Nationality: British. Born: Birmingham, 20 December 1950. Education: Mundella Grammar School, Nottingham; University of Bristol, 1968–71, B.A. (honors) in German and Russian. Family: Married Michael J.H. Burns in 1977; one son and one daughter. Career: Higher executive officer, Welsh Office, Cardiff, 1971–79. Branch secretary, Society of Civil Servants, Cardiff, 1974–79. Since 1993 tutor in creative writing, Glamorgan University. Awards: Babel translation prize, 1984; British Comparative Literature Association translation prize, 1985; Cardiff International Literature Festival prize, 1988, 1994; Forward prize for best individual poem, 1998; Cholmondeley award, 1999. Address: 4C Romilly Road, Canton, Cardiff CF5 1FH, Wales.
Crowded by Shadows. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1977.
What a Place to Grow Flowers. Swansea, Triskele, 1979.
Earth Studies and Other Voyages. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1982.
Beware Falling Tortoises. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1987.
Selected Poems. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren Books, 1990.
Sing for the Taxman. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren Books, 1993.
Id's Hospit. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren Books, 1997.
Stonelight. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren Books, 1999.
Translator, Prisoners of Transience. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1985.*
Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Sheenagh Pugh" by John Whitehead, in Babel (Munich), 4, 1984; "Sheenagh Pugh: Interview with Richard Poole," in Poetry Wales, January 1995.
Sheenagh Pugh comments:
I write because I like to play with words, to record what interests me, and to sound off about what annoys—same as anyone else does. Themes I have kept going back to include death, loneliness, snooker, political tyranny, and fellow feeling. I wrote some green poems early in the 1980s, before anyone else was doing it, but not a lot of people noticed; getting on a bandwagon too early is as bad as too late. The poets I like best, and have tried to learn from, are Sorley MacLean, Andreas Gryphius, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, and above all Robert Henryson. I like poems to be crafted and literate and not written in chopped-up prose, but not written either in a language that defies the understanding of reasonably intelligent persons. And I like them to be about something that matters, not silly verbal games for bored academics. I hate being called a "woman poet" and have no time for anyone who thinks gender matters outside a bedroom. For actual enjoyment I prefer translating, especially German poetry of the Thirty Years' War period.* * *
Sheenagh Pugh, though born in Birmingham, established her reputation in Wales, where she has lived for a number of years. She is regarded as one of the strongest and most original voices in poetry in Wales, which is no doubt due to the freshness and unconventionality of her approach. Her family roots include a Welsh grandmother, but her roots in writing are as cosmopolitan as any poet in Britain. She read Russian and German at Bristol University, and her collection of translations, Prisoners of Transience, which won the Babel translation prize in 1984, is perhaps her most notable achievement.
Pugh's first book, Crowded by Shadows, drew praise from several reviewers, most notably D.M. Thomas, who called it "the most promising first collection I have read for years … her poetry does not, refreshingly, try to put the world to rights, nor finger the abscess of private emotion; instead, it lays itself open to the world of others…." Her collection Earth Studies and Other Voyages buildson that principle as its title sequence explores the feelings of space travelers who have escaped an earth that seems no longer worth inhabiting and who now live on Terra 2. Under titles such as "Geography 1 & 2," "History 1 & 2 & 3," and "Biology 1 & 2 & 3," Pugh allows herself the detachment to sum up ironically the character and failings of the planet as we have used and abused it. One of the astronauts remembers returning from a trip to Iceland:
...When I got back
to Heathrow, and walked out into Reading.
I damn near choked on this warm gritty stuff
I called air; also on the conjecture
that we'd all settle for second best
once we'd forgotten there was something more.
This represents a fall from grace in that, when asked about heaven, one of the older travelers says,
...If you really want to know
what I think about heaven, the truth is
I think I lived there.
The nineteen poems that constitute the Earth Studies sequence may well be one of the earliest examples of a consciously green poetry in Britain.
