Gillian Clarke (b. 1937) is one of the central figures in contemporary Welsh poetry, the third to take up the post of National Poet of Wales. Her poems have achieved widespread critical and popular acclaim (her Selected Poems has gone through seven printings and she has made her cultural mark through her inspirational role as a teacher, as editor of the Anglo-Welsh Review from 1975-1984, and as founder and President of Ty Newydd, the writers’ centre in North Wales. Born in Cardiff and currently running an organic small-holding in Ceredigion, the Welsh landscape is a shaping force in her work, together with recurrent themes of war, womanhood and the passage of time. Her last three books have all been Poetry Book Society Recommendations.
Clarke’s world is full of the here-and-now – the scratch of stubble at a young girl’s ankles (‘Letter from a Far Country’), the slipperiness of a newborn lamb (‘A Difficult Birth’), emotion experienced as bodily sensation, “the tight red rope of love” (‘Catrin’). However, immediate as the poems are, they are also haunted by many different kinds of past which re-surface in the present like the drowned girl given the kiss of life in ‘Cold Knap Lake’. Sometimes the past is geological, as in ‘The Stone Hare’ that’s waited three hundred million years to be chiselled into existence, or belongs to the realm of childhood memory as in ‘Legend’ in which the narrator recalls the treacherous ice of a lake in terms of fairy tale, listening to “the Snow Queen’s knuckles crack”. However, it’s the fate of the women of living memory that is most persistent in these poems. In Clarke’s beautiful elegy for her mother, ‘The Habit of Light’, domestic routine is celebrated as a kind of sacrament, but elsewhere it’s fiercely contested as a trap, particularly in the sequence ‘From a Far Country’ where she imagines the fruits of her ancestors’ “perfect preserves” trapped like faces behind the glass.
Gillian Clarke’s work has been on the GCSE and A Level exam syllabus for the past thirty years, and she performs her poetry regularly for Poetry Live. Awarded the Queen’s Gold medal for Poetry in 2010, the Wilfred Owen Award in 2012. Prose works include a writer’s journal, At the Source. She has written for radio, and translated poetry and prose from Welsh. The Gathering/Yr Helfa, written for the National Theatre of Wales, was performed on Snowdon in September, 2014. Her collection, Ice, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award 2012 and Zoology was published by Carcanet in 2017.