Devolutionary Readings

English-Language Poetry and Contemporary Wales

by Matthew Jarvis (Author)
Edited Collection XIV, 328 Pages
Series: Modern Poetry, Volume 10


The September 1997 vote approving devolution, albeit by a tiny margin, was a watershed moment in recent Welsh history. This volume of essays considers the English-language poetic life of Wales since that point. Addressing a range of poets who are associated with Wales by either birth or residence and have been significantly active in the post-1997 period, it seeks to understand the various ways in which Wales’s Anglophone poetic life has been intertwined both with devolutionary matters specifically and the life of contemporary Wales more generally, as well as providing detailed scrutiny of work by key figures. The purpose of the book is thus to offer insights into how English-language poetry and contemporary Wales intersect, exploring the contours of a diverse and vibrant poetic life that is being produced at a time of important cultural and political developments within Wales as a whole.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Wales, Devolution, Poetry (Matthew Jarvis)
  • 1. Zoë Skoulding: Devolutionary Reading (Peter Barry)
  • 2. Here and There: Poetry after Devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland (Neal Alexander)
  • 3. For Welsh Read British? (Kathryn Gray)
  • 4. Devolutionary Complexities: Reading Three New Poets (Matthew Jarvis)
  • 5. In Paris or Sofia? Avant-Garde Poetry and Cultural Nationalism after Devolution (Daniel G. Williams)
  • 6. ‘After Before’: Finding Welsh War Poetry (Nerys Williams)
  • 7. Poetry and the Public Purse: Publishing Grants for English-Language Poetry from Wales in the Post-devolution Era (Lucy Thomas)
  • 8. Taking Flight: Translation, Dafydd and Dyfalu in Gwyneth Lewis’s Devolving Poetics (Alice Entwistle)
  • 9. Poetic Hybridity in Patrick McGuinness’s Other People’s Countries (John Redmond)
  • 10. Displacing and Redefining Trauma: Pascale Petit’s Deer, Birds and Butterflies (Zoë Brigley Thompson)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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This volume is an output of the 2012–15 research project ‘Devolved Voices: Welsh Poetry in English since 1997’ (Aberystwyth University), which was generously funded by a Research Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust.


Quotations from copyrighted material are used in this volume under the principle of ‘fair dealing’ for criticism or review or are in line with guidelines given by individual publishers. For permission to use material where quotations exceed these limits and for permission to reproduce images, the following specific acknowledgements are given:

In the usual manner, footnotes to each chapter of the volume give full publication details for all material quoted. While every effort has been made to ensure that permission to quote from copyrighted material has been sought from copyright-holders as appropriate, the editor and publishers will be pleased to rectify any errors or omissions. ← xii | xiii →


My primary debt of gratitude is to the book’s contributors: for all your hard work in producing the essays published here, for your scholarly care, and for your willingness to drive forward new avenues of enquiry, very many thanks.

Behind the book more generally is the 2012–15 ‘Devolved Voices’ project and the colleagues I was privileged to work with as a part of that. Thus to Peter Barry, Kathryn Gray and Bronwen Williams: my continuing gratitude for three years of fascinating work together and for all your support. I am long in your debt. And to Peter in particular, for so much kindness over so many years: this book is for you.

I must also offer significant thanks to the staff at Peter Lang, who have so efficiently and courteously shepherded this book from initial proposal to finished manuscript. In particular, I wish to express my gratitude to Senior Commissioning Editor Christabel Scaife whose editorial support has been exemplary from first to last. I am, further, extremely grateful to Dr Robin Chapman of Aberystwyth University for advice both on my own essay here and on Welsh-language questions in the book more generally. I also want to express my substantial thanks to the Design Department at the Welsh Books Council for the production of the maps in Lucy Thomas’s essay – and to Clare Davies for her kind assistance at the very end of this process.

