Hiraeth and Hwyl: an introduction by Pamela Petro

For a new sequence on The Clearing to celebrate the publication of The Long Field, the author Pamela Petro invited eight writers, poets and artists to contribute pieces exploring hiraeth and hwyl, Welsh ideas, but rooted deeply in us all. 


I should say right off the bat that I’m American. I live in Massachusetts, though when my mind’s eye looks out the window it doesn’t see the day lilies and heat haze of a Massachusetts summer. It sees the shorn green hills and sinuous river valleys of West Wales.


I went to graduate school in Wales, and from the moment I arrived in Lampeter, at what’s now the University of Wales, Trinity St David, I felt at home in the landscape in a way I’d never felt in New Jersey, where I grew up. I learned pretty quickly that if you feel at home in Wales but your actual home is on the far shore of the Atlantic Ocean, chances are you’ll learn the word hiraeth sooner or later.


Hiraeth is the name the Welsh have given to the gap, the space—call it ‘the long field’—between my two experiences of home. The word has no cognate in English, but English speakers readily know the feeling. We all feel hiraeth when we yearn for more than the present moment allows. When we feel a barbed pang of longing for a place or person we’ve left behind or lost or had taken from us. When God isn’t listening. When we crave a future we know is as out of reach as Arthur, the Once and Future King, even as we keep seeking it up ahead, around the next bend. When the place we feel at home doesn’t coincide with our actual address.


The subtitle to my new book The Long Field, sums it up –  Wales, and the Presence of Absence – a Memoir.


Let me tell you, though, hiraeth isn’t all wistfulness and unrequited longing and swooning on sofas. It can be a catalyst to great feats of creativity, and that’s what I love about it. When we can’t have something or someone, we’re spurred to invent to compensate for our loss. Stories, art, images, food, music, you name it. I firmly believe that unlike nostalgia or longing, hiraeth is generative. It may express the presence of absence, but it also acknowledges that absence initiates creativity. Honestly, I see hiraeth as the instigating genius of Welsh culture—maybe the wellspring of all creative endeavour.


At the other end of the human tonal scale from hiraeth is hwyl, another Welsh word without an equivalent in English. It’s been borrowed by English to mean a kind of ecstatic inspiration that prompts bouts of eloquence, especially as applied to preachers. In Welsh, though, it implies something more like a sudden flaring of passion inspired by a sense of belonging, or, more simply, to inhabit the present moment with soaring good spirits.


Little Toller have kindly allowed me to ask eight writers and artists to plough their long fields of hiraeth or depict sensations of hwyl, to be published over the coming two weeks. From Wales I’ve asked two poets, an essayist, and a visual artist. From the U.S. I’ve asked a poet, essayist, a maker of comics, and a translator and scholar of Portuguese. (Portuguese is the only language to have its own expression of hiraeth – the exact cognate, saudade.) They’ve all responded with powerful—and powerfully different—expressions of these experiences, and I’m wildly grateful to them all. Five contributors chose to focus predominantly on hiraeth, while the other three wove hiraeth and hwyl together in a fascinating blend of two seemingly polar emotions.


Menna Elfyn is one of Wales’ leading Welsh-language poets. In fact, she is the most-translated minority-language poet in the world, with her many poetry collections appearing in at least 20 languages. Her latest collection of poetry, in the original Welsh with English translations, is called Bondo. Menna is also the President of Wales PEN Cymru in addition to being a playwright, columnist, biographer, editor, and language activist. Without the civil disobedience of Menna and like-minded campaigners in the 1970s and ‘80s, Welsh would still be a second-class language in its own country. Her wrenching poem, Last Gilt, takes its cue from the recent death of the last-known bald eagle in Wales. It weighs loss, but also allows legend to take to the air.


I first came to know the fantastically talented American comic artist, Sophie Willard Van Sistine, as my student at Smith College, in Massachusetts, and later on the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing, in Wales. Our friendship has always been a two-way street: I’ve taught her about words and images and Wales, and she’s taught me more about drawing comics than I could’ve possibly imagined I didn’t know! In addition to being a maker of comics—have a look at Ten Days in Wales on her website—Sophie is also an installation and performance artist. Her dynamic and deeply personal visual essay, Ketamine Dreams, emerges from the ketamine treatments she’s been taking to treat chronic depression. In her ketamine world she has the head of a fish, her therapist is a giraffe, and her parents are nervous penguins; and yet this seemingly random menagerie presents itself as a holistic universe in which everything and everyone is connected with a purpose that proves all too fragile. Ketamine Dreams is as visually unexpected and idiosyncratic as its core understandings are deeply—perhaps unexpectedly—universal.


I think I can safely say that Richard Taylor is the only Olympian in the group—he was a member of the 1964 American Olympic Nordic Ski Team. Since then Dick has taught German, Latin, and world literature to university and high school students, designed ski centers and coached skiing, and penned two collections of poetry, including his latest, Footfalls of the Unknown. Dick’s poetry is anchored in the hard work and land knowledge of country life. In his poem, Escaping Ophelia, the narrator seemingly disenchants a metaphor, a dream—and in the process plumbs the space between imagination and reality—through the difficult labour of hoisting a pale rock from a stream. His reward is the hard realness of rock, yet imagination returns to re-open the gap between knowing and inventing.


