Owen Sheers explores poetry set in the British landscape. He visits the Welsh village of Llanybri to discover the story behind Lynette Roberts's Poem from Llanybri.
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This series is all about the conversation between Britain's poets and places.
I've been travelling all around the country listening to those conversations.
But for this programme, I'm going home.
Croeso i Gymru! Welcome to Wales.
Every year, thousands of people come to this beautiful landscape
in Carmarthenshire on the trail of the superstar of Welsh poetry, Dylan Thomas.
That over there is Laugharne, the village which he immortalised in Under Milk Wood.
But that's not what's brought me here.
I'm here to follow what I think is a much more exciting untold story about another Welsh poet.
She's a young woman who was here at the same time as Thomas
and also wrote some remarkable poetry about the place where she lived.
Her name was Lynette Roberts, and her village is Llanybri.
There are places that speak, telling the stories of us and them
A village asleep, loaded with dream
An ocean flicking its pages over the sand
Eventually, we reply
A conversation of place and page over time
Inscribing the map so that each, in turn, might hold the line.
The poet Lynette Roberts lived between 1939 and 1948
in the village of Llanybri in Carmarthenshire.
While she was there, despite the tribulations of war and poverty,
she wrote a number of wonderful and highly original poems.
At the time, the great writer Robert Graves said that she was one of the few true poets now writing.
However, when she left the village, her poetry petered out and was soon largely forgotten.
That is until very recently, when her poems were re-published to an enthusiastic reception.
Lynette Roberts was looking at the world as though she'd never seen it before.
I'd never read a collection of her poems until fairly recently and I realise what I'd been missing.
Marvellous, incredibly idiosyncratic body of work
that was produced by a fascinating character.
This film is about one of my favourite of those poems.
It's called simply Poem From Llanybri.
It's a fantastically visual poem, a beautiful and surprising poem.
It's also a warm invitation to come and visit her.
And I suppose, in many ways, that's what I'm doing now is accepting that invitation.
Between now and then I will offer you
A fistful of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic, red with dew cooler than shallots
A breath you can swank in the village when you come
At noon-day, I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a lover's spoon and a chopped spray of leeks or savori fach
Not used now In the old way, you'll understand.
It was especially surprising for me to read that poem and to discover such an original voice.
Because if there's one landscape that I thought I knew in terms of poetry it was South Wales, where I'm from.
And yet here was an original voice, a unique voice that I'd never heard of before. Here's the sign.
"Llanybri, please drive carefully."
I'll do my best.
And here's Llanybri itself,
which I must admit
looks pretty ordinary.
I suppose there should be no surprise about that,
it was a very ordinary village when she lived here as well.
I'm sort of looking for her house.
This might be it actually, yes.
It's called Ty Gwyn, which means White House in Welsh.
And this was where she lived and wrote, all through the war years.
You want to know about my village?
You should want to know, even if you don't want to know about my village
My village is very small
You could pass it with a winning gait
Lynette Roberts came to live in Llanybri in 1939 with her new husband, the writer Keidrych Rhys.
The village back then was a poor farming community of no more than 200 people.
It must have been an incredible shock for Lynette to move here to Llanybri
in October 1939, completely different to anything she'd experienced before.
She'd been living in London before she came here, but she was brought up on the other side of the world.
Lynette was born in Buenos Aires, 30 years earlier in 1909.
Her father was head of a big railway company and she was brought up
in a world of horses, yachts and glamorous society.
Her mother died of typhoid when she was 13
and she and her sister were sent away to boarding school in England,
after which she went to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.
From there, she trained as a florist with Constance Spry before setting up her own business.
She met Keidrych Rhys at a party for Poetry London.
She wrote that he was charming and spoke like a prince.
Only a few months later in October 1939, Lynette and Keidrych moved to
Carmarthenshire, where they married in the village of Llansteffan.
So this was the church that Lynette and Keidrych got married in when they came here?
Absolutely. Cupid's arrow found its mark and the knot was tied, I do believe, in 1939.
They were joining an artistic community which was already thriving in Llansteffan.
And of course Dylan Thomas was Keidrych's best man.
After their wedding, they stayed in Llansteffan for only a couple of months
before being obliged to move up the hill to a small cottage in Llanybri.
Judith Thomas is the current owner of Ty Gwyn and she invited me in to have a look round.
Well, this our new part of the cottage.
This wasn't here when we first came.
