July 10, 2018
Jane Aaron pays tribute to writer, editor and former USW Professor Meic Stephens whose contribution to literature was 'enormous’
On July 4, members of the Welsh Assembly paid their respects to the memory of Meic Stephens, Emeritus Professor at the University of South Wales, who had passed away on the previous day.
Addressing the Assembly, Dr Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales, hailed Professor Stephens as one whose ‘contribution to the nation’s literature, in both languages had been enormous’; ‘he will forever be remembered as a national literary hero’, said Dr Lloyd.
At the same time, tributes to Professor Stephens were fast proliferating on Facebook and Twitter, as other institutions and individuals throughout Wales testified similarly to the extent of the debt they owed him.
For some he will always be remembered primarily as the editor of ‘one of the most essential volumes in our culture’, the Companion to Welsh Literature (1986, 2nd edn. 1998), a reference dictionary on the lives and works of 3,250 Welsh writers in Welsh and English, many of whose names might have been lost were it not for the Companion.
Others remember him in their tweets as the founder in 1965, and editor until 1973, of the journal Poetry Wales. A school of new Welsh poets first found their way to publication through this journal, which thus played a key role in what has now come to be known as the ‘second flowering’ of Welsh poetry in English.
The development of Welsh writing in English in general in the 1960s and 70s owed much to Professor Stephens’ innovative energies: in 1968 he established the English-language section of the Welsh Academi, in whose annual conferences many of those who were later to become critics and teachers of Welsh writing in English first gave papers on the subject, and in 1970 he became the founding editor of the University of Wales book series Writers of Wales which by now includes some 120 volumes.
When Amy Wack, the poetry editor of Seren Press, tweeted that ‘Half the books on my shelves owe something to this tireless champion of the Welsh Arts’, she was expressing a truth general to all lovers of Welsh literature.
Meic was also a creative writer in his own right, in both Welsh and English, producing novels, poetry collections, literary travel writings and autobiographical works, as well as biographies, translations, critical works, scholarly editions of Welsh poets and poetry anthologies, including the Library of Wales’ Poetry anthology.
As author or editor, he was responsible for some 180 volumes in all, along with acting as chief literary reviewer for the Western Mail, obituary writer for The Independent, and editor of the periodical Cambria. Recognition for this lifetime of endeavour came with the award of an Honorary D. Litt from the University of Wales, and an Honorary Fellowship from Aberystwyth University earlier this year.
In 2014 he also won the Welsh Book of the Year Award for his critical biography of the Rhondda novelist Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life, and in 2015 was made a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.
Also prominent among the messages of appreciation currently surfacing on the web are grateful acknowledgements from Glamorgan students who write of him as ‘one of the most influential people in my writing career…one of the few individuals directly responsible for my becoming a writer and getting published.’
Meic Stephens started lecturing on journalism and creative writing at the University of Glamorgan in 1994, and was made a Professor here in 2001. The post held a special significance for him; I remember standing with him in front of Ty Crawshay in 1999 when he told me that he was born and lived the first 18 years of his life in Meadow Street, a stone’s throw away between the campus and the river. The land on which the house stood had once been part of the Crawshay estate, and the School of Mines, as it then was, dominated the horizon of his childhood.
To teach in the building and contribute to the higher education of another generation of aspiring Pontypridd students gave him much satisfaction.
In his dialect novel Yeah, Dai Dando (2008) the central character says of his hometown: ‘at least there’s a bit of a bustle bout Ponty it’s got style mun [...] they was always up for a laugh in the teeth of theyer misfortunes we are indomitable like.’
Meic Stephens was indomitable, and will be much missed by his USW students and colleagues, as well as all those indebted to him for over a half a century for his central role in the development of Welsh cultural life.