Finally, more personal thanks go to Kate, Dan and Ethan for putting up with my ongoing scholarly pursuits. For all your support, kindness and understanding I am more grateful than I can sufficiently express. ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | 1 →


Introduction: Wales, Devolution, Poetry

The outcome of Wales’s 1997 devolution referendum, held on 18 September of that year, was of course one which approved the creation of a Welsh Assembly.1 However, the margin of that approval was incredibly small. As Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully observe in their 2012 landmark volume Wales Says Yes: Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum:

In contrast to the thumping majorities in Scotland,2 the Welsh electorate approved devolution [in 1997] by a tiny margin. The outcome remained in doubt until the very final declaration, which left the Yes campaign with a margin of victory of 6,721 votes (a mere 0.3 per cent of the Welsh electorate), on a turnout of just over half those eligible to vote. Greeting the result, a visibly relieved [then Secretary of State for Wales] Ron Davies modestly claimed that it represented ‘a very good morning’ for Wales. He was wise to eschew greater triumphalism. Although the pro-devolution swing from 1979 had been a gargantuan 30.0 percentage points (even greater than the pro-devolution swing over the same time period in Scotland), it was evident that Welsh voters remained to be convinced of the merits of home rule. ← 1 | 2 → 3

However, while Welsh voters in general may have ‘remained to be convinced’ about devolution in 1997, key figures in the Anglophone Welsh literary establishment were substantially less equivocal. Poet Nigel Jenkins, writing in his essay ‘Ffiw! Three Steps to Devolution’, notably recalled how, when the final declaration was made – crucially tipping the result to a ‘Yes’ – he felt ‘euphoric, tears streaming down my face, hair standing on end.’ Thus he declared his sense that ‘Wales, by the skin of her ignorant, confused, divided teeth (watch your metaphors, Jenkins), is on her way to a future.’4 Albeit a little more cautiously, Robert Minhinnick, writing his first editorial for the magazine Poetry Wales – which he was to edit with such distinction until 2008 – declared Wales to be ‘A Country That Said Yes’, and suggested that, from the perspective of the day after the referendum itself, ‘What changes this morning, imperceptibly but permanently, is a sense of a people’s esteem for itself.’ Nonetheless, it is significant that, alongside his clear sense of what he believed had been achieved by the ‘Yes’ vote, Minhinnick was simultaneously keen to reject any sense of what he also called ‘triumphalism’ (‘tedious nationalist triumphalism’, as he put it, specifically), advising Wales that its writers should avoid ‘dour, regional introspection’. Instead, he suggested that Wales’s literary community should look outwards from Wales itself, that writers should visit places further afield (New York, Ireland, Edinburgh), and that they should ‘Then come back and for all our sakes share what has been discovered’.5 As such, if Nigel Jenkins wished Wales’s ‘younger generation’ to be – in an echo of Raymond Williams – ‘Welsh Europeans’,6 Minhinnick was seemingly after literary internationalists more broadly (something his Poetry Wales would indeed go on to foster with impressive energy, and a spirit that would ← 2 | 3 → continue under subsequent editor Zoë Skoulding).7 Just such a lack of inward turning is, it seems, what Minhinnick meant in his editorial for the next edition of Poetry Wales when, considering what the title of the piece called ‘The Road Ahead’, he suggested – albeit in a likely act of ‘wishful thinking’, as Neal Alexander puts it in his chapter for this volume8 – that the result of the referendum had ‘ended an era of introspection and ludicrous Welsher-than-thou, not-as-Welsh-as-s/he-should be, posturing’. As such, he declared, ‘let us get on with being’ – just being, it should be noted, rather than being Welsh.9

