Welsh poet at Stanford: Small languages make a big difference
Gwyneth Lewis, Wales' first national poet and now a Humanities Center fellow, discusses language, poetry, bilingualism and hummingbirds.
Until she went to Cambridge University at 18, Gwyneth Lewis seldom had cause to speak English; her native language is Welsh.
Her mother tongue became a lifelong passion. She has the distinction of being Wales' first national poet from 2005 to 2006.
The award-winning author has published six books of poetry in Welsh and English. Her newest offering, the book-length poem A Hospital Odyssey, will be published this month by Bloodaxe Books in the U.K.
Lewis is now the Arts Writer/Practitioner Fellow at the Humanities Center, working on a scholarly survey, drawing on Celtic, English and American poetry to explore the effects of meter and rhyme on the body. She spoke to Cynthia Haven about the Welsh language, bilingualism and the second language – English – that she once described as "like having a bath wearing socks."
On my first trip to Wales recently, I was surprised at how vibrant the Welsh language is. I had thought it was kept mostly as a tourist attraction, and didn't realize how much it's a living language.
'Tis a living language. It's difficult to appreciate till you go into a shop and hear everyone speaking Welsh.
I was brought up speaking Welsh in Cardiff, in south Wales. Until I was 18, I didn't speak very much English at all. Even though I had classed myself as an early bilingual, there's always a primary language, and always a second language. I think that must be hard-wired into the brain.
How would you compare the two languages?
They're completely different, although they are both Indo-European. They sound nothing like each other. It's quite disturbing for a poet because the metrical patterns are different. English is largely iambic, and Welsh is anapestic. The two rhythms are quite contradictory to each other.
How would you describe the sound of Welsh, for those who have never heard it?
The Welsh, perhaps, is a more subtle, musical sound.
They're spoken with a different part of the mouth and the voice. The Welsh has soft consonants, but a lot of consonants. It has a softness going around the corners, whereas the English tends to make the road straight by force.
While at Stanford, Gwyneth Lewis is working on a scholarly survey, drawing on Celtic, English and American poetry to explore the effects of meter and rhyme on the body.
Welsh has a system of mutations at the beginning of words, so the words, when they rub up against each other, they rub some of the molecules off. They soften each other, so there's very little friction between words. It's a consensual language. It's a language that's used in a small society. People in small societies have to get on. They can't assume they won't see each other again. I think that's reflected in the language.
You know what W. H. Auden said: "I love Italian, it's the most beautiful language to write in, but terribly hard for writers because you can't tell when you have written nonsense. In English you know right away."
I think there's something to that, because the music of the language can carry you away.
Its strength is always its very weakness. That rationality in English is one of its limitations as a poetic language. Whereas the musicality of Welsh – as with Dylan Thomas, for example – is also its downfall.
I like to think and be musical. That's an ambition that is a composite one, from both traditions together.
What are the chances that Welsh will survive as a language?
The rate of decline has declined.
That phrasing is always inauspicious.
What's happened in my lifetime is that the language has become a medium for education, which has put up the numbers, but has changed the kind of Welsh that's being spoken. It's moved from the home to the classroom. For a language to survive, it's got to be spoken by men and women in bed. That's when you have them bringing up children in that language.
Now, I haven't done the figures on that …
You have said that there's a third place between two languages, and that's the place you write from.
I must have been feeling pretty mystical when I said that.
What is that place?
It's not a place that is actually solid land. It's the scramble between knowing what you want to say and not knowing. And the very process of using language, any language, is that. But when you have two languages in play, it becomes a slightly larger surface area, and a more interesting one because the likelihood of defeat is larger. At the same time, you have twice as many words to use as a handle on the world. So you have twice as much fun with language.
This is also something to do with metaphor. Because metaphor is a form of translation – which is a form of travel, again. For me, it's always about going out from what's known to what's unknown – and then making that a known place and then moving on. It's a horizon, always receding the closer you get to it.
You've said, "America helped clarify bilingualism for me, but it was immensely painful."
