"No poet", according to Islwyn Jenkins, "caught the drabness and warmth of life in the South Wales mining valleys during the troubled twenties and depressed thirties of this century as Idris Davies did."
Davies was born on January 6th, 1905, in Rhymney, Monmouthshire, South-East Wales. After leaving school, he worked for a time at the local colliery. However, following the 1926 General Strike, the colliery was closed. The unfortunate outcome of this Strike, as well as the worsening situation of the miners, were themes that would later crop up in Davies' most politically and socially astute poems. The long poem The Angry Summer, for example, is subtitled A poem of 1926, and describes the effects of the strike on all aspects of life in the Welsh valleys.
Having lost his job at the colliery, Davies spent the next four years following what he called 'the long and lonely self-tuition game'. He then went on to train and qualify as a teacher through courses at Loughborough College and the University of Nottingham. During this time he began writing poetry in earnest. At first, he turned out work solely in Welsh, but later turned exclusively to English, perhaps in search of a wider audience.
Between 1932 and 1947 he taught in London County Council primary schools, eventually returning to his native Rhymney in 1947 to teach at a primary school in Cwmsyfiog. He continued to read, broadcast, lecture and write there until his death from abdominal cancer on April 6th, 1953.
Politics and poetry
Davies has been variously described as a man of "small stature" and "passionate conviction". He certainly impressed the likes of T.S. Eliot, who took his second collection of poems, Tonypandy and other poems for the publishing house Faber and Faber. Although an avowed socialist, Davies criticised other self-titled "poets of the Left" (his sarcasm) for not being able to tell the difference between poetry and propaganda. He beseeched such writers to read William Blake on the subject of "Imagination", in order to bring an element of beauty back into their poetry. Davies wanted "as much beauty as possible in our everyday lives", and the simple but beautiful imagery which runs throughout his poems is a testament to this desire:
...a girl in a great room playing,
Her fingers like lilies laughing
On the fringe of the noonday sky.
Interestingly, for all his fervent political statements and drive to share his opinions, Davies' poetry is so much characterised by simple rhyme schemes and nursery-rhyme-like-rhythms that it is often accused of being inelegant, even amateurish. This may be a contributing factor in his relative obscurity. However, these hallmarks of his poetry also ensure that they lend themselves well to music- his poem The Bells of Rhymney, originally set to music by Pete Seeger, was covered, amongst others, by The Byrds, Jimmy Page, Judy Collins, Cher, Robyn Hitchcock and Bob Dylan.
Moreover, this simple style was not carelessly chosen. Davies had studied literature extensively at Nottingham University, and his prose shows an easy, elegant and sophisticated style. The apparent inelegance of his poetry had a definite purpose- it expressed Davies' need to speak for, and to, his own kind. The poetry of the 1930s was often remote from the ordinary reader; Davies' stylistic choices were a deliberate move away from this 'obscurity'. His poetry was intended to reach a far wider audience than what he saw as the typical poetical offering. In addition to this, his style echoed the pastoral Welsh poems he had penned early on in his literary career. "And for God's sake," he once said of his unpublished novel, Collier Boy, "don't search these pages for 'literary style'. I don't sell it."
Davies became the archetypal poet of South Wales during the first half of the 20th century, and is often referred to as the only significant poet to cover the events during that era from a truly personal point of view. T.S. Eliot said of Davies' poems: "They are the best poetic document I know about a particular epoch in a particular place, and I think that they really have a claim to permanence."