Talking to Gillian Clarke is to peek into the poignant world of Welsh poetry, only to find resonances with Indian verse.
It was a conversation that started serendipitously during the Hay festival held in Thiruvananthapuram in November. Yet, my discussion with Gillian Clarke, the national poet of Wales flowed as mellifluously as her poetry.
Was it to do with her gracious, ever-cheerful spirit that engaged every eager writer in animated conversations? Or was it the magic of poetry itself? Perhaps it was a bit of both that made it one of the most inspiring interviews I've ever done.
“If the writers were allowed to speak and the politicians just shut up, we would have world peace!” says Clarke. Strongly moved by the idea of cross-cultural dialogue and oneness, Clarke refutes every kind fanaticism or “any –ism”. However, such triumphant and spirited statements that underline the power of literature are but only a small indicator of Clarke's sensibility.
Clarke who is also playwright, editor and translator, was born in the Welsh capital Cardiff, and perhaps is the first national poet of Wales to write only in English. “I learnt Welsh as an adult… it was not the language of my education,” she says. Clarke's mother had wanted her daughter to become successful and English would help her when she grew up.
The poet recalls how her mother had banned the Welsh language at home and the only opportunity to practise her mother tongue was during drives with her father. I was reminded of Indian literature that is quite often subjected to the ‘English versus regional languages' debate. How relevant it was to talk about the generation whose mother tongue was Malayalam or Welsh but which dreamt or prayed in English.
For Clarke, this dichotomy is especially interesting given how strongly the Welsh feel about their language: “I'm aware of the unease…We were fanatics of the Welsh language!” Even today, the younger generation is doing its bit to promote Welsh, through music and arts.
She strikes a valiant balance between her Welsh roots and her English sensibility in the way her poetry surprises readers with a sudden Welsh word or spelling. It is just not possible to escape the powerful influence of one's surroundings and language, she says.
“I think of her sometimes when I lie in bed,/ falling asleep in the room I have made in the roof-space/ over the old dark parlwr where she died//alone in winter, ill and penniless…/” (From ‘Marged') . The poem is striking for its use of Welsh “parlwr” instead of the English ‘parlour')
Her closeness to Welsh is also exemplified in her role as translator of the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn's poems into English. In turn, Elfyn translates Clarke into Welsh. Elfyn who was also one of the Hay authors at the festival mused, quoting R. S. Thomas, “A poem in translation is like kissing through the handkerchief,” but she quickly added that it was better than not kissing at all! How true.
Play of words
The chemistry between Elfyn and Clarke symbolises for me the relationship between two languages. Clearly, Clarke believes that only a poet who writes in the target language can translate poetry. “When you translate, at times, the metre and rhythm are utterly lost… so, when you lose something, you must make up for it by putting in an extra musical word,” she feels. Quickly grabbing my notepad, she illustrates Welsh and English rhythm by writing a sentence, drawing my attention to the interplay of consonants and vowels.
However, poetry is not just rhythm or iambic pentameter. It is also about feelings and responses to the world around us. Pointing to how personal or public events can influence poetry, Clarke said at a Hay session, “The language that comes to me shivers and trembles with these things that are happening.” The shrapnel born of a bomb blast could, thus, tear through a poem. My conversation with this writer ends. Clarke's responsibilities as a poet beckon and she floats into the next session with zeal. And I'm left with the scribble in capital letters and thoughts she left behind in my note pad: “Fairy Lands Forlon”. It was an invitation to a poignant yet euphoric poetic land.