America was neutral ground.
If I had stayed home in Wales, the pressure not to write in English would have been intense – it was intense.
But to stay in England? Some English people are very Anglo-centric – I'm putting this kindly – and don't value the Celtic languages and wouldn't take seriously a writer in Welsh. This has changed in recent years.
In America I found that people took it much more seriously that I was trying to write in Welsh. I think I might be the only person admitted to the Columbia graduate writing division with poems written in Welsh. That meant a great deal, to be taken seriously in that way.
Because it was not considered a big deal, there was no need to defend a nationalistic position, which wasn't quite one I felt comfortable in. It made it suddenly possible to experiment and play in English.
But painful, why?
Oh, well, very painful because of questions of instinctive loyalty to your mother tongue and that society, and the fears of being called a traitor, which you would have been at that time.
Auden wrote of Yeats, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." And you?
I've had a good quarrel with myself – that's another good definition of poetry, isn't it? That it comes out of quarrels with ourselves. I've had a humdinger about language and about loyalty, and the limits of loyalty. You could say that part of a poet's job definition is to be disloyal to all the usual things, when you are writing as a poet. Doesn't mean you have to be disloyal to them, personally. It's part of the convention-busting that you need to get a freshness of images and rhythm. If you are going to toe any kind of party line you are unlikely to be stylistically any good.
You've said these tiny languages are important beyond the circle of their native speakers.
That's because the fate of any language, even if you don't speak it, is important to the whole ecosystem of eloquence. It matters desperately because it covers a certain surface area of experience which no other language can cover.
Nobody is going to speak all the languages in the world, but as a total, it gives the maximum contact with reality possible. Any diminution in that is a serious liability for us as a race.
We should be concerned about these mass extinctions of languages. Too often, it is regarded as a minority interest. It's going to impact us all eventually.
What would you advise kids growing up in these minority languages?
The more languages you have, the better, simply because you have more purchase on your experience and consciousness. And you need every form of address possible to the world. So I would say, "Don't abandon these languages!" Hold onto them. There's no contradiction at all between being multilingual and assimilated well into society, whichever language is dominant.
You've described "the feeling that what you value and cherish most" is not valued by the rest of society. Examples?
The idea of having a craft, a lifelong discipline which is not rewarded financially – that means you are pretty out of step. The valuing of attention and taking time to understand oneself in relation to language – that isn't valued, in general. Silence. Valuing everything that conspires to help you with these difficult questions. Not being "up" all the time. There's a kind of conspiracy that says that you have to be rah-rah all the time – that's not the reality of my experience; there's a value, also, in feeling oneself to be broken.
One last question: You've written about hummingbirds since you came to California. Has the enchantment palled?
I adore them. I just can't get over them. It's not wearing off.
They're enchanting. We don't have them, which is why they're such a big deal. This is really my first introduction to them.
I think of them as the poets of the avian population, because they have very high energy requirements, so these delicate but extremely tough creatures do the most breathtaking things – but they come at a cost. Energy is a finite thing.
From Lewis' Chaotic Angels (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)
Prologue to "Zero Gravity: A Space Requiem"
(Dedicated to the memory of Lewis' sister-in-law Jacqueline Badham (1944-1997) and to commemorate the voyage of her cousin Joe Tanner and the crew of Space Shuttle STS-82 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope (February 1997))
We watched you go
in glory: Shuttle,
The one came back.
The other two
went further. Love's an attack
on time. The whole damn thing
us with our count-down days
still more than zero.
My theme is change.
My point of view
ecstatic. See how speed
transforms us? Didn't you know
that time's a fiction? We don't need
it for travel. Distance
is a matter of seeing;
faith, a science
of feeling faint objects.
Of course, this is no
consolation as we watch you go
on your dangerous journeys.
This out of mind
hurts badly when you're left behind.
Don't leave us.
We have more to say
before the darkness. Don't go. Stay
a little longer. But you're out of reach
already. Above us the sky
sees with its trillion trillion eyes.
Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, firstname.lastname@example.org