Nationality: Welsh. Born: Gillian Williams, Cardiff, Glamorgan, 8 June 1937. Education: St. Clare's Convent, Porthcawl, Glamorgan; University College, Cardiff, B.A.(honors) in English 1958. Career: News researcher, BBC, London, 1958–60, and since 1960 occasional broadcaster. Since 1985 freelance writer. Lecturer in art history, Gwent College of Art and Design, Newport, 1975–84; writing fellow, St. David's University College, Lampeter, Dyfed, 1984–85. Editor, Anglo-Welsh Review, 1976–84. Chair, since 1988, Welsh Academy, and since 1989, Taliesin Trust. President, Writer's Centre, Ty Newydd. Address: Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.
Snow on the Mountain. Swansea, Christopher Davies, 1971.
The Sundial. Llandysul, Dyfed, Gomer, 1978.
Letter from a Far Country. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.
Fires on Lynn. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Other Branch Readings, 1984.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.
Letting in the Rumour. Manchester, Carcanet, 1989.
The King of Britain's Daughter. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1993.
Collected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.
Banc Sîon Cwilt: A Local Habitation and a Name. Newtown, Powys, Gwasg Gregynog, 1998.
Five Fields. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.
The Animal Wall: And Other Poems. Llandysul, Pont Books, 1999.
The King of Britain's Daughter (libretto for cantata), 1993.
Radio Poems: Talking in the Dark, 1975; Letter from a Far Country, 1979.
Editor, The Poetry Book Society Anthology 1987–1988. London, Hutchinson, 1987.
Compiler, The Whispering Room: Haunted Poems. New York, King-fisher, 1996.*
Critical Studies: "Grafting the Sour to Sweetness: Anglo-Welsh Poetry in the Last Twenty-Five Years" by Tony Curtis, in his Wales: The Imagined Nation—Studies in Cultural and National Identity, Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, Poetry Wales, 1986; "Two Welsh Poets: Gillian Clarke and Tony Curtis" by Michael Hulse, in Quadrant (Victoria, Australia), 32(1–2), January-February 1988; "Incoming Tales: The Poetry of Gillian Clarke" by Linden Peach, in New Welsh Review (Cardiff, Wales), 1(1), summer 1988; by Roger Garfitt, in Poetry Review, 84(2), summer 1994; "The Poetry of Gillian Clarke" by K.E. Smith, in Poetry in the British Isles: Non-Metropolitan Perspectives, edited by Hans-Werner Ludwig and Lothar Fietz, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1995; "Women Poets and 'Women's Poetry': Fleur Adcock, Gillian Clarke and Carol Rumens" by Lyn Pykett, in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, London, Macmillan, and New York, St Martin's Press, 1997.* * *
Gillian Clarke writes of her native Wales, of the elements that form and shape it: "It is not easy./There are no brochure blues or boiled sweet/Reds. All is ochre and earth and cloud-green/Nettles tasting sour and the smells of moist earth and sheep's wool &" ("Blaen Cwrt"). Rain, unyielding stone, the "uncountable miles of mountains," and the "big, unpredictable sky" underlie her work. Beneath her apparently artless syntax is a complex system of assonance; repeated vowels and consonants keep the poems both tight and resonant. Many of Clarke's syntactical experiments are based on the metrical devices of traditional Welsh poetry.
Clarke's collection The Sundial deals with death, abandonment, and time passing, and there is a constant sense of people pushing back the wilderness, keeping primordial forces at bay. But these huge themes are carefully concealed in domestic disguises. For example, in the title poem a young son's sundial gives rise to the final stanza:
All day we felt and watched the sun
Caged in its white diurnal heat,
Pointing at us with its black stick.
Though rural life looms large, this is the province of primitive archetypes rather than country idylls. In "Storm Awst"
… This then is the big weather
They said was coming. All the signs
Were bad, the gulls coming in white,
Lapwings gathering, the sheep too
Calling all night. The gypsies
Were making their fires in the woods
Down there in the east … always
A warning …
There is no comfort in this world, and even in the secure setting of "Baby-Sitting" the speaker fears the waking of her charge:
… To her I will represent absolute
Abandonment. For her it will be worse
Than for the lover cold in lonely
Sheets; worse than for the woman who waits
A moment to collect her dignity
Beside the bleached bone in the terminal ward.
As she rises sobbing from the monstrous land
Stretching for milk-familiar comforting,
She will find me and between us two
It will not come. It will not come.
Clarke's second major collection, Letter from a Far Country, exhibits the same preoccupations though the tone is less intense, more refined. Here the rhythms of rural life prevail in poems like "Scything," "Buzzard," and "Friesian Bull." Death is always close, but there is an acceptance of it, as in "The Ram," which begins, "He died privately./His disintegration is quiet./Grass grows among the stems of his ribs &"
The title poem of the collection is a wonderful rambling meditation written originally for radio. Centered around a real parish in Wales, it explores "the far country" of the past and the imagined lives of its women inhabitants. Clarke reveals a remarkable eye for detail: "& sea-caves, cellars; the back stairs/behind the chenille curtain; the landing when the lights are out;/nightmares in hot feather beds &" or "A stony track turns between ancient hedges, narrowing,/like a lane in a child's book./Its perspective makes the heart restless/& The minstrel boy to the war has gone./But the girl stays. To mind things./She must keep. And wait. And pass time./There's always been time on our hands &" In such discreet phrases Clarke voices women's discontent: "The gulls grieve at our contentment./It is a masculine question./'Where' they call 'are your great works?'/They slip their fetters and fly up/to laugh at land-locked women./Their cries are cruel as greedy babies &"
In its solemn, reticent way this poem celebrates the lives of women: "It has always been a matter/of lists. We have been counting,/folding, measuring, making,/tenderly laundering cloth/ever since we have been women." The poem concludes with an easy rhythmical verse that, for all its lightness of touch, expresses a profound confusion about the choices facing contemporary women: "If we launch the boat and sail away & Who'll catch the nightmares and ride them away & Will the men grow tender and the children strong? & Who will do the loving while we're away?"
The new poetry in Clarke's 1985 Selected Poems is more lyrical than her previous work. There is a maturity about these poems. For example, in "October" the poet proclaims, "& I must write like the wind, year after year/passing my death day, winning ground." And "Climbing Cader Idris" begins, "You know the mountain with your body,/I with my mind, I suppose./Each, in our own way, describes/the steepening angle of rock &" Here nature is no longer the vengeful adversary, but rather more an accomplice. Poems like "Epithalamium" reveal unbridled, joyful celebration, and even the stark, sad "The Hare," written in memory of the poet Frances Horovitz, ends on a note of calm acceptance:
… When they hand me insults or little hurts
and I'm on fire with my arguments
at your great distance you can calm me still.
Your dream, my sleeplessness, the cattle
asleep under a full moon,
and out there
the dumb and stiffening body of the hare.