Alan Morrison on

Gwilym Williams

Genteel Messages – Gwilym Williams

Poetry Monthly Press, 2008

54 pp perfect bound, ISBN 978-1-906357-17-7 £5.25

A Packet of Revels

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you can't go far wrong with Gwilym Williams. The editor of the ever heart-warming webzine Poet-in-Residence provides us with an equally warming collection of poems, which goes down as smoothly as a ‘darkly bottled stout’ (‘The poets of the public bar’). Genteel Messages – a nicely produced slim volume with a full colour cartoon cover of part of a man’s head attached to puppet strings – is a welcome follow up to Williams’ debut pamphlet, the excellent Mavericks. It’s satisfying to see this eminently readable and witty poet at last in perfect-bound form.

Williams is a poet who always surprises me through the course of reading a selection of his poems, rather like going through a packet of Revels: you never quite know what the filling is going to be until you bite into it. In just 54 pages, Williams provides sketches of pub literati (‘Good Companions’; ‘The poets of the public bar’), poet ghosts (‘Waiting with Beckett’; ‘Walking with Bukowski’), tongue-in-cheek poetic pastiche (‘Runcorn East’ – subtitled with apologies to Edward Thomas; the Hughesian ‘Crow’), Carrollish polemic (‘Dr. Strangelove & The New Model Triad’), beguiling vignettes (‘An Old Man Walks Home’), quirky studies of the mundane (‘Haircut’; ‘Christmas Shopping’), picturesque travelogue (‘On Attending the Venice Biennale’; ‘On the Felderherrenhalle Steps’; ‘Iron Curtain’), as well as his trademark native leg-pulling (‘Report on ‘Welsh Grammar’’) and Austrian miniatures (‘Simon Rattle Conducts’; ‘Greilenstein Castle’) – the poet resides in Vienna. The fillings are mostly honeycomb and there are very few, if any, orange or coconuts among them (ok, metaphor over).

Williams is a particularly likeable Welsh-hailed poet, in that he doesn’t take his sense of nationality too seriously (unlike other modern day bards from the valleys one might think of), possibly helped by living at a distance in Austria and no doubt gaining a more objective view of his native land and inhabitants as, say, James Joyce did of Ireland while living in Switzerland et al. Two pages in and, even in what is ostensibly a travelogue piece based in Venice, he can’t help a little tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for fellow countrymen, depicting them from proverbial memories by their absence in ‘the last nook and crannied corner’ of an Austrian pub garden:

There was no Evans the Flasher

under the rough lean-to –

There was no Seawright the Painter

in the whitewashed entresol –

only his sunsets.

It was all very Welsh.

(‘On Attending the Venice Biennale’)

I mentioned before in my review of Mavericks that Williams possess more of a smattering of his Welsh antecedents, the two Thomases. RS is given more reverential treatment (as opposed to the equally masterful but more leg-pulling ‘Deus Absconditus’ in Mavericks):

Having read his anguished words

I too am moved to dip my pen

into the spilled inkpot

of a Welsh sunset.

the mangels docked you kept the knife

and grinned your way

to the hunchbacked rain-soaked church

beside the sea.

Under your blue slate slab

below the trembling

quilted hill

pray rest easy

in your seashore bed.

(‘On Reading RS Thomas’)

Here we have at work both the metaphorical verbal lilt of Dylan Thomas (‘hunchbacked rain-soaked church’) mingled with the sparser lyricism of Alun Lewis (the last stanza). Shades of Lewis proliferate Williams’ poems – whether consciously or unconsciously – with beautiful imagery and an almost prayer-like ease:

The palace of bread and circus

according to the Roman poet.

Below the stones of the quadrifons

below the prayers to Jupiter

below the unseen buzzard

wine splashes from dark bottles.

And bread is torn.

The crowd begins to cheer.


This uncluttered Lewisian lyricism strikes frequently in Williams’ poems:

Bryn the collie sits tight-lipped

on the tractor.


the glare

the strike

and the wax flies

from the dresser candle

to land on the forward leading portraiture

and the blue blazes of crockery.

Bryn the collie growls over the hill

hurtles into space.

The moon rolls over

to drown.

(‘On the Farm’).