The garden was here, you know, because she writes a lot about being in the vegetable garden.
It's amazing to see, it hasn't changed from the photographs I've seen.
This garden has gone through two or three changes since Lynette.
And we've more or less put it back where it was, almost.
We know a great deal about Lynette's time here
thanks to the beautifully detailed observations in the journal
that she kept while she lived in the village.
June 24th 1940.
Today it did not rain so my plants, which have been transplanted, are beginning to look very flat.
Gardening is a disheartening job as the work relies too much on
the good will of God, and he is not always co-operating.
Will it be possible to have a look at the part of the house that would have been here when she was here?
I'll show you the only thing that's really pure that's left.
Now that I actually recognise from her paintings.
That's the fireplace that was here when she was here.
-It's actually quite strange to stand here and think that
a lot of the work that we're talking about, she actually wrote here.
You know, on that one wooden table that she writes about.
-Where she washed and she cooked and she wrote.
I came here early '80s and it was like going back 50 years.
Did they still have the livestock coming through the village then?
Yes, the herds would go through.
Everyone had a pig in the garden.
-Has it gone?
-But the sharing hasn't gone.
-The community hasn't gone.
While Lynette was living in the village,
she gave birth to two children who she blessed with good Welsh names - Angharad and Pridyn.
They've both made a trip back to the village to talk to me about their mother and their time in Llanybri.
Or I can offer you Cwmcelyn spread with quartz stones from the wild scratchings of men
You will have to go carefully with clogs or thick shoes for
it's treacherous, the fen
The east and west marshes also have bogs.
So you brought me to this somewhat windy and cold field.
But where exactly are we, what is this place?
This is Cwmcelyn, that Mum wrote about in her poem.
And she used to bring us down here, down the lane for a walk, down in a pushchair.
And this was this lovely open space.
How strong are your memories from that period?
The thing I remember is cattle were always
through the streets all the time, right in the centre of the village.
So it was always cow dung that you were walking through.
And they were going backwards and forwards to be milked.
She was very interested in birds.
She had a great deal of books on birds.
You know Wetherby's books on birds.
She was very interested in estuary birds.
What I found so remarkable about her work is when she's studying a
bird it isn't enough to just to be looking at it and feeding it.
She actually wants to taste its flesh.
-You do get this sense of someone...
-She must have been very hungry.
Well, yes, I suppose there's one, the fact that she was hungry.
-But this sense of someone who wanted to experience life with all five senses.
She missed some of the food from Argentina and they have
guava jelly and they have a quince paste that they have with cheese.
And she used to put jam on cheese which we thought was disgusting,
to try and get that taste that she had from her childhood.
God, to go from guava jelly to Llanybri, that's a hell of a contrast, isn't it?
Yeah, because obviously South America's light and bright and colourful.
And, you know, noisy and this is...
But that's interesting that you say that
because something else that she brings into this landscape through her writing
-is an incredible sense of colour, isn't it?
Yeah, she was very observant, right to the end.
She'd notice your coloured scarf, she'd notice all different colours in it that we wouldn't even see.
Lynette wasn't just a poet, she was interested in art in every possible form.
She'd studied drawing and painting at college and when she came to Llanybri she continued to paint.
Her painter's eye is powerfully evident in her poetry
and I talked about this with local artist Ozzie Osmond.
What is it exactly about the visual quality of her work that really strikes you?
She has this enormous sweep of eye.
And it's that discipline that she had than enabled
this extraordinary woman to come in and out of focus, change, shift, move, follow movement.
The idea of movement in her poem is extraordinary and the idea of...
It's almost like you're watching, reading a poem through a pair of binoculars or a microscope.
Lynette Roberts was looking at the world as though she'd never seen it before.
She was looking at it in a way normal people do not look at the world. Extraordinary.
I was just wondering if it's possible to pin point a few of the aspects
about that village that you think worked for her.
I think Llanybri, in the sense, is a village almost, you might say, with a kind of eternal winter.
Whereby in a sense things that are interesting, colourful, decorative, pretty if you like,
attractive, scented, sound, it's increased because it's on a plainer backdrop, in a sense.
She could see something in that village that was very, very special.
And it was, I think. You know, and it still is.
Through Lynette's eyes, Llanybri was a strange and exotic world.
By the same token, she seems to have cut a pretty exotic figure for the locals.
Elenid Roberts still vividly remembers Lynette's weekly visits to Llansteffan.
