Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff in 1937 and is a poet, playwright, editor, broadcaster, lecturer and translator (from Welsh). She became the National Poet of Wales in 2008, and was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010. She has published ten collections of poetry for adults: Snow on the Mountain (1971), The Sundial (1978), Letter From a Far Country (1982), Selected Poems (1985), Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993), Collected Poems (1997), Five Fields (1998), Making the Beds for the Dead (2004) and A Recipe for Water (2009). Letting in the Rumour, The King of Britain’s Daughter and Five Fields were all Poetry Book Society recommendations. She has also written several collections for children, her work is widely anthologised, and her poetry forms part of the school syllabus in Britain.
A central figure in contemporary Welsh poetry, Clarke was editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review (now the New Welsh Review) from 1975 to 1984, and is a president of Ty Newydd, the writers’ centre in North Wales which she co-founded in 1990. Clarke has been a tutor in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan since 1994. She is a judge for the Poetry Society’s Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2010.
When announcing Clarke’s appointment as National Poet of Wales, professor Dai Smith, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales, said: “Gillian Clarke has honed her considerable artistic practice to create, over the years, a body of poetry which deals with the inner essentials of universal human needs and the outer specifics of a distinctive Wales, her take on Wales, which cradles them.”
Although her poetry is often anchored in a Welsh rural landscape, it is never insular but looks beyond the regional to the wider world. Clarke has said that “We are not in little enclaves. There are two worlds – the private one, and the public one the media brings into our lives.” (Sheer Poetry) This is clearly seen in her poem ‘The Field-Mouse’ (from Five Fields) where news of the war in Bosnia taints the idyllic landscape:
The air hums with jets.
Down at the end of the meadow
Far from the radio’s terrible news,
We cut the hay. All afternoon
Its wave breaks before the tractor blade.
[ . . . ]
Summer in Europe, the fields hurt,
[ . . . ]
And we can’t face the newspapers
With a keen sense of the public role of the poet, Clarke has written many poems in direct response to momentous events, both in the UK – the Paddington Rail Crash, the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, and the Good Friday Agreement (‘On the Train’, the ‘Making the Beds for the Dead’ sequence in Making the Beds for the Dead and ‘A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998’ in Five Fields) – and globally – September 11th (‘September 2001’ in Making the Beds for the Dead) and the Gulf War (‘Lament’).
Clarke has said that she finds it a rich source of inspiration to read books of three different genres simultaneously; a book of poetry, a book of fiction and a book of non-fiction on a subject such as biology, archaeology or history. Clarke’s engagement with the natural world around her is deeply felt in her work, in which she delves both into the history of the earth and of the humans that populate it. Her sequence ‘The Stone Poems’, in Making the Beds for the Dead, excavates imagined moments of the earth’s history. These glimpses of a past world are made relevant to the present, through the medium of stone which serves as a physical link between them: “seven-hundred million years,/ granite from Pembrokeshire. Is it this/ we tread on, this starry pavement” (from ‘Granite: Pre-Cambrian’).
This emphasis on a continuous interplay between past and present, between the land and the people who inhabit it, creates an inclusive sense of community in many of Clarke’s poems. The link is often the centrality of women’s experience, as in the title poem to her collection Letter from a Far Country, where the mundane task of hanging out the washing becomes cause for historical remembrance: “My Grandmother might be standing/ in the great silence before the Wars./ Hanging the washing between trees”. Here, human and nature are also depicted in perfect symbiosis, part of the same life cycle:
The people have always talked.
The landscape collects conversations
as carefully as a bucket,
gives them back in concert
with a wood of birdsong.
Clarke’s imagery is rich and instantly evocative in its detail. As Belinda Cooke wrote in Poetry Ireland Review said: “what is typical of her writing [is] a physical immediacy [ . . . ] the concrete detail that provides an eureka-like sensation – Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”
Snow on the Mountain, Christopher Davies, Swansea, 1971
The Sundial, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1978
Letter From a Far Country, Carcanet, Manchester, 1982 (reprinted 2006)
Selected Poems, Carcanet, Manchester, 1985
Letting in the Rumour, Carcanet, Manchester, 1989
The King of Britain’s Daughter, Carcanet, Manchester, 1993
Collected Poems, Carcanet, Manchester, October 1997
Five Fields, Carcanet, Manchester, 1998
Nine Green Gardens, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 2000 (Illustrated, with colour photographs)
Making the Beds for the Dead, Carcanet, Manchester, 2004
A Recipe for Water, Carcanet, Manchester, 2009
Visit Gillian Clarke’s website
Gillian Clarke’s poetry is published by Carcanet
Listen to Gillian Clarke reading at the Poetry Archive
Carol Rumens reviewing Clarke’s most recent collection A Recipe for Water in The Guardian
Read an informative interview with Clarke on the Sheer Poetry website
Try Gillian Clarke’s poetry workshop