Jane Brox is a highly decorated American author of creative non-fiction. Her books range from memoirs of growing up on a farm in Massachusetts—Here and Nowhere Else and Five Thousand Days Like This One—to Brilliant, about the evolution of electric light, and Silence, in which she looks at the cultural absence of speech, especially in monasteries and prisons. She has written for The New Yorker, but for us has penned an exquisite memoir essay, The Home Path, which considers the idea of home not as a place but a progression, or procession, along a series of stopping points. ‘If a place is a path,’ she writes, ‘then you are constantly living with your old affections, and it might be that I’ve accreted too much by now to give everything over to one place.’


One of the first people I knew I wanted to include in this issue about hiraeth and hwyl is the prize-winning poet Kathy Miles. Kathy was born in Liverpool but has lived in West Wales for most of her life. Like me, she attended the university in Lampeter, where we met, and spent her career as a librarian there as well. As her five poetry collections testify—have a look at her latest, Bone House, and its predecessor, Gardening with Deer—Kathy is as deeply attuned to language as she is the countryside around her home near Aberaeron. Her poem Vanish takes a frequent manifestation of Welsh weather—mist—and uses it as the fulcrum of hiraeth itself: the agent not only of a vanishing world but of a vanished self, as well.


The final three contributions for this issue complicate the dichotomy between hiraeth and hwyl—yearning for more than the present moment and fully occupying it with joy—and instead place both experiences on a spectrum, where they can, at times, slide into and through one another.


Marged Pendrell is a restlessly inventive, multi-talented visual artist based in North Wales. Her work ranges from artist’s books to environmental installations, sculpture, photography, textiles, and more. One of her most recent projects, Ports, Past and Present, takes its cue from the constant voyages, historic and prehistoric, between Caergybi (Holyhead) in Wales and the Irish coast. Her contribution to The Clearing, called Neighbours/Cymdogion  suggestively fuses together sensations of hiraeth and hwyl.

‘Living on the North West edge of Wales,’ she writes, ‘I stand on Moelwyn Mountain (770 metres) behind my house and feel as if I can stride into…the Irish Sea. My work as an artist is a constant “hiraeth” for the sense of the sacred within the homeland and it inspires an exploration of my elemental connections with this land. This work, Neighbours/ Cymdogion, is an example of the hwyl I feel within this process of connection.’

Marged used the richly colored natural minerals of Snowdonia—copper ore, iron ore, and ochre—along with sand, shells, and marine organisms from the coastlines of Wales and Ireland, to fashion a flotilla of small ships. ‘These simple, fragile boats,’ she writes, ‘are sacred vessels to honour the physicality of the land, the history, and the precarious journey into the future.’ I love how they emerge from the land to suggest the sea, yet they’d dissolve if you tried to sail them. Ideal emblems of how fragile our sense of connection to place can be, yet simultaneously of the joy we experience in seeking it.


In The Sea of Content, the young Welsh writer Kumari Tilakawardane also turns to the sea, and finds solace there—not surprising for someone who claims her body is in England, soul is in Sri Lanka, and heart is in Wales. She sees the sea as the emblem of hiraeth itself, always coming and going, the great in-between, unpossessable, inscrutable place —’the sea has no edges,’ she writes, ‘it doesn’t really begin anywhere, and it doesn’t end’—and it is into this incarnation of hiraeth that she pours her very sharp, specific, present pain, and watches it dissolve in something much bigger and far more undefinable than her own grief. While so many see hiraeth as an affliction, Kumari discovers, to her surprise, it can also be a salve. Kumari, who has an MA from King’s College in London, calls herself a ‘professional-grade procrastinator.’ She says she spends every waking moment writing — either on her day job as a content specialist or working on creative projects from screenplays to a collection of essays about identity and belonging.


The final contributor, Malcolm McNee, is a Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Smith College. Malcolm chose to translate a six-part poem called Backwater Boy by the Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros, who wrote it from memories of his childhood when he was 90 years old. Malcolm’s research interests ‘bridge environmental humanities and contemporary Brazilian cultural studies,’ as demonstrated by his innovative book, The Environmental Imaginary in Brazilian Poetry and Art. He writes of Backwater Boy, ‘I see this poem as most forcefully conveying hiraeth/saudade, for a time and place, for a relationship with nature, vision, imagination and language that is that of a particular, situated childhood but that hints at a more universal, primordial human relationship rooted somewhere deep in our past.’ And yet the joyous, onward thrust and flow of the poem celebrates a young soul in the throes of hwyl. Here is an elderly poet not simply recalling the child he once was, but also his ‘ungentrified’ (to borrow a word from Kumari) relationship with nature. His poem doesn’t express loss but rather the joy of youthful creation itself, through, as Malcolm puts it, ‘the present poetic act and its cultivation and reinvention of memory.’


Here, then, is the circle of human experience, summed up in two Welsh words. And here is a cornucopia of creative expression, too, corralled into this sequence on The Clearing. I’m so grateful to Little Toller for this opportunity, and to Malcolm, Kumari, Marged, Kathy, Jane, Dick, Sophie, and Menna for filling it with wonder.





Pamela Petro is a writer, artist and academic from North America, whose heart and soul is also to be found in Wales. She is the author of Travels in an Old Tongue, The Slow Breath of Stone, Sitting Up With the Dead and The Long Field, just published by Little Toller Books.


The image at the head of this piece is by the author.





Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.