As I argue in my own chapter later in this volume,10 whilst headline data suggest that devolution itself has – from that slenderest of margins in 1997 – become more and more acceptable to the people of Wales in the years following 1997 (with opposition to devolution itself registering as low as 9 per cent in one 2013 survey),11 finer-grained attitudes regarding the extent of Welsh devolution and the performance of devolved government are rather more complex. Thus, even in the aftermath of the 2011 referendum that emphatically approved an extension of Wales’s devolutionary powers, there has remained a wide range of opinions on Wales’s constitutional arrangements (in other words, whether we have too much or too little devolution, or just about enough). For example, the 2016 ‘St David’s Day Poll’ shows striking splits of constitutional opinion amongst the Welsh electorate: whilst a plurality of those questioned want more powers for the Assembly (43 per cent), a very substantial minority (30 per cent) wishes to retain devolution at its current level, with smaller minorities opting for reduction of powers/abolition of the Assembly (16 per cent in total), or – at ← 3 | 4 → the other end of the scale – Welsh independence (6 per cent).12 Reflecting this complexity on the level of individual policy, the same survey indicates that those who would like to see some income tax powers devolved to the Welsh government total 54 per cent – a clear majority; nonetheless 42 per cent remain opposed. And indeed, this balance of opinion on devolving elements of taxation is only a very recent development: opinion polls stretching back to 2013 suggest that this particular power is one that the people of Wales have been broadly reluctant to accept – or, at least, that they have been very evenly split on the matter.13 Moreover, as I also point out in my own chapter here, Welsh opinions on the achievements of the Assembly – as distinct from views about its existence – are still decidedly equivocal, whilst a deep commitment to the Assembly as a body that could not itself be done away with seems far from securely established. Nonetheless, it is equally important to recognize that, according to 2011 polling, both the Welsh government and the political representatives who make up the Assembly in the Cardiff Bay Senedd are notably more trusted in Wales than are their counterparts at Westminster.14 Moreover, as Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully put it, the period since 1997 has seen ‘a growing sense [amongst the Welsh people] of the appropriateness of a Welsh institution making major political decisions for Wales’.15 Responses to Welsh devolution, in short, are complicated.

In a similar way, the issue of Welsh identity itself (particularly Welsh identity within the wider UK) remains complex: as I note in my own ← 4 | 5 → chapter here, the first decade after 1997 saw by far the majority of Welsh people identifying themselves as some sort of combination of Welsh and British, rather than singularly Welsh or singularly British. Indeed, in Wales Says Yes, Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully make the rather startling claim that:

It is not true […] that as support for further devolution has grown and opposition to devolution declined since 1997, there has been an increase in the proportion of strong Welsh identifiers in the population. To the contrary, the national identity profile of the Welsh population has remained remarkably consistent since the 1970s. While the people of Wales did become more Welsh in their desired centre of government in the first decade of devolution, in their basic sense of national identity they became no more Welsh at all.16

By contrast, however, in terms of a range of cultural expressions, as historian Martin Johnes observes, a ‘sense of Welsh identity was more obvious in daily life in the post-devolution period than at any other time since the war’. Indeed, Johnes argues that ‘the connections drawn between devolution and a popular sense of [Welsh] nationhood never went away.’17