We'd come down to watch the 6:30 bus coming down from
Llanybri and wait, hopefully, to see whether a couple got out of the bus.
The couple being Keidrych Rhys and Lynette Roberts.
And this was the main purpose of this long wait.
We had no watches, so we might have been there a long time.
Anyway, off they would get.
Keidrych Rhys, large, shambling.
Lynette Roberts, tall, slender and walked with the elegant gait of a dancer.
Lynette had beautiful long, flowing skirts, ankle length skirts,
And we'd never seen anything thing like that other than on the films.
They'd be coming down to have a bath at the house of Stanley Rose who was head of the art school.
And they lived in a posh house with a bath.
Elenid is a local historian and I talked to her about what life was like in Llanybri in the 1940s.
What sort of a place was Llanybri when they moved in there in 1939?
It was a very isolated community and unlike, Llansteffan, most of the people really were natives.
They'd have been either there or in the area for generations.
It was entirely Welsh speaking, unlike Llansteffan which had always been anglicised.
The people were mainly farmers, I would say that about 97% of the people were linked with the land.
Not very wealthy.
Diseases were rife and anything like tuberculosis, measles,
whatever was going, the poor children had them there.
The houses were small for the most part and large families lived in over-crowded conditions.
And this was something that Roberts was very much aware of, wasn't it?
She was very much aware of the conditions, yes.
The houses might have been picturesque, but they were unhygienic.
Her work seems to blossom in that environment, doesn't it?
Yes, it does. Whatever was there inspired her.
During the war years it must have felt like a relatively safe place to be as well?
Oh, that is certainly true, yes.
On the other hand, when you think that she'd been brought up in a
privileged environment with servants and there she was in a two roomed cottage with no running water.
-And having to come down here for her weekly bath.
-Having to come down for a bath.
I mean, the woman was remarkable that she managed.
Although Lynette had enormous strength of character, living in Llanybri was undoubtedly tough.
They had very little money. It was a big, big problem.
And in the first entry in her diary she'd been married not even a month.
She was married on October 4th and the first entry is November 3rd.
And she's already complaining about scrubbing the floor and saying, "I hate him."
So it didn't take long for reality to...
I mean, of course there was this one incident where she was accused of being a German spy during the war.
What was the story behind that?
We heard from someone who was a child in Llansteffan, but her father was the policeman.
And she said they saw a light flashing when it was blackout.
And it turned out it was Mum's cat that was sort of on the torch somehow.
-I don't quite understand it.
-Playing with the torch.
But I suppose it was a time when people were suspicious.
But despite the poverty which she witnessed and experienced, as well as the estrangement which she often
felt as an outsider in this small community, Lynette clearly developed a strong connection with the village.
Her passion for the place comes through powerfully in her Poem From Llanybri.
A poem that she wrote for a young Welsh poet and infantry man,
Alun Lewis, who she met in the summer of 1940.
It was a meeting that clearly left a strong impression on both of them.
What I've just got hold of here are some of
the letters that Lynette wrote to Alun Lewis after they met and they make absolutely fascinating reading.
And the first thing that really springs off the page is how much fun she was.
She was obviously an incredibly lively, enthusiastic character.
I mean, the one here that I'm reading the opening line is, "Mr Lewis you are an utter swine.
"But I liked your letter. Odd ways, odd people.
"I too wrote you a poem but you won't like it so I shan't send it yet.
"Not today anyhow, it isn't quite finished yet."
And so you can tell from that that although they've only met once they
obviously had a very special meeting, that they recognised something in each other. There was a real spark.
The letter closes with this quite stunning paragraph
where she writes to Alun, "I like your letters, Alun, but I should be frightened if you came too near.
"I might fall in love with you, I might be disillusioned.
"Of the two I prefer the first, the second is horrible.
"It hurts me to say this but I don't know why.
"I could cry but perhaps it is just tiredness, I don't know. Bye bye, Alun.
"I'll send you your poem, the one I wrote to you, some other day."
And then she signs off quite simply, "I grieve Alun, Lynette."
So if there was any doubt about how she feels towards him, how
she feels about their relationship at this stage, then that
way of signing off really hammers it home.
Shortly after having written that letter, she sent Alun this poem.
Poem From Llanybri.
