Lynette Roberts (1909-1994), Welsh by name, descent, and election, in fact sprang from far more twisted roots than her association with the Dylan Thomas generation of modern Welsh poets might suggest.
Although her two published books of poetry, “Poems” (1944) and “Gods with Stainless Ears” (1951), were written in the small Welsh village of Llanybri, and weave Welsh scenes, history, myth, names and words into their texture, her pedigree is more that of a second Lisa St Aubin de Teran.
She hailed from “Down Where The Moon Is Small” country, the Welsh community in Argentina, where her father was a prominent railway engineer, and spent her school years and early womanhood in London, only moving to Wales in 1939 after her marriage to the Welsh poet, poetry editor and publisher Keidrych Rhys.
She was also a well-connected and fairly well-known figure in British literary circles of the period, familiar to Dylan Thomas (Rhys’ best man at their wedding), published by T. S. Eliot at Faber, in regular correspondence with Robert Graves, and completely conversant with the styles and work of her contemporaries. Yet her enforced wartime isolation led to a poetry that is as full of a sense of Welsh place as any work that Thomas ever wrote, and arguably far more so than his verse.
Roberts failed to make the transition into the post-war world. She divorced in 1949, and her various literary and artistic projects, including an art gallery in Chislehurst Caves in Kent, failed. A third collection, “The Fifth Pillar of Song,” was rejected by Eliot and never published, and Roberts never wrote again after a mental breakdown in 1956, enduring repeated periods of hospitalization for mental illness (uncannily prefigured in her long poem “Cwmcelyn” with its “Mental Home for Poets”). She later refused to have her work republished, and its revival became possible only recently.
This book brings together just about every significant work written by Roberts, though with an introduction by the editor Patrick McGuinness which occasionally reads as though it has been produced by the Postmodernism Generator:
“her poetry insists on unfamiliarity, estrangement and foreignness as part of the experience of the poem’s meaning, rather than as uncomfortable incidents on the way to clarity.”
This is a shame, because when he drops the PoMo jargon and speaks directly about his subject, McGuinness is actually a pretty perceptive guide to Roberts’s peculiar strengths as a poet: “There is never the same poem twice, and her range – public, private, intimate, free and tightly formal – is remarkably broad.” And his detailed notes neatly contextualize the poems themselves and the imagery and references in them.
For a poet whose diction can often be forbiddingly dense, Roberts can be very direct and personal:
You want to know about my village.
You should want to know even if you
Don’t want to know about my village
And even at its more recondite and modernist, her style usually finds place for vivid personal experience. Look at the opening verse of “Raw Salt In Eye,” recording Roberts’s experience when, as per McGuinness’s notes, “In the summer of 1942 many of the villagers of Llanybri began to suspect Roberts of being a German spy”:
Stone village, who would know that I lived alone:
Who would know that I suffered a two-edged pain,
Was accused of spycraft to full innate minds with loam,
Was felled innocent, suffered a stain as rare as Cain’s.
There are also some excellent war poems; as McGuinness rightly emphasizes, Roberts was one of the best Home Front war poets of World War Two. Here from her notes to the poem “The Circle of C”:
“Dogs of Annwn: The ghosts of dogs, heard and seen in the sky. Invariably connected with Hell and Death omens … I have used this image as an interpretation of the raiders droning over estuary and hill; their stiff and ghostly flight barking terror into the hearts of the villagers.”
“Gods with Stainless Ears,” indeed, is a single multi-part long poem recording the wartime years with compressed, sometimes cacophonous, intensity. (“And engrave the village Llanybri ’42:/For OK saltates the cymric hearth and/BBC blares from Bermondsey tongue.”)
The book also brings together uncollected and unpublished poems, a radio verse play, “El Dorado,” as well as talks on Patagonia and South America. The e-book edition from Carcanet works just fine, attractively designed, with the layout of the poems fully preserved, and one or two examples of Roberts’s own painting.
The rating (3.5 out of 5) is more a measure of Lynette Roberts’s overall stature as a poet than a measure of the book itself: There is a huge amount to savor, learn from and enjoy here. Anyone with pretensions to know British writing of the 1940s should read it.
Buy “Collected Poems” from Amazon.uk (£8.93)
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Buy “Collected Poems” from Carcanet Press (£11.65)