Similarly – and in contrast both to the urge of Robert Minhinnick and Nigel Jenkins to turn Welsh perspectives outwards after 1997, and to the emphatic internationalism of Wales’s Anglophone poetic flagship, Poetry Wales, over the same period – Wales’s own place in the world since devolution remains a deeply contested issue. Our relationship with the European Union is a case in point. As the 2013 joint British Academy/Learned Society of Wales report Wales, The United Kingdom and Europe explains, devolution was a crucial event for Welsh involvement in the EU. Specifically, according to remarks by Desmond Clifford, it ‘enabled Wales to operate at a much higher level’ within the EU structure, as Wales’s newly ‘Governmental status opened doors’ by ‘conferring diplomatic status on ← 5 | 6 → civil servants’.18 Indeed, the same report goes on to note that ‘For several years after 1999, Europeanisation in Wales was on an upward path’, with ‘money available through the structural funds and active participation in policy making and the pan-European effort to promote the role of regions in the future of Europe’ – although such Europeanization has now ‘levelled out, or dropped off’.19 However, as I began to write this introduction in early 2016, and notwithstanding such notable European engagements in the post–1997 period, the most recent ‘Welsh Political Barometer’ opinion poll revealed that more people in Wales would like to see the UK leave the EU (42 per cent) than would like to see it stay a member (40 per cent).20 And indeed, the subsequent referendum on UK membership of the EU on 23 June 2016 saw such indications comprehensively fulfilled, as Wales voted clearly to leave (by a margin of 5 percentage points), with only five Welsh local authority areas out of twenty-two supporting a ‘Remain’ vote.21 Certainly, as Richard Wyn Jones points out, ‘very few [Welsh] electors seem to have viewed their [EU referendum] voting decision through Welsh lenses’ – an unsurprising state of affairs, given what he calls ‘the absence of any serious Welsh-level campaigning, […] and with English-based media sources dominating the coverage of the issues’.22 Similarly, we must acknowledge that Wales’s relationship with the EU is not the entirety ← 6 | 7 → of our relationship with Europe. However, Wales’s EU referendum vote certainly raises fundamental questions about Nigel Jenkins’s apparent hope of movement towards a nation of Welsh Europeans. Devolution may have enabled greater European engagement for Wales within the EU, and the EU may have provided significant funds to post-devolution Wales itself.23 But by the middle of 2016, for a critical mass of the Welsh electorate, such matters were seemingly of rather less importance than Wales being what Richard Wyn Jones has called ‘a nation with more than its share of “left behinds”’ – which, as he put it, created ‘fertile soil for leave campaigners’.24 Even more sharply, for Daniel Evans of the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD), Wales’s EU referendum result was indicative of nothing less than ‘the failures of devolution’ itself, in the sense that the apparent information deficit within Wales about specifically Welsh engagements with the EU ‘merely serve[d] to underscore the debilitating effects of the absence of a Welsh public sphere’.25 Moreover, beyond the EU, in terms of other sorts of international engagements and ← 7 | 8 → obligations, the December 2015 ‘Welsh Political Barometer’ poll indicated that, in the words of Roger Scully, ‘Welsh attitudes to both refugees and migrants appear to be very slightly harsher than the average across Britain as a whole’ – ‘perhaps’, as he put it, ‘to the chagrin of many on the centre-left in Wales’.26

In short, the early reactions of both Ron Davies and Robert Minhinnick to avoid any easy sense of ‘triumphalism’ in the immediate aftermath of 1997’s ‘Yes’ vote seem, in retrospect, to have been wisely prescient. Wales’s devolutionary journey has been far from straightforward – typified perhaps most obviously by the complex initial devolutionary settlement, as well as subsequent shifts in constitutional arrangements27 – and the post-1997 period has seen the development of equally fine-grained cultural reactions and positions. Indeed, even a keynote issue such as the Welsh language (given particular attention in this volume in the chapters by Daniel G. Williams and Alice Entwistle) remains highly charged. In its two highest-profile moves to support the Welsh language, the Assembly passed the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which ‘confirm[ed] the status of the Welsh language as an official language in Wales’ and ‘establish[ed] the office of the Welsh language commissioner as a firm champion for the language’ (to quote then-Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones).28 It followed this up with the 2012 Official Languages (Wales) Bill, which made both Welsh ← 8 | 9 → and English official languages for the Assembly itself.29 However, while the results of the 2001 Census suggested that the fortunes of the Welsh language might have ‘turned the corner’ to a more positive future, as Janet Davies puts it in her 2014 volume The Welsh Language: A History, the 2011 Census was (again in Davies’s words) a ‘rude awakening’ which suggested that 2001’s advances ‘had been reversed’.30 Thus, ‘Meri Huws, the newly appointed language commissioner, described [the 2011 Census results] as “very bad news” and vowed to redouble her efforts’,31 whilst a spokesperson for the Welsh Government itself even talked about the ‘fragile state of the language’.32 Most damning of all, perhaps, was the reaction of Robin Farrar, then-chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), who laid the blame for the issues raised by the 2011 Census squarely at the door of the devolved government itself, saying that:

