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Connecting coal mining communities across the sea

  • Grahame Davies reads from his poem, "Rough Guide."
    Grahame Davies reads from his poem, "Rough Guide."
Published October 31. 2009 09:00AM

Race Street in Jim Thorpe was a flurry with fall foliage activity Sunday for the final day of the annual foliage festival that draws, literally, thousands of history, antiquing, and leaf-watching pilgrims to Old Mauch Chunk from around the Northeast.

But amid the camera snapping, Victorian-colored frenzy, down at the bottom of Race Street, the Old World reunited with the New in a soft Tolkein-like prose. In the Tolman House, of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grahame Davies, the "Unofficial Poet Laureate of Wales," read his own verse in an ancient language that, for a rapt American audience, drew a bridge across the Atlantic for two distant, but similar, coal mining communities.

For more than an hour, the Jim Thorpe that once was a collection of struggling mining homes for Irish and Welsh immigrants came alive in poems like, "An English Remembrance of Things Past," which highlighted the English longing for the Wales of long ago.

It could easily have been a Carbon County memory, if only the names and locations where changed. Americans listening were reminded of their strong and lyrical connection to the people who carved Mauch Chunk out of a mountain and created a new Celtic land in eastern Pennsylvania.

Davies' vivid reflections of his own coal region reminded listeners that they did not invent the culture they know now, but that it was their Welsh and Gaelic-speaking ancestors who inspired the loyalty to family and community that is so familiar to coal mining communities in the United States.

It was difficult to hear the poetry of Wales, the stories of coal mining there, and not forget that Davies spoke of a country more than thousands of miles away. Jim Thorpe was just one of the towns on Grahame Davies' fall 2009 tour of Welsh communities in northeastern Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Davies, an award winning novelist, editor, literary critic, life-long journalist and now the director of online media for the BBC in Cardiff, UK, prepped the audience with information about the Welsh language before he read his work. He explained that the Welsh-speaking population of England only numbers around 6,000 and hovers around 1,000 of those outside the country.

Davies said that, at one point in his life, this sense of minority a 21 percent minority in Wales gave him "a bit of a chip on the shoulder," and some of his work once reflected this. But he says that this is no longer an issue for him, and he celebrates his rich Welsh heritage by sharing the gift of his poetry with the world. Still, he says, "When you belong to a minority class you become sensitized to minority classes around the world."

With this thought in mind, Davies read from his highly-acclaimed poem, "Rough Guide," an inspiration from a friend of Davies who is a Rough Guide travel author, and an ode to feeling out those other minority communities throughout the world when he travels.

Davies also read from a poem created from a list of emotional directives in a collection of Welsh hymns. This particular piece drew continuous laughter throughout the crowd which grew in number the more he read. The Welsh Hymnal that inspired the work was given to Davies by an American parishioner at the Old Welsh Chapel in Lansford.

"If you are Welsh you are expected to invest things with emotion," Davies said.

Davies was introduced and joined in his readings by Karen Blomaine, a retired Penn State English professor and editor of "Coalseam: Poems from the Anthracite Region." Blomaine read several times at the Laurel Festival of the Arts in Jim Thorpe. She shared a brief sampling of her work with the audience at the Tolman House before Davies spoke.

"The Kremlin," a poetic reflection of Blomaine's many years living abroad in Russia, demonstrated the stark difference between the Peoples' Paradise and the chic capitalism buffing the storefronts surrounding St. Basil's Cathedral and Lenin's Tomb.

In "Old Broads," a metaphorical comparison between the aging beauty of Broad Street in Philadelphia and the lasting beauty and wisdom of women, Blomaine said, "This is the one poem I got in the most trouble with in my life. So, of course you want to hear it, don't you?"

But her words solicited a grateful round of laughter and applause, and the day ended as it began with poetry uniting America and Wales through a similar ancestry and the same particular love of the land known so strongly within coal mining communities throughout the world.

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