description of the giant, when he was alive, a Brân’s-eye view of the world:

… think of the vertigo of standing there
gazing from the parapet of self
he can never climb down from

or Pryderi’s wife and mother, waiting to greet him on his return:

…the two women smiling in the doorway,
all air and light, like unfurled beech leaves

or this description of the sound of a wheat field swishing in the night wind:

a ghostly presence outside, shifting
yet rooted, as if the wind
has been planted there.

When I first read the poem, I began to wonder if I hadn’t stumbled into some mysterious otherworld myself. That same week, The Guardian‘s “Country Diary” had an entry about the Stone of Gronw — a flat stone with a hole in it, Gronw’s ineffective body-armour against Lleu’s spear — and Melvin Bragg chose “The Mabinogion” as the topic for In Our Time on BBC Radio 4. One of his experts was Sioned Davies, whose translation Matthew Francis used in writing his poem. For my next foray into the strange world of “The Mabinogion”, I’ll want to use her version. It sounds more modern in every sense than my Everyman edition, first published in 1949, with its self-consciously antique “thees” and “thous”.