This news reflects very badly on the Welsh Government who set a target of increasing the number of Welsh speakers by 5% over the decade. Over the last 10 years, they have failed to support the Welsh language in the way they should. […] The people of Wales are very supportive of our unique language, but the government isn’t matching their ambition.33

Indeed, this sense that devolved government in Wales has provided insufficient support to the Welsh language has recently been re-articulated sharply ← 9 | 10 → by the pressure group Dyfodol i’r Iaith (A Future for the Language).34 Thus, responding in December 2015 to news of an impending cut in funding for Welsh-language support from the Welsh Government, the group declared that ‘this cut totally undermines the Government’s commitment to the Welsh language, as this money has been earmarked for initiatives and projects which make a real difference to the language.’ Or, in the words of the group’s Chair, Heini Gruffudd, ‘We can never reach the goal of a bilingual Wales without the Government’s enthusiastic support.’35 Devolution, in short, is just as much a matter of battles being fought as it constituted, in itself, a battle won.

All the same, Nigel Jenkins’s euphoric reaction to the 1997 ‘Yes’ vote must not be forgotten – indicative, as it is, of an important sense within Anglophone Welsh letters that the pain of 1979’s emphatic rejection of devolution had been finally overturned. As Jenkins himself put it in his essay ‘Ffiw!’: ‘We have a future – unlike, I am delighted to say, certain of my poems. Never again will I have reason to perform “Land of Song”, the vulgar rant that was my white-heat response to the disaster of ’79. […] But ’97 is ’79 back-to-front, and history did not after all do an inaction replay.’36 Nor should we forget that, when offered the chance to extend Wales’s devolutionary powers through a further referendum on 3 March 2011, the result was – this time, and in strong contrast to 1997 – a highly emphatic ‘Yes’.37 Nor, again, must it be forgotten that, young as it is, the Assembly seemingly ← 10 | 11 → attracts more respect from the Welsh people and is trusted by them more than local councils, Westminster, or the EU, and that, by comparison with these other three levels of political organization, the Assembly is also seen as ‘most likely to improve things for you and your family’.38 Nor, once more, can we ignore Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully’s assessment, from a wealth of post-1997 evidence, that devolution has begun ‘increasingly to look like the settled will of the Welsh people.’39 Nor, finally, and from a specifically literary point of view, must we forget the points made by Lucy Thomas in her chapter for this volume: in terms of its commitment to the promotion of Wales’s English-language literary life, Wales’s devolved government made, as Thomas puts it, ‘a significant increase in the investment in the sector’ in the aftermath of the 2004 policy review Welsh Writing in English: A Review. Indeed, the Welsh Government also engaged in what Thomas calls ‘one of the more overt acts of literary nation-building to emerge as a direct outcome of the policy review’ in the creation of the Library of Wales series, which sought to make sure that, as Thomas explains, ‘readers and educational establishments had access to Wales’s rich [Anglophone] literary heritage that, due to financial constraints, had been difficult to keep in print.’40

§ § §


XIV, 328
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Poetry Wales Devolution
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XIV, 328 pp., 1 b/w ill., 2 tables, 2 fig.

Biographical notes

Matthew Jarvis (Author)

Matthew Jarvis is Professor and Anthony Dyson Fellow in Poetry in the Faculty of Humanities and Performing Arts at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Between 2012 and 2015 he also worked on the research project «Devolved Voices: Welsh Poetry in English since 1997», which was based in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. He is an expert on the development of the English-language poetry of Wales since the 1960s and has particular interests in environmental approaches to the understanding of literature and the literary construction of Welsh space and place.


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