Penillion i’r Leri - a summary of themes explored.
Penillion i'r Leri began with a call to local Welsh language poets to contribute traditional folk verses on the topic of the Leri River, verses I would then set to music and perform. The contribution period lasted through Autumn/Winter, 2015, ending at Christmas. I am now completing the music composition and recording, and will address that in another post. Here I'll discuss the lyrics only.
There are several themes that arise often in the contributed lyrics, each in its own way exploring history and emotion. One of the first to contribute lyrics was Carys Briddon, Bontgoch (excerpt):
Through the little village where I was born
The Leri flows by,
And in her bright, pure waters
I hear a song murmur.
As I follow her journey to the sea
I see my store of memories
About days of youth long-gone;
Yet the river is ageless.
In the song, the Leri is a focus for Carys’ memories about her birthplace and her longing for the past. In acknowledging days now gone she is a witness to the brevity of her own life compared to the ever-flowing river. The Leri is something ideal, almost immortal, while the shortness of her life is no more than a ripple.
The same mixture of themes arises in lyrics by Bleddyn Owen Huws, Talybont (excerpt):
What’s this sound in Leri River
Rushing on towards the sea?
What chords are in her waters
Swelling into one encore?
Is it the mournful sound of melodies,
Old harmonies of congregations gone,
Roaring wild in her boiling waves
Between the hills as she pours on?
Many of the contributions mention the river’s ability to sing, often as a central characteristic. The Leri also ‘remembers’ and transmits the sounds of the past, what is often an almost unconscious metaphor for the penillion tradition itself. As it flows from past to present through the poet’s memory the tradition gives rise to new songs, the old forms birthing new verses like waves on a river.
In many of the contributions the Leri represents specific aspects of culture. Tied in to the river’s longevity is the idea of local culture and its duration though the centuries. As a linguistic community that’s witnessed a dramatic change in it’s cultural environment in the last half century, it’s not surprising to see local poets giving voice to what they’ve witnessed. The dramatic decline of the Welsh linguistic environment coupled with the perpetual drain of new generations to the towns and cities has left once vibrant, rural, Welsh speaking communities facing dissolution in a generation or two.
Identifying the river with such fundamental ideas as the flow of time, cultural adaptation and the continuity of identity suggests that wild water such as this is a basic element in the community’s culture. Just as water is a basic constituent of the body, the river is a basic constituent of the area’s identity, not seen as a separate figure, but a representative of native life of which the locals feel a part, a convenient symbol to turn to in the poetic vocabulary. In these traditional verses the elements of the landscape itself come alive as communal symbols, the river signifying ideas about change, continuity and the role of the poet as witness.
Bearing witness to the community of the past is the central theme of lyrics contributed by David Jones, Bwlchyddwyallt. After once again evoking the long history of his local area, he finishes with:
Across the valleys of the highland -
Weather cold or fine,
They are a memorial to the past -
The stones that hide between the rushes.
One room, one door, one window,
That is what the rough cottage was,
But they had a hidden wealth -
the community all as one.
Where there was a hearth I see a ruin,
the society now has gone;
Nothing lasts any longer,
None of the family, none of the friends.
The invitation to contribute lyrics for songs that will be heard publicly seems to have invigorated some to express themselves openly about where they live and how they feel about it. Again, most, if not all, of the perspectives are taken with the landscape as a backdrop, a constant figure in the narrative of the past. Here the landscape is a symbolic reserve of memory, the bare stones fitting monuments to the bare lives of those now gone.
Turning to the landscape, and the river in particular, as a symbolic archive has been consistent throughout the contributions that focus on memory and the past. In terms of the river specifically, it signifies a past that continues to flow in the memory of the community; also the rush of the longing that’s evoked as that past is considered; it is often a continual presence, steady and sure in the life of the locals, something that doesn’t change for all of the history it’s witnessed. Emotionally, the river stimulates a cathartic response, allowing the longing to flow and for the poet to return to the present a little lighter having let the past go ‘on it’s journey to the sea.’
It’s this cathartic quality that’s central to lyrics by Siân Saunders. More than evoking her longing, this time the river is a way for an individual to face any negative feeling:
I’ll go for a walk on the banks of the Leri,
Will you come and keep me company?
All the pain that’s in your heart,
You can tell it to the river.
We go on through the ash and the oak,
There is solace in the greenery.
Sweet is the song of the river flowing,
What is there that can cause harm here?
The river is a balm for heartache, walking its course an opportunity to heal. Again, as a basic element in the life of the locals, the water washes heartache away to the sea. Like Carys and Bleddyn, Siân considers the water as a medium for emotions, something ideal, continual and affirmative in the environment that can be trusted. Underlying many of the contributions is a sense of the river’s basic power to cause change for the better.