The Blue Book by Owen Sheers
In the recent Next Generation list released by the Poetry Book Society as a counterpart to the 1994 New Generation poets, Owen Sheers features as one of the youngest poets included on the list. Born in Fiji and brought up in London and Abergavenny, Sheers is sometimes thought of as the ‘pretty boy’ of Welsh poetry, which is probably encouraged by his strong media presence. Sheers is the sometime presenter of arts programmes for BBC Wales and he has also appeared in glossy print promotions. David Bailey was commissioned by The Times in 2000 to photograph the foremost practitioners in the arts and sciences along with an up-and-coming peer of their choice. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, was featured alongside Owen Sheers; Motion described Sheers as the poet most likely to create new advances in the field of poetry.
Sheers’ credentials are impeccable. He has been included in The Independent on Sunday’s list of best British writers and has won an Eric Gregory Award. Sheers also boasts considerable support from poets of the Welsh bastion such as Robert Minhinnick. The Blue Book, initially published in 2000, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and it is easy to see why. The easy eloquence of Sheer’s observations creates an alternative selfhood for Welsh writers which is urbane, cosmopolitan and well-travelled. The title poem of the collection refers to a report published by the government in 1847 on the state of education in Wales. As Sheer’s epigraph reminds us, the report concludes that the Welsh are ‘dirty, lazy. ignorant, superstitious, deceitful, promiscuous and immoral’ as a direct result of ‘Nonconformity and the Welsh language’.
The Blue Book takes this as the starting point for a meditation on the history and future of the Welsh language. The poem begins with the view of an outsider looking in on Welsh culture: ‘Rather silence than these corrupt tongues, / the words of the father shall not be passed on to the sons’. The biblical language reflects the chapel culture inherent in Welsh culture and language, yet it also encourages the reader to think of English interventions in Wales as interruptions to a kind of holy order between the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost or the father, the son and the Welsh language. Sheers is adamant that the control over language is part of a colonialist project:
Because this is how an empire is claimed
not just with stakes in a stolen land,
but with words grown over palates,
with strength of tongue as well as strength of hand.
The conclusion of the poem moves away from the colonialist projects of empire to consider the future of the Welsh language. The speaker studies a comment on his brother’s Welsh homework: ‘Pam nad yw hyn wedi ei orffen?’ The comment, ‘Why isn’t this finished?’, is a mundane reprimand to his brother’s laziness, yet it is also a triumphant vindication of the survival of Welsh. However, the speaker laments his lack of language and the fact that he cannot take part in the triumph; he is ‘a hundred and fifty years and one tongue apart’.
The Blue Book is a poem that epitomises Sheers’ poetics which are very much concerned with identity, culture, language and place. Sheers’ collection includes: Welsh praise poems for characters who defy stereotypes; elegies full of wonder and lament for people lost; explorations of Welsh industrial and rural landscapes; and poetry that extends beyond the borders of that small country to Fiji and beyond.
Some of the most poignant poetry concerned with celebration of character revolves around the figure of the mother. In Not Yet My Mother, the speaker explores a photograph which presents a younger version of his mother and is startled to recognise himself in her image:
All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.
Sheers’ treatment of the mother avoids stereotypes and it is good to see a male poet treating female figures in a subversive manner. Thus it is disappointing that the treatment of men and women in The Blue Book is not always so innovative and this conservatism seems to be rooted in the influence of a certain brand of Welsh chauvinist poetry. The kind of masculinity presented, from medieval bards’ odes to the penis to modernist poets’ anxiety over femininity, can be simplistic and self-aggrandizing.
Of course, some male poets have remedied such chauvinisms, the prime example being Sheers’ mentor, Robert Minhinnick. However, Sheers seems to have revisited certain nuances of Welsh chauvinism in some of the poems in The Blue Book. In Harvest, an intense and measured poem is spoiled by the proclamation ‘I am a man, and I have acid hands’ revelling in a masculinity which is erosive to womanhood. May Ball is generally an interesting poem concerned with class politics, yet the speaker’s encounter with the woman’s lifted skirts and reverie in a phallic laser show seems detrimental. The triumph of class mobility is figured through the act of intercourse with an elegant woman. The feminine becomes a symbol used for male expression.
Other poems continue in a similar vein. Klimt’s Kiss portrays that painting endorses the traditional masculine artistic tendency of using woman as a visual spectacle:
His to kiss and keep
in the gold cloak of his art.
Her kneeling to him in prayer.
In this account, woman is an object of visual pleasure for the artist and feeds male fantasies with her subjection and humility. This aspect of Sheers’ work is difficult to manoeuvre and it is difficult to reconcile his treatment of women here with other poems such as Not Yet My Mother.
However, Sheers’ is obviously a talented poet and it is interesting to note his female influences in addition to Welsh chauvinist authority. Poets like Gillian Clarke, Hilary Llewellyn Williams and Sally Roberts Jones can be heard in the nuances of Sheers’ work. His treatment of the rural landscape and people is embedded in the cycles of life and death. Like Gillian Clarke, Sheers’ is preoccupied with bodies: ‘the afterbirth […] / a jelly fish placenta’ and ‘pulpy hooves’ in ‘The Hedge Foal’ and the birthed animals in ‘Lambing’ with ‘hooves/as soft as plums’ are all reminiscent of Clarke’s theme and style.
In a general sense, Sheers’ collection can be described an uneasy marriage of varied influences synthesised with his own brand of urbane charm. It can only be hoped that in future collections, Sheers will prefer his feminine influences, which have for too long been eclipsed in Wales by certain chauvinist poetics.