The Welsh Poppy Flame of the Sun: A Tribute to Raymond Garlick

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    Raymond Garlick, who died in Cardiff on 19 March 2011, was an important and influential figure in support of Wales and Welsh writing in English. He had significant achievements as a poet, editor, critic, political campaigner and teacher. The last time I spoke to him was in March 2010 when he telephoned me about an article I had written on the letters he had received from R. S. Thomas. Garlick had introduced me to the works of Thomas when he tutored me at Trinity College, Carmarthen. It was there that he also led me to discover David Jones, Idris Davies, Glyn Jones, Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, John Ormond and Leslie Norris. As a teenager, listening to him speak about these writers was an inspirational and illuminating experience. I will miss the conversations and meetings we went on to have over the years at his flat off College Road (along with some meetings in London, Cardiff and Swansea), as well as receiving his letters and cards (I have over a hundred), the earliest dating back to 1978. His beautiful italic handwriting was a fine aesthetic experience. Even R. S. Thomas, in his letters to Raymond, noted, ‘I hold your calligraphy up to Gwydion as an example’.

    Garlick had fascinating recollections of other writers. He met Dylan Thomas a month or so before his death in 1953 and described him to me as gentle, modest, humble, a dedicated poet. He also spoke of Roy Campbell’s poetry as having a stronger influence on his own apprentice efforts than anybody else’s. Garlick was impressed by Campbell’s exact craftsmanship, his striking imagery, the almost crystalline quality of his verse.

    It was because of Campbell’s poem, ‘Horses on the Camargue’, that Garlick went there himself. The emblem on the front of three of his books is the Croix de Camargue. Made of wrought iron, the original rises from a block of stone and stands in the village of Saintes Maries de la Mer by the church where the gypsies made their annual pilgrimage. It looks towards Africa, and it struck Garlick as being a symbol of Europe, together with the many other symbols that one can work out from its shape, the crossed trident and the anchor.

    Garlick was conscious of how fortunate he had been to know two major writers, R. S. Thomas and John Cowper Powys, and to have been enriched by their friendship. He was aware of the strange coincidence that a book by each of them, The Stones of the Field and Obstinate Cymric, was published a short distance from where he lived in Carmarthen, at Keidrych Rhys’s Druid Press, and added that not every town sees the launch of a book by two great writers.

    Garlick was fascinated by the shape and appearance of letters, words (examples of his shaped poems include ‘Marwnad’, ‘Capitals’ and ‘Vowels’) handwriting, carved and engraved inscriptions, samplers and alphabets. It came as no surprise, therefore, that on the cover of his Collected Poems was an alphabet by Eric Gill, carved by Lawrence Cribb. He thought The Engravings of Eric Gill, by Christopher Skelton, a marvellous book, and believed the fundamental mystery was that certain shapes can convey sounds, meanings and nuances of feeling. He found them beautiful as shapes, as well as carved, engraved, penned or painted letters.

    As a child growing up in north-west London Garlick spent holiday visits at his grandparents’ house in Deganwy. It was there that a sense of place and freedom was awakened in him, which eventually brought about a commitment towards Wales. London suburbia was not for him.

    By the 1940s he had met Brenda Chamberlain, the first painter he had ever known. He was a student at Bangor at the time, and he rented from her the studio half of Ty’r Mynydd, the cottage where she had lived with John Petts. In 1949, still only twenty-three, with no Arts Council funding, he became one of the founding editors of Dock Leaves (later renamed the Anglo-Welsh Review). The 1960s saw him teaching in the Netherlands. Again, the experience brought a new dimension to his poetry; it also brought further opportunities to travel in Europe. By 1967 he decided the time was right to return to Wales and he eventually became Principal Lecturer in Welsh Studies at Trinity College, Carmarthen.

    La Croix de Camargue (the Camargue cross)

     

     

    Portrait of Raymond Garlick Gordon Stuart RCA Oil on canvas, 1995 ©The Artist

     

    I recall his enjoyment at seeing a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in London during the 1980s. He had known many of the pictures from reproductions going back to childhood and had seen many of them at the Tate on previous visits. But to him it was magnificent to see them en masse. He wrote to me at the time, ‘I like so many of them because they are essentially literary, and have their point of departure in a poem. Many of them too display wonderful technical skill, and a breathtaking sense of colour’. He thought the same two things characterised the Gwen John film shown on BBC2 in 1984 – beautiful landscape shots, posed like paintings, and interiors like Dutch still-life painting.

    On the walls of his flat, two works by Gordon Stuart gave him, he told me, huge pleasure every day. The Bishop’s Palace, St. David’s and a wonderful blue Llansteffan Headland. He also thought highly of Gordon’s portrait of him, made during the Year of Literature, held in Swansea in 1995. In his poem, St. David’s by Gordon Stuart, Garlick writes: ‘Towers, gables, clerestories swim/In washes of Arthurian light/No rain can dull, no winter dim.’

    It is worth quoting a few more lines from his poetry where his eye sharpens into focus:

    The hat, I think, fixes
    In truth’s relief
    An unprepared heart
    In the ambush of grief.

    – from ‘Picasso’s Femme Qui Pleure

    Done for my grandfather, the first
    Painting I knew …

    – from ‘A Still Life by Barbaro’

    The high corn like a golden fleece For Van Gogh to eternalise.
    – from ‘Hiraeth’

    Above the shimmering Turner-scape …
    As we draw
    Near to the buoyant palaces,
    We see what Canaletto saw.
    – from ‘Venetian Entry’

    He had a childhood memory of entering the beauty of an art room at school and wrote:
    Dazed by the beauty, For the first time …
    Sit down
    said the voice, Except
    That boy with the grin
    On his face.
    You put Your hands on your head,
    To-day, I know, of course. It just did not occur
    To him that school might be a place one could be happy in.

    – from ‘The Art Lesson’

    Reading through his poems gives one a sense of pleasure; the elegance of form, the style and structure are all there – richly shaped and tuned words, skilfully conducted. A man of elegant qualities and skills, Garlick played a central role in the advancement of Welsh literature in English.

    It was a privilege to have met him and, like many others, I was fortunate to have known him. I will let Raymond have the final words, from his fine poem, Traeth LLansteffan, which the artist Jonah Jones illustrated for the cover of The Delphic Voyage:

    Walking along the washed
    skin of the world, under the high
    ocean of the evening
    heavens, only the insistent sigh
    of the respiring
    sea to be heard. The scoured rocks dry,
     
    sculptured and matt, ice-blue
    and Tyrian, acid as inks.
    The promontory
    silhouetted, bulks like a sphinx
    over the orient Tywi,
    and the sun sinks.