The people's poets of Wales

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It might be something of a generalization but, from the early days of the princes, the Welsh have always enjoyed poetry and revered their bards. To be a poet at the court of the king or prince was a position that held honour, prestige and more than a little degree of glamour.

In the halls of the kings of Deheubarth, Powys and the rest there was a clear order of precedence for these poets and ballad singers.

At the top of the tree sat the Pencerdd, the chief poet or singer, who occupied an honoured and much-coveted position at the top table. He sang of the glory of the king and his prowess as a ruler – an oral tradition, of course, as little or nothing was ever written down.

Below the Pencerdd came the Bardd Teulu who, as well as having the duty of entertaining the queen in her private quarters, was also the poet of the ruler's war band. His role was clearly mapped out in the Laws of Hywel Dda.

However, it was not just the lords and ladies of the court who enjoyed poetry and verse. They may not have been so well educated or sophisticated as their social betters but ordinary men and women also enjoyed listening to heroic tales, and perhaps something a little less erudite. The Cerddorian were poets whose verse was less refined than that of men such as the Pencerdd and the Bardd Teulu. In fact, it was usually humorous and often quite ribald.

Each of the Cerddorian enjoyed their own localised reputations and long after the rule of the princes had come to an end, these 'people's poets' of Wales continued to recite and offer entertainment to the ordinary folk of the villages and towns. Throughout the Victorian Age, in particular, such men flourished in Wales.

The term Bardd Cocos now applies to any writer of doggerel, men similar in ability and reputation to the famous William McGonagall. The difference was, of course, the Scottish rhymster wrote in English, the Bardd Cocos in Welsh – and therefore their fame and influence were limited just to Wales.

The name Bardd Cocos (poet of the cockles) originally referred to John Evans who lived at Menai Bridge between 1826 and 1888. He was a cockle seller and the term Bardd Cocos simply described his job and his vocation. His verse was pretty bad but it appealed to the ordinary man and woman in the street who had little idea about metre and rhythm.

By now, these people's poets were actually writing down their efforts and the Encyclopedia of Wales quotes one of Evans's poems, translated from Welsh, about the new stone lions at the end of the Britannia Bridge:

"Four fat lions
Without any hair,
Two over here
And four over there."

Evans's reputaion grew steadily – sadly the quality of his verse did not. Later in life he was dubbed Archfardd Cocysaidd Tywysgel – the Royal High Cockle Poet – by wags who might have had a way with words but no inclination to go into verse themselves.

There were many other writers of similar quality, aiming their product at the ordinary people of Wales – and some who were considerably better.

The term Bardd Gwlad refers to a poet who celebrates his local environment and local events. Many of these poets commemorated births, deaths and marriages in the villages, writing englynion that were often inscribed on gravestones. At the top end of this strata were people like Dic Jones, a writer of real quality, and, arguably, men such as Cyril Gwynn and Harri Webb – who wrote in English rather than the traditional Welsh.

Y Bardd Cloff was the name given to Thomas Jones who wrote mainly at the end of the 18th century. The term means "the lame poet," Jones having been seriously injured as a child. A more enigmatic name was given to Hugh Hughes - Y Bardd Coch o Fon, the red poet of the bottom!

Abel Jones, 1829 to 1901, was known as Y Bardd Crwst which means, simply, "the crust poet." He was a ballad writer and singer of note and the name reflected the way in which he chose to earn his living. The king of the ballad singers in the 19th century was Richard Williams, Bardd Gwagedd, the writing poet.

In the days before television and radio it is easy to see how such men brought light entertainment and variety to the villages of Wales. Life in the rural hamlets was both spartan and remorseless.

The arrival of a balladeer, singing his songs and reciting his poems – invariably bawdy, although always remaining on the right side of propriety - relieved the almost terminal boredom of such places. Small wonder their reputations endured.

There are still people who compose "odes to order." No wedding would be complete without somebody offering a humorous story, in poetry form, of the bride or groom. And it can be argued that modern performance poetry, so beloved of poetry slams and the like, is nothing more than an extension of this ancient art form.

It is a noble art, poetry for the people, not one to be disparaged. To do it well is difficult, to hit the emotions and imaginations of the listeners, is something every poet aims for.

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