Monday, 13 July 2015

CELEBRATING THE OUTSIDER

Alun Lewis was born 100 years ago this month.  A blue plaque has been unveiled on the house where he lived in South Wales and there is to be a conference on his writing at Aberystwyth University in the autumn.

An email from Literature Wales alerted me to this anniversary, so I flicked through several anthologies on my shelf to find ... nothing.  A search on the internet brought up "All Day It Has Rained", "The Peasants", "Karanje Village", "Goodbye" and "Postscript: for Gwenno".  I was pleased to discover that there is a Collected Poems, edited by Cary Achard.

Alun Lewis was born in the village of Cwmaman near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley on 1 July 1915.  His parents were both teachers and he won scholarships to grammar school and university, although his three brothers worked in the coal mines.  After working as a supply teacher he joined up ("I've been unable to settle the moral issue satisfactorily").

He was always an outsider - a Welshman writing in English, a pacifist who joined the army, a writer whose work was published in the war years but was ecclipsed by new postwar names.

Two of his poems, "Raider's Dawn" and "Song of Innocence" were published in the beautifully illustrated Caseg Broadsheets of Welsh Poetry.  His idea of creating low-priced publications led to the establishment of Caseg Press by Brenda Chamberlain and John Petts at Llanllechid near Caernarfon (Brenda Chamberlain is best known for her classic book on Bardsey Island, Tide Race).  Other writers published in the broadsheets series included Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts.

Alun Lewis's best work was written during the war in which he felt himself a misfit - "I always write against the tug of war and the horror and tedium of it."  His poem, "All Day It Has Rained" conveys that tedium.  It was written while he was stationed with the Royal Engineers at a military training camp.  The poem details the natural world and the activities of the soldiers:

"And we talked of girls and dropping bombs in Rome,
 And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
 Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees."

In the last verse he describes his most important memories, including walking with a "shaggy patient dog" in the steps of the writer Edward Thomas, one of the poets of the First World War "till a bullet stopped his song".  It was a bullet that stopped Alun Lewis's song too - fired from his own gun in Arakan, Burma in 1944.

But before this there were books - Raider's Dawn and Other Poems and The Last Inspection (short stories) both published in 1942.  After his death Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: poems in transit (with a forward by Robert Graves who had encouraged Lewis and whose son had died in Arakan) and Letters from India were published.

In India and Burma Alun Lewis served as an army intelligence officer.  "The Peasants" is set in India:
"Across scorched hills and trampled crops
 The soldiers straggle by,
 History staggers in their wake.
 The peasants watch them die."

Fifty years after his death Alun Lewis's poems were finally gathered together into a Collected.  In a review (The Independent 27 February 1994) the late Bill Scammell wrote that the poetry reminds us "that 'war poet' is a contradiction in terms".  Why should we read him now? asks Scammell.  "Because his concerns are still ours."


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