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Idris Davies, poet of the Depression

Phil Carradice

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When we think of the Depression years in Wales, it is sometimes hard to conjure up the individual suffering of families. The event has become an historical episode and people have tended to get lost amongst the facts and figures, the verbiage of historians' opinions.

We know there was unemployment and precious little money around. The image of out of work miners and steel men standing on the street corners is one that sticks. We all remember the words of the man who, for a few brief months, was to become King Edward VIII: "Something has to be done."

But what about the individual men and women who were caught up in the tragedy, what about their feelings and emotions, their worries and fears?

One man who tried to chart or capture that time - and, in particular, the suffering that the people of the Welsh valleys endured - was the poet Idris Davies.

Davies, the son of a Welsh speaking colliery worker, was born on 6 January 1905. He left school at 14 and spent seven years working underground.

The experience of losing part of a finger in an accident and his involvement in the General Strike of 1926, followed by several years of unemployment, confirmed him in his socialist views.

These views were clearly apparent in his early poems, published in Left Wing journals such as Comment and The Left Review. His first book came out in 1938, the second in 1945. The selection for this second book (published by Faber) was made by TS Eliot who considered it the finest poetical document yet made about any specific time and place.

Eliot knew that the primary concern of Idris Davies was the people of his country, a people who were increasingly feeling abandoned and isolated. He wrote about them in poetry because that was what he did, that was his art form, but his true interest was in their feelings and in their almost unimaginable sufferings.

As Davies wrote in his unpublished diary (now held in the National Library at Aberystwyth): "Any subject which has not man at its core is anathema to me. The meanest tramp on the road is ten times more interesting than the loveliest garden in the world."

He educated himself during his long period of unemployment and then moved on to train as a teacher at Loughborough and at Nottingham University before taking up teaching posts in London. Evacuated with his pupils during World War Two, Idris Davies returned to the Sirhowy Valley to teach in 1945.

Idris Davies died of abdominal cancer on 6 April 1953. He was just 48 years old but he left an outstanding legacy in a series of poems that, at first sight, seem gentle and unassuming but which, on closer inspection, are full of bitterness and anger:

"There's a concert in the village to buy us boots and bread,
There's a service in the chapel to make us meek and mild,
And in the valley town the draper's shop is shut."

In books like The Angry Summer and Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies did more than just write poetry, he captured the essential dignity of the working man and woman.

No other writer has ever come close to expressing the sadness and the depression of those valleys at that particular moment in time. And yet he did it in what can be seen as an almost lighthearted style. He was a master of the stunning opening line that made readers stop in their tracks and then read on with more intensity and concentration than they might otherwise have shown.

There are dozens of fine examples. "Send out your homing pigeons, Dai" as he once wrote. Or again "Let's go to Barry Island, Maggie fach." As poems these are colloquial and conversational pieces of work - as pieces of social commentary they are powerful and stunning.

Anybody interested in the Depression period and the effects of those dreadful times on working men and women would be well advised to study Idris Davies in some depth.

There is an interesting footnote. In the 1960s, American folk singer Pete Seeger put Davies' poem The Bells Of Rhymney to music. It was a poem, incidentally, that Dylan Thomas thought far too gentle, even though he used it in his readings.

American musicians including The Byrds recorded the song but failed to manoeuver their way around some of the Welsh words - Rhymney was one they simply could not manage at all. Listen to the song - it makes a fascinating addendum to the story of Idris Davies.

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