I found myself looking at David’s work as a whole, wondering what it is that makes it different. I began with what is perhaps his best-known poem—Talking to Lord Newborough—and read it quietly aloud, pleased with the easy diction and unforced metre. Because I live in Wales and have become familiar with the language, I read the name of the village, ‘Maentwrog’, without faltering. Its two outer syllables rocked gently, balanced either side of the central ‘too’, but as I was enjoying the feel of it in my mouth I found myself wondering what others might make of it. David has a large US following, for example, and he has made no concession to their possible puzzlement.
Then I wondered if Maentwrog was location of Tale from a Gwynedd Village, which takes a gentle dig at the visitor who attributes the returning native’s intuitive knowledge of a local death to his having heard the wail of Celtic spirits. (The chap has done his homework.) In fact it is the shriek of the undertaker’s power saw that has alerted the young man to the situation. He may be a Celt but he’s no daft anachronism!
The poem Bloodlines makes the case again. The poet is angered by the depiction of his ancestors as barbarians, detailing some of their achievements in astronomy and scientific construction. He claims their memory lives in his chromosomes. His poems prove it.
This fascination with his background shows again in One Way Ticket, where he revisits the miners’ railway where he played as a boy and stands contemplating Cwm Cynfal and the Ceunant, among the ghosts of trains. I am reminded of Tolkien, watching goods trains steam past with exotic Welsh place-names chalked on the wagons, which some believe sowed the seeds of Sindarin.
David is a master of form, as everyone recognises, but surely few could take the ultimate send-up formula of the double dactyl and render it thoughtful and sad, as he does in Unsaid.
My own favourite of all his poems Hawthorn, with Housmanlike simplicity, remonstrates with the tree for weeping when the poet can see no reason for it, but all David’s finest poems give the lie to the statement. He finds unerringly, as Francis Thompson put it … all the sadness in the sweet. The sweetness in the sad. He offers a simple insight to all who need to understand it via his poem To Gerard Manley Hopkins—without the dark your candle could not glow.
There is a thread of gentle regret running through these poems, too easily classified as mere Celtic twilight. A consciousness of roads not taken and of the passing of time that gives them a straight-to-the heart appeal (Father of the Man). I am searching for a single word to sum it up and the nearest in English is wistfulness, which won’t do. The Welsh word is hiraeth, but David might not thank me for using it because it has become a cliché. He is a proud man.
It is a fine day here in South Wales, with a boisterous westerly wind. There’s a red t-shirt billowing on the line in my neighbour’s garden, waving a cheerful slogan. ‘You can take the boy out of Wales but you can’t take Wales out of the boy’. Indeed. Da iawn, Dai bach. Seren aur i chi.
Angle Journal of Poetry (Ann Drysdale)