The other poems in the collection, the "Other Voyages" of the title, deal with sailors and conventional sea journeys but also include "Old Widowers" and "The T.V. Hero":
the likeness of a make-believe man
fills our space more harmlessly than most.
It is not a feminist point that Pugh is making here. Women appear offcenter in the bulk of her poetry, like the females in "St. Cuthbert and the Women" who "… move, / far off, in their brave colours, bright / as illuminated manuscript initials" and who water the island "with their laughter, their chat about / some small happiness." It is the male personal pronoun that predominates in her writing, which can be off-putting. She has written in Planet magazine and elsewhere about her stance on issues of gender in writing. She wants there to be no difference, no significance, a position that has failed to satisfy other women writers who see things in more confrontational terms. She chooses only two women poets in her selection of translations in Prisoners of Transience, though that is surely more indicative of the history of women's writing in Europe than any sinister predilection on the part of the poet.
These translations, from two French poets and thirteen from the German, range from the twelfth century to Stefan George, who died in the year that Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Pugh's versions respect the rhyme schemes of the originals, though she wisely recognizes that half rhymes are just as acceptable to modern readers. She employs these rhymes and the basis of the iambic pentameter to good effect, and I wonder if her next collection of original poetry, Beware Falling Tortoises, published two years later, suffers from the experience. Too often in this collection the poetry lacks tautness and satisfactory resolution, and the writing, I feel, could have benefited from the sort of prosodic discipline of which Prisoners of Transience proved Pugh most capable. Poems such as "I Am Roerek," "Pharisees," and "He Was a Man of His Word" are thus less accomplished than "She Was Nineteen and She Was Bored," "A Short History of Cocaine Abuse," and "Memoirs of a Dutch Tulip Merchant." This last is evidence that Pugh can fashion a dramatic monologue:
...I remember I sold
a single Semper Augustus—in '31,
I think it was, the year the Austrians
burned Magdeburg—for thousands: everyone
wanted Augustus. It had a white ground
striped with crimson and iron; the more broken
the colours were, the more it was worth.
This is much more effective than "Crusaders," the poem that follows it. In "Crusaders" the modern voice projects unconvincingly from the character of a medieval knight. Again, in the three-poem sequence "Dieppe" Pugh's attempts to capture the soldiers' voices too often slacken the lines so that the poetry is lost. These attempts to enter fully into character do work, however, to complement the dominant mode of her poetry, which is that of the author's dispassionate gaze and the wry comment. It might be assumed that Pugh's models are Philip Larkin and the Movement rather than Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath; she maintains, however, "I was, until recently, incredibly ignorant of all English verse; all my models, if I had any, were mediaeval, Henryson, mainly." Certainly she is closer to Fleur Adcock than Wendy Cope, and, no matter how strongly one feels that she may be tempted by the neat rhyme and the obvious barb, she generally is in control of her verse. The problem with the poet assuming the role of wry commentator is that the reader may grow to dislike the persona and suspect smugness. Larkin is saved from this fate by the frequent revelations of his own vulnerability; he is deliberately transparent in the way that his frailty shows beneath the commentary. Pugh rarely offers the reader a glimpse of her deepest feelings. We encounter her brain but not so obviously her heart. These lines from "Cameraman" seem apposite:
...Do not be tempted
to turn the camera inward:
your stricken looks are no concern
of the public's. They need the word
on what you saw, not how
you felt. It is they who must feel
they saw it; they were there; so
involved, they condemn somewhat
the remote like of you.
Time and the vagaries of life may well pull Pugh more centrally into her own poetry. With the appearance in 1990 of her Selected Poems and the culling of weaker work, Pugh would seem to have reached the middle point of her achievement as a poet. If she can successfully build on her strengths as a translator and deploy further the prosodic skills she has exhibited there in the service of her often unnerving eye, then she should establish herself as one of the more notable contemporary voices.