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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 June 2023

At a festival in Wales, Malcolm Guite explores poetic riches in two of the country’s jewels

I AM writing this from Aberdaron in the beautiful Llyn peninsula, where I have come to take part in the annual R. S. Thomas and M. E. Eldridge Poetry and Arts Festival. I led some poetry workshops, culminating in a reading of what had been written that day. The watchword I had given my group for the day was: “Begin the song exactly where you are.” We were to write with a rooted, particular, incarnate sense of place.

We couldn’t have chosen a better place in which to begin that endeavour, for our first session took place in Sarn Plas, the tiny white cottage to which R. S. Thomas retired when he ceased to be Vicar of St Hywyn’s, Aberdaron. It is a low white cottage nestled into the hillside, overlooking a bay and with glorious mountain views beyond, the views of which R. S. Thomas wrote:

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking.

We did “grow rich with looking”, and some, at least, of those riches found their way into writing.

But, if the start of our day was in one of the jewels of Wales, our evening reading was in another; for we gathered in the Celtic Roundhouse in Felin Uchaf. It is an extraordinary place. Built up over the past 18 years, it describes itself as a “cultural and eco-centre”, a cluster of buildings of wood and turf and thatch, not a straight line or a hard angle in sight, but all rounded and curved, all interior beams carved and garlanded with inscriptions of poetry, everything naturally bedded in and arising from the landscape in which it is set.

Parts of it would certainly give you a sense of a Celtic settlement in the sixth century, but it also felt like a wonderful cross between Hobbiton and Lothlórien. The roundhouse in which we read seemed and, indeed, was bigger on the inside than the outside; for, from without, you saw the conical thatched roof rising from surrounding greenery, which covered some of its walls, as though the house were growing out of the greenery itself; but, inside, its walls and floor had been dug out more widely from the slight slope in which it nestled.

There was a central fire pit beneath the cone of the thatch, and benches were set in widening circles from around that centre. It was like the ban-hus that Heaney celebrates in his poem “Bone Dreams”:

In the coffered
riches of grammar
and declensions
I found ban-hus,

its fire, benches,
wattle and rafters,
where the soul
fluttered a while

in the roofspace.

Heaney deftly alludes in that poem to the passage in Bede in which a sparrow flits for a moment through the roofspace of just such a hall, and is likened to our own soul. Astonishingly, during our recitations, a swallow did just that, flitting in under the thatch eaves at one end of the roundhouse, enchanting us for a moment, and flying out through the other. There couldn’t have been a better place to recite poetry.

Malcolm Guite received the Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Awards 2023. Read more here.

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