Whenever the great cultural juggernaut of Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru rolls into Y Gogs I sign up for the solo recital (llefaru unigol) competition in the Maes D: dysgu Cymraeg. The reason for doing so is that, in addition to improving my Cymraeg, it offers a unique opportunity to fold open the creative process and map new terrain.
The poem this year was Ty’r Ysgol by TH Parry-Williams. All competitors learned it by heart, not by rote. It’s an important distinction. It’s the difference between inching through a poem’s undergrowth to grasp bough, barb and bracken, and memorising a photo of it.
I’m not yet certain of Ty’r Ysgol’s shape in the black thicket but I know she’s there. I begin clearing and hacking space: Mae’r cyrn yn mygu er pob awel groes. I turn. Thick green language swings in vegetative veils. I hack. Turn. Hack. Repeat this process at least four times a day. After two days the pathway clears. I face forward: A rhywun yno weithiau’n’sgubo’r llawr/Ac agor y ffenestri. I repeat the process, beat y ffordd, stumble into craters that can take days to clamber out of (getting the right pronunciation for synhwyro rywsut was agonising), chant yn Gymraeg, forward and back, excavating sounds, shouting them to mountains or whispering a looped-line until I am hyper-sensitised to its airflow.
The line ar ol y chwalfa fawr is deeply satisfying to chant, especially in the woods. Meaning dissipates. The words undulate out of the mouth in a distinctly Gog fashion with no regard for the speaker’s intentions.
I pause at the word chwalfa. I want to wriggle inside and poke at it, chew it out loud in slow-motion, prod at it with my tongue, suck it to the mouth’s roof, squirt it through teeth or swallow it like an oyster: kh-oo-al-va.
Chwalfa: dispersal, upheaval. In this context it’s describing the collapse and dispersal of rural villages as people moved to the towns and cities during Parry-Williams’ time. Quizzing Dr Gwilym Morus via email I also learn that “Chwalfa is still used to describe what happens to a sheep carcass after the predators have been at it, like its just exploded over the hillside.”
The carcass remains in situ. I hack on.
It takes about four weeks to learn this relatively short poem by heart and by rote. The challenge is to walk with the former and not become lazy and distracted and topple into the latter. Mapping the poem again I discover a fork in the path. I’ve remembered a line wrong: it’s nes bod rhai/ Yn synnu’n gweld. I’ve been dropping the g in gweld, mutating where there is none. I place a way-marker, drag foliage across the errant route, stamp the true ground back and forth; chant.
That these events are important for the language and culture Cymraeg is a given. What I’m slowly realising is how much they also shape the poets who compete. This process is instilling in me a greater appreciation of the Eisteddfod. I’m handed a gift: a beautifully crafted poem to learn, and a stage on which to share my findings. Each time I do this I understand more about the language Cymraeg and myself as a poet. Mastering these words becomes a ceremonial gateway to a previously undiscovered world: I fold language, chant the terrain, pack my head with sounds and walk.