She is one of very few poets to be equally probing and technically sophisticated in both languages? intuitively sensitive to the peculiarities of each ? Ruth McIlroy, Planet
About Gwyneth Lewis
Gwyneth Lewis is one of the most prominent Welsh poets of her generation, and the first writer to take up the Welsh Laureateship. She wrote the bilingual words that front the Wales Millennium Centre, in six foot high stained glass letters, which is rumoured to be the biggest poem in the world. Born into a Welsh-speaking family, Lewis has been dubbed a ‘bilingual virtuoso’ – her first book in English, Parables & Faxes, won the Aldeburgh Festival Prize, and she has since received numerous prizes and accolades for writing in both her languages. She has also written libretti and two much-praised autobiographical prose works: Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression and Two In A Boat: A Marital Voyage.
Lewis studied English at Cambridge before spending six years in America at the universities of Harvard and Columbia, and later completed a DPhil on literary forgeries at Oxford. While in the U.S., she was taught by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky – the latter having said that her poems “form a universe whose planets use language for oxygen and thus are inhabitable”. A self-declared ‘language fetishist’, her poems test the limits and possibilities of their dialectic worlds without straying into abstraction – one always feels the ‘bite of the language’s smoke / at the back of [the] throat’. Each of these poems has a loving, fluent yet jittery relationship with its language, one that pushes and pulls against the traditional forms she employs. Her poems are ostensibly about communication: the ending sequence in Keeping Mum (2003) is concerned with an angel’s message – not only the angel of religious faith, but the “angel” of an unidentified object on a radar screen. And communication is ever a heartfelt, physical – almost erotic – endeavour: her father ‘taught her body by fetishist quiz […] “Dy benelin yw elbow, dy wallt di yw hair’. Zero Gravity (1998) both documents her astronaut cousin’s journey into space to repair the Hubble Telescope, and memorializes the death of her sister-in-law to cancer. (The book was also made into a documentary of the same name for BBC). Her 2011 collection, Sparrow Tree, makes a proto-language from birdsong, to seek out a unified chorus with nature: “One. We are one. We are. One”.
Her reading style in these recordings for the Poetry Archive is supple in its intonations, with an infectious exuberance for the words she uses – Lewis revels, as one might expect, in the various rhythms and idiosyncrasies of her languages. There is joy in the introductions she gives, as, in ‘Welsh Was the Mother Tongue’, she reveals not only the poem’s semi-autobiographical nature, but that it takes inspiration from the French Princess’s learning English in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Her tone is light and patient with the lines’ intricacies. But there is assertion too – confident as she can be in the allure of the poem’s tune, as she directs in ‘Love Poem’: ‘Make your tongue / touch, ever so gently, the back of your teeth. / No. Let me show you. Like this’.
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive at the Soundhouse on 28th April 2014, and was produced by Andrew Branch.
Gwyneth Lewis's favourite poetry sayings:
'that which it is impossible to force, it is impossible
– Marianne Moore, 'Radical'
“My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renwon,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute…
It is no office, art, or news,
Nor the Exchange, or busie Hall;
But it is that which while I use
I am with thee, and most take all.'
– George Herbert, 'The Quidditie'
'a poem of mine is, or should be, a watertight section of the stream that is flowing all ways; all warring images within it should be reconciled for that small stop of time.'
– Dylan Thomas