Like Dylan Thomas (who often crops up in Williams’ poems – this time in ‘Good Companions’ where, presumably, by ‘Dylan’s/ Ears’ this poet is referring to Thomas’s poem ‘Ears in the Turrets Hear’), Williams both dabbles in verbal play, and vernacular mimicry, which is one of the latter’s greatest strengths (‘Hard Cases’, but most notably employed in the authentic and hilarious ‘Telling Directions’ in Mavericks).

In the painterly sensibility of ‘Iron Curtain’ (subtitled location – Hungary/Austrian border), Dylan Thomas’s verbal influence is felt:

Old wet yellow-skinned apples

lie under bare trees

on rumps of sump-black leaves

on swards of grease-slumped grass

and softly sigh and sink.

Bruised or darkly rotting

worm-holed or bird-pecked

its all silently raked

heaped and salvaged

in old tubs; a winter feast

for the root-crunching hogs

of the wooded hills.

The poem closes with the wistful reflection:

I can’t help glancing back

and wonder why they didn’t fall;

those few apples still hanging

from the bones of the shaken trees

like ropes of pale gold lights.

Williams often excels at metaphor, precisely because he doesn’t spell it out:

In Romantische mood

the silver haired spider

is on the podium

before all Vienna

and the Philarmonic.

ten thousand trapped and trembling insects

begin to flap

their wings…

He is fond of the sardonic sketch of literary pretension, more often than not set in dingy pubs whose trade is presumably based on such poetasting punters:

The young men, wild rovers,

sailing into the bar;

pals who like their pilsner


by the golden fistful,


fresh, fizzy, and sparking

lightweight verse.

But it’s mostly froth, airy,

full of holes. Blow it away

and you’re left with what?

Half a pot, perhaps?

Sounding far more appetising is the observer’s own take:

Mature taste

little bitterness, solid fare

with the craftman’s touch,

voices of experience in dark corners

under sentimental sepia prints.

I know which I’d rather imbibe. In ‘Good Companions’, the poet recommends taking a ‘bunch’ of poems

…down the pub

in a slim book

that slips easily in the pocket

and sit on a barstool

with your slim poems

and your stout pint.

Pressing forward

one might say

what’s that Bloodaxe book you’re reading?

Disarm this one

reply that you consider Dylan’s

Ears the tipple of metaphorical maturity

a complimentary pint might even flow.

This could almost be a scene out of Hancock's Half Hour; the Homburged rebel of Railway Cuttings probably would have said in his mockney idiom, ‘a mob of poems’).

Williams never disappoints didactically, in this collection disinterring one of countless forgotten poets, with more than a hint of DT (Dylan Thomas, not delirium tremens – or maybe there is a pun in that):

He was an Irish poet

of the genuine coin and stamp

from Lettermullen; head full

of far-fetched oddments

of hand-picked bog land humour.

‘Colium Wallace (1796-1906)’ ends in a more downbeat tone, depicting the unceremonious declining years of the obscure poet, with lightly daubed lyricism:

but in truth he was blind and in bed

and it was probably raining

his own unlikely sunset setting

was Oughterhead Workhouse

and it is there he was remembered

simply and straightforwardly

as the oldest man in Connemara.

Williams’ powers of description build in the near-tangible ‘Coastal Path’:

on this wind-blasted coastal trip

with their backs to the waves

small trees bend

to look like scraggy crabs

marching onward

on that smooth hillock

on those strange stumps

in this cutting of shells

For me personally, the stand out poem of this truly enjoyable collection is the beguiling ‘An Old Man Walks Home’, which contains some beautifully descriptive lines and some wistful, haunting meditations:

In the garden there grows a crippled tree

heavy with crab-apples

food for worms

and wasps.

On the outhouse roof

the owl rests

patient for the night

Magritte’s clock with no hands.

And below is an old man

walking home and wondering why

he was given the ability

to question it all.

In the kitchen

his wife

face to face with twilight

draws the curtains.

I recommend Genteel Messages wholeheartedly for any poetry reader who wishes for some rewarding and colourful respite from the dreary introspection of much of today’s British ‘poetry scene’ - and from my favourite ex-pat poet,

Gwilym Williams.

For more information on Genteel Messages and how to order please click on this link

All extracts from poems © Gwilym Williams 2008

Alan Morrison © 2008