If you come my way that is Between now and then I will
offer you a fistful of red cress, fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic, red with dew
Cooler than shallots
A breath you can swank in the village when you come
At noon day, I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a lover's spoon and a chopped spray of leeks or savori fach
Not used now In the old way, you'll understand
The din of children singing through the eyelet sheds
Ringing smith hoops, chasing the butt of hens
Or I can offer you
Cymcelyn, spread with quartz stones from the wild scratchings of men
You will have to go carefully with clogs or thick shoes
For it's treacherous, the fen
The east and west marshes also have bogs
Then I'll do the lights, fill the lamp with oil
Get coal from the shed, water from the well
Pluck and draw pigeon with crop of green foil
This your good supper from the lime tree fell
A sit by the hearth with blue flames rising
just a stare at time
Gathering healed thoughts, pool insight like swans sailing peace and sound around the home
Offering you a nights rest and my day's energy.
You must come,
start this pilgrimage
Can you come?
Send an ode or elegy in the old way and raise our heritage.
On one level this poem seems like such a gentle conversational invitation to a quiet homely supper.
But underneath, there's a note of intense yearning for the visitor.
An undercurrent that's certainly intensified,
given what we know about Lynette's feelings for Alun from her letters.
Lynette is certainly offering him all of the physical aspects of the poem.
The food that she can pick from the area, the local knowledge about the fens and the bogs.
But she's also offering him this opportunity at the very end of the poem.
"Send an ode or elegy in the old way and raise our heritage."
So what's she's really saying to him is here is a chance
for us as two poets from Wales, to write out of the old ways,
out of Welsh history, but to write to the best of our ability poetry that is uniquely Welsh.
Lewis did eventually visit Llanybri but when he came it was with his new wife, Gwyno.
Tragically four years later he shot himself whilst serving in Burma,
a tragedy that was only mitigated by the fact that by then he had certainly
raised our heritage, as Lynette put it,
having written some of the best poetry to come out of the war.
Gillian Clarke is the national poet of Wales.
I wondered what she had to say about the poem that Lynette wrote for Alun.
What is it about Poem From Llanybri that
you think really makes it work so successfully as a poem?
Because she's using a kind of colloquial language as well, as well as a highly formal language.
I mean, it rhymes. The rhythm is very interesting.
Her punctuation is spot on because she
is deliberately not using it when she wants to run the language on.
She's got some inversions in it, which I love.
Like, you know, "It's treacherous, the fen."
I could hear my Aunty Phyllis saying that, whereas a normal, proper,
educated English sentence should be, "The fen is very treacherous."
But that would not make it as treacherous as she makes it.
How important do you think her learning of the Welsh traditional poetry forms is for her?
The poem from Llanybri, which is a poem of invitation.
I think I'm right in saying that is already an existing Welsh form?
Yeah, I think so. I think you're right.
It's very biotic isn't it? And it's beautiful that it's to a poet.
And yet she's written in quite casual language.
It's formed but it's also, at the same time, quite colloquial and like a letter, which is so modern.
Her experience in the village was almost entirely bracketed by the Second World War.
She was, in effect, a war poet.
I always feel that Lynette Roberts, in many ways, saw more of the war
than someone like Alun Lewis who she was writing to in this poem.
Because of Alun Lewis and wonderful poets like that,
we never got the picture of what was happening
when there wasn't any water, when the bread ran out, when refugees moved in, when people moved from
their houses and there were no more houses and there was such poverty.
What we all forget is Britain was so poor at the end of the war.
-And she really does offer a glimpse of that other side, doesn't she?
And actually even this poem, Poem From Llanybri,
is a war poem of sorts in that she is offering a moment of refuge from all of that, from all of that conflict.
Really she's offering that to Alun Lewis, isn't she?
She is. She's offering that, and also what she's offering him isn't a rump steak and a bottle of wine.
It's things taken from the hedgerow and scraped from the fields.
It's a pigeon that's fallen from the tree.
Absolutely, a pigeon fallen from the tree.
And I wonder how many poets have ever plucked and cooked a pigeon.
I'll go away and do that now, Gillian.
This portrait of rural village life, Poem From Llanybri, was published in
1944 in Lynette Roberts' first and only collection.
Her editor was the poetry giant T.S. Elliott.
How important do you think it was that when your mother started to
write, she was supported by probably one of the greatest poetry editors
ever, and certainly the most important editor at that time, in T.S. Elliot?
It was an amazing stroke of luck, wasn't it?
Do you think it was luck or...?
