There are poets and there are Poets and the process we know as canonisation makes the former into the latter. It is part of the fun of part of the role of critics and other readers to argue, over time, why the range and skills and strengths of one particular poet should give them a leg-up into the Big League. The ongoing BBC poetry season (which I blogged about last week) has, inevitably, focussed on major writers like Arnold, Donne, Milton, Plath and Wordsworth. These writers are known far beyond poetry reading circles -- and sometimes not even for their poetry (fame is a by-product of canonisation, or is that the other way around?) and so presumably are thought to guarantee some kind of audience. But one name that was new to me (so I presume to others too), and was a surprise to see featured, was Lynette Roberts.

The BBC gloss her thus:

She only published one full collection of poems and her work has been almost forgotten, but her vivid, modern, hot-blooded writing about a Welsh village and her time there during the Second World War reveals an extraordinary woman and a brilliant poetic voice who Robert Graves described in the 1940s as "one of the few true poets now writing." Roberts was brought up in a wealthy family in Argentina but married a writer from Carmarthenshire in 1939 at the outbreak of war and spent the next nine years living in poverty in a Welsh-speaking village. She involved herself in every aspect of village life and despite being accused of being a spy found a fierce passion for the local people and the landscape.

In Owen Sheers' television programme the focus was on Roberts' life and on Poem from Llanybri "an invitation to the young soldier poet Alun Lewis to pay her a visit" to the small village where she lived. She was published by Faber (her first collection, Poems, appeared in 1944 when she was thirty-five) when decisions about poetry there were decided by T.S. Eliot -- a major poet, if ever there was one. He admired her voice; according to Patrick McGuinness's excellent long introductory essay to her Collected Poems the fact that her work "communicated before it made sense" was testament to its strength. Roberts might be a forgotten poet nowadays, but Eliot's interest in her work, the praise of Graves, the fact that Wyndham Lewis drew her portrait and that Dylan Thomas was best man at her wedding suggest that she was once very well regarded. The canonisation process is not a scientific one: good poets get left out.

Of course, it shouldn't worry -- or surprise -- us that the canon creaks and leaks. And finding our own paths to minor writers is far more satisfying than passively consuming the greats. Historically, women haven't faired so well at getting full recognition of their writing talents, and Roberts marooned herself in a Welsh-speaking Welsh village in Wales and wrote in a Modernist style. And then after the war she all but dried up. So, you know, it's her own fault that I hadn't heard of her until last week!

But I have heard of her now and her sense of place, her focus on nature, her ordered prosody with its moments of free enquiry, and her joyous radicalism are all seducing me:

Where whimbrels, redshanks, sandpipers ripple
For the wing of the living. Under tin of earth
And wooden boles where owls break music:
From this killing world against humanity,
Uprise against, outshine the day's sun.

Readers Comments

  1. Patrick McGuinness Thursday 16 July 2009

    Excellent post, and I'm delighted you like Lynette Roberts. It was a pleasure to work on her, and I was greatly helped by her daughter, Angharad Rhys, who gave me access also to hundreds of pages on her prose, diaries and letters, now collected in another Carcanet book, Diaries, Letters and Recollections.
    The BBC gloss doesn't do her justice - she didn't write 'one full collection', but two - her second book, Gods with Stainless Ears, is a 50-odd page modernist war epic which is quite extraordinary.

  2. Bruce Ross-Smith Sunday 08 November 2009

    We must all be extremely grateful to Patrick McGuinness for his many endeavours in helping to rescue Lynette Roberts from oblivion, including his current TLS piece and the Lynettte Roberts Conference which took place at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, a week ago.

    Her name is not new to me : I lived and worked in Deia-de-Mallorca in the late 1960s and early 70s and in the summer of 1969 spoke with Robert Graves about Alun Lewis, which led to Graves on Lynette Roberts and Keidrych Rhys. Yet am puzzled that Lynette Roberts is in effect invisible and inaudible to Graves'biographers, Martin Seymour -Smith(1982) and Miranda Seymour (1995) : Seymour- Smith doesn't mention her at all and Seymour only fleetingly ("In the autumn of 1943, a young Welsh correspondent, Lynette Roberts, sent him a curious work by a nineteenth century Welsh academic, Edward Davies".)

    Perhaps the correspondence between Graves and Roberts wasn't available to Seymour-Smith but it should have been to Seymour, if only through Joanna Lloyd's 'The Correspondence between Lynette Roberts and Robert Graves, 1943-1952', Poetry Wales, 19, no. 2 (1983), 51-124.
    Excellent, then, that patrick McGuinness was able to include some of the Graves-Roberts letters in his 2008 Carcanet collection.

    And who knows what might have been if Lynette Roberts and her children had, as Beryl and Robert Graves tried to arrange, moved to Mallorca after her divorce from Rhys in 1949?

    Sorry : this has been a very loose-limbed way to say thank you to Ready Strady Blog and to Patrick McGuinness!!

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