On Tuesday last week, the flagship nightly news programme on the national Welsh-language network in Wales, S4C, broke with its traditional format.
The lead story wasn’t the recent dramatic cabinet reshuffle by prime minister David Cameron, which dominated headlines elsewhere in the UK, or even the escalation of hostilities between Gaza and Israel – the kind of stories that would usually find themselves near the top of the agenda on Newyddion 9. The top story was the death of a poet, Gerallt Lloyd Owen, one of Wales’ most famous linguists and a grandfather figure, of sorts, to generations of Welsh speakers – myself included. The number of viewers who tuned in to that night’s programme – a show broadcast in a minority language in a small country – quadrupled.
By the time of his death at 69 years old, Lloyd Owen had won every major poetry prize in the Welsh language. But he was best known for his 30-year tenure as the host of one of the world’s longest running radio programmes, Talwrn y Beirdd, in which budding poets battle it out to write the best poem in the so-called “strict meter” pattern of rhyme. But the tributes that poured in following the passing of Lloyd Owen pose the question – why do poets occupy such a hallowed niche in the Welsh psyche?
Nations around the world have their heroes, those who represent something deeper about a country’s past and its present. Spain has its matadors, Canada has hockey stars, Venezuela has beauty queens and Wales has poets.
The Welsh language has always been inextricably bound to politics. Mass protests in the 1960s arose out of the concern that the nation’s mother tongue was doomed after being chipped away at for centuries by the language of our neighbours to the east. It was in Welsh-language poetry – based on a centuries-old system of intricate and complex rhymes – that the struggle for a national identity and for Welsh political freedom found its most fertile ground. The old art form was made new in order to articulate a contemporary struggle.
Today, Wales has its own semi-autonomous legislature – the Welsh Assembly government – so the grind against the status quo, you could say, has been blunted as decisions affecting the citizens of Wales are increasingly made by Welsh lawmakers. So as the political fight wanes, you might ask is this what the future holds for poets, too?
Those who tuned in last week to remember Gerallt Lloyd Owen – the man described by many as the voice of his generation – would likely tell you, no.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24