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Foreword by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury

This volume marks the centenary of the birth of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and distinctive – and neglected – poets in the English language. As Richard Ramsbotham notes in his penetrating introduction, the reputation of Watkins’s friend and fellow-townsman, Dylan Thomas, has overshadowed his own. It is hard to imagine two more different poets – in idiom as much as in lifestyle; but the very fact that they appreciated each other reminds us that there are no textbook requirements for authentic poetry, and that reputations do not have to compete.

Watkins is, on his own account, a ‘metaphysical’ poet: that is, he aims to make visible something behind the surface of things, like veins standing out in flesh. The image seems appropriate, if only to rebut the charge that he somehow empties out the specificity of landscape or personality in order to evoke timeless patterns. Yet it is impossible to read some of his poems on the Gower peninsula, or the evocations of bird or shell, or the addresses to those he loves and think of these works as abstract. In a very characteristic little poem, ‘The Razor Shell’ (p.72), we find inseparably bound together the actuality of a physical object and the wild depth of its own hidden inner world. ‘Do not interpret me too soon’ warns the shell; and the poem is not in that sense interpretation but the large mapping of a context and hinterland still to be explored, felt for, in the poem’s words. The poem does not reduce the object to some kind of geometry; it listens for the tides on which the object sails.

These are astonishingly sustained poems. Short or long, they carry their matter forward at a steady pace, with a sense of both verbal and imaginative solidity. Some could be said to have – not a very fashionable thing to ascribe to a poem now, perhaps – a ‘liturgical’ quality, the effect of a complex ceremony in words. The ‘Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’, which is, I think, one of his greatest works and one of the outstanding poems of the century, draws together the folk-ritual of the New Year, the Christian Eucharist, the uneasy frontier between living and dead, so as to present a ix

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