We went there and there was this huge ebony elephant propped up against the door.
And I tried to steal it. Lynette was talking about poetry at the time.
She was trying to be serious about her future and we just went around wrecking everything.
Stealing things, crying and blabbing and all the rest of it.
She said we spat and screamed and cried.
I don't remember any of it myself.
But, you know, apparently it's true.
Do you think that she knew the quality of her work would always out?
Yeah, I think she did think she was special.
Yeah, she thought she was.
-She thought she was a genius, you know. She was convinced of it.
In 1948, Lynette split up with Keidrych and she and the children moved across the estuary to a
caravan that was parked in a field below the graveyard in Laugharne.
Apart from a fiercely modernist longer poem published in 1951,
the move from Llanybri seems to have brought Lynette's poetry to an end.
For nine years, the landscape of Llanybri had given Lynette a subject and a focus for her writing.
But when her connection with the village came to an end, so did her poetry.
Kathryn Gray is the editor of The New Welsh Review.
Here's another invitation, another village and a different kind of outsider.
Come, hot wired from the city down a one car lane
Over the keystone bridge that cannot take the headlong rush
Past the parish church where the dead were married, with your due disregard.
Come past chrysanthemum baskets and post office
The adjoining grocers
Be in the byways, kick up that stereo, hand fumbling in a glove compartment
Cassette reams spinning out the window
Come, accelerate forward into pitch on less than a quarter of a tank left
As wheels take flight from the ditch, leave behind the oaks
The sign, "Thank you for driving considerately through our village."
Come, while these lights come on within the regularity of their living rooms
As curtains part, jest post lapsarian until now
quite unaware that there were silences, laws observed to be disturbed.
At the time that Lynette Roberts is writing, you get a very strong
sense that she is connected with other writers and they are all men.
-There's Dylan Thomas, there's Alun Lewis, there's Robert Graves.
-Where are the women?
And she was very much a woman in a man's world, wasn't she?
She was totally isolated.
And, when you consider the incredible vicissitudes of balancing home and hearth,
child rearing and becoming a writer, you can hardly blame others for
thinking that perhaps it couldn't be a career for them.
What makes her unique is she did in fact juggle all those things.
I think back then not only was it so difficult to do all those
things but of course socially it wouldn't have been something
that society looked on in a positive way.
And certainly for Lynette Roberts, literature was very much seen as a man's work.
And I think never more so than in Wales where the domination
of the male line, particularly in poetry, was immense.
If you were to be talking to a young writer now, what would
be the three reasons that you would give to them why they should really go and have a look at her work?
If you picked up a handful of poems at random what would reveal itself
is what an acute observer of the natural world she is.
And there's this great lushness and expansiveness, too.
So there's something, in many ways very naturalistic.
And you go, "Yes, that's it exactly."
And yet it has this marvellous sweeping feel. And I think,
like many writers who fall into decline, in some respects the world wasn't quite ready for her.
After the caravan at Laugharne, Lynette and the children moved to England.
20 years later, she returned to Llanybri.
But by this time, she was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia
and she was eventually committed into a hospital in nearby Carmarthen.
In 1989 she moved to a residential home in the village of Ferryside,
living there till the age of 85 when she broke her hip while dancing, causing a heart attack.
She was buried back in Llanybri.
For me, spending time with Lynette Roberts' voice has been a really electrifying experience.
I truly think that she's a vital and a vitalising part of what she says in Poem From Llanybri is our heritage.
And I only hope that now her work is being re-published that more
people will accept her invitation to spend some more time with her and her writing.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves.
Lynette Roberts is not a famous poet. She only published one full collection of poems and her work has been almost forgotten, but her vivid, modern, hot-blooded writing about a Welsh village and her time there during the Second World War reveals an extraordinary woman and a brilliant poetic voice who Robert Graves described in the 1940s as 'one of the few true poets now writing'.
Roberts was brought up in a wealthy family in Argentina but married a writer from Carmarthenshire in 1939 at the outbreak of war and spent the next nine years living in poverty in a Welsh-speaking village. She involved herself in every aspect of village life and despite being accused of being a spy found a fierce passion for the local people and the landscape.
Sheers visits the unassuming village of Llanybri where she lived and is now buried, and uncovers the moving story behind her poem called simply Poem from Llanybri, an invitation to the young soldier poet Alun Lewis to pay her a visit. He talks to locals who remember her and admire her work, and to the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke.