Monday, October 27, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Last Thursday evening, on 23 October 2014, we celebrated in the Auckland Public Library the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. We were jumping the gun a little, as his real birthday was 27 October 1914. The trouble was, 27 October in New Zealand is Labour Day, a public holiday, when the public library is not open. However today, Monday 27 October, I post here the words that I spoke in introducing the event. My job was to give a general way into Thomas (no more than 15 minutes speaking time) before a roster of readers each read favourite Dylan Thomas poems. The readers were Peter Bland, Karen Craig, Jen Jones, Alice Miller, Peter Simpson, Robert Sullivan and myself.
I illustrated my talk with a power-point presentation.
I could say more about Thomas, but for better or worse this is what I said:

To begin at the beginning this would be his hundredth year to heaven if he hadn’t died at the end of his 39th year in 1953.

This month is his centenary. And you all have at least a vague idea of who he was even if it is only the legend.

The Legend of Dylan Marlais Thomas, who himself pronounced his name Dill-an, English-style, and not Die-lan, Welsh-style, whatever pedants may sometimes claim.

The man who put some colour into the drab and rationed austerity Britain of the 1940s and early 1950s. The boozer. The guy who keeled over and died after the “insult to the brain” of 18 straight whiskies at the White Tavern Inn in New York, though legend-destroying spoilsports say it was really pneumonia and a brain-haemorrhage.

The country bohemian.

The boyo who inspired American rip-off artist Robert Zimmerman to steal his name; and others to comment ironically on the fact as in Paul Simon’s “Simple Desultory Philippic”: “he doesn’t dig poetry. He’s so unhip that when you say Dylan, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was. The man ain’t got no culture.”

The inspiration for that hideously inaccurate 2008 romantic movie The Edge of Love where rumpty, blowsy, boozy, portly, drunken Dylan is transformed into a glamour boy and his wife and his short-term mistress into model girls.

The non-Welsh-speaking man, who said he had no interest in regional poetry and none at all in Welsh nationalism, promoted improbably to the role of Classic of Welsh Literature, leading to the horribly solemn film adaptation of Under Milk Wood in 1972 where Richard Burton played Professional Welshman, as he always did, and where all the joy of the text was drained out because the actors were oppressed by the thought that this verbal romp was Serious and Important Literature.

Inspirer of those who think alcohol (or drugs) are all you need to write poetry and that a life of pissing-up large in London or King’s Cross or Greenwich Village or student Dunedin is all you need to be authentically artistic.

The dabbler. The disorganized man who started more than he finished, like his unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade.

The platform poet with his rich, rolling, resonant reading voice inspirer, too, of the whole performance poetry movement where, alas, the performance is often more important than the poetry.

The radio raconteur delighting a nation with his BBC broadcasts of anecdotes found in Quite Early One Morning and A Child’s Christmas in Wales and A Prospect of the Sea and even the short stories of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

Dylan Thomas the icon, the postage stamp, the destination for tourists who want to see the authentic rural Welsh Wales, which had probably disappeared before the Swansea born city-boy had even got to write about it. The man commemorated on the gravestone where green and dying he sings in his chains like the sea. The man whom another great bard, Seamus Heaney, said had become “as much a case history as a chapter in the history of poetry” and declared that “Dylan the poet” was one of the things that was lost in the legend.

All this is the legend, and because it is legend it is therefore true.

But doesn’t it underrate man who in his craft or sullen art worked hard at what his wrote?
Often tickled by the rub of love, Dylan, as an overgrown boy, managed to avoid the bullet of prim Pamela Hansford-Johnson, who later went on to marry one of the great bores and charlatans of mid-20th century Eng Lit, C.P. Snow. Instead, Dylan was cursed and blessed with a wife as bohemian and boozing and brawling as he was, the couple, drinking, stealing from their hosts when they were house-guests, sponging off rich patrons, writing begging letters, screaming publicly at each other over who had slept with whom, becoming a by-word. In Auckland in the 1950s a notoriously brawling literary couple were known behind their backs as “Dylan and Caitlin”. In her warring absence, she, the real Caitlin, tried Alcoholics Anonymous repeatedly after Dylan’s death and even in the 1970s she was giving TV interviews in which she said she still missed the stuff even if she was no longer on it. Irish-descended Caitlin Macnamara was Nora Barnacle to Dylan Thomas’s James Joyce. If the lusty Irish Catholic peasant girl Nora Barnacle could say, truthfully, of her weedy intellectual husband Jimmy Joyce “Well I suppose he was some sort of genius, but he had a filthy mind”, then with equal accuracy and skepticism Caitlin could speak of Dylan retiring to his writing shed near the Boat House at Laugharne to “rehash his adolescence”.

Here is Dylan Thomas’s Achilles’ heel among fastidious critics – always rehashing his adolescence, the boy who never grew up.

The “Rimbaud of Cymdonkin Drive” as he described himself, like Rimbaud, dying in his late 30s but unlike Rimbaud not having the sense to give up his adolescent musings once he was no longer adolescent.  So, says the negative view, Dylan’s poems are nearly all about childhood and lusty sex and the country and the sad fact that we all must die and other things that an intelligent 18-year-old thinks about. But is there any surprise in this? As his childhood friend, schoolmate and sometime poetic collaborator Dr Daniel Jones pointed out, between 1930 and 1934 – that is, between the ages of 16 and 20 - Dylan wrote four times as much poetry as he wrote in the remaining nineteen years of his life. And, says Jones, “sometimes a poem was taken whole from the store and produced almost without alternation years later”. A finished and famous poem like “The Hunchback in the Park” was written in 1932, when Thomas was 18, and only slightly revised before it was first published in 1941, when he was 27. If they sound like an adolescent, it is because they are often by an adolescent.

Yes, there are some poems about the big horrible world. “The hand that signed the paper”, politically-charged and written in 1935. “Refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London”, “Among those killed in the dawn raid was a man aged a hundred”, “Ceremony after a fire raid” all having the Second World War and Blitz intruding on the pastoral dream as Dylan lives in London and sometimes occupies a seat at the BBC. But Dylan’s poems hanker for country eternities. And what is Under Milk Wood if not a Toytown of characters, caricatured and colourful as a story book oh Captain Cat oh Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard oh Willynilly oh Nogood Boyo oh Polly Garter oh Rosie Probert? And what is all the boozing and all the fornicating in many brief affairs with willing wives and sophomores on American campuses in his four drink-sodden tours there, summoning death from summer women, but the little boy wanting to recapture what he can’t recapture - the perfection of childhood holidays with hayfields high as houses? And the adolescent death wish as booze leads him quickly down cemetery road where he does not go gently into that good night but he certainly goes as he always meant to and the lips of time leeched to the fountainhead and the boy of summer set no store by harvest and he became druid of his own broken body.

This is Dylan damned.

            So how do we redeem Dylan?

We redeem him as we redeem all writers. By reading what he actually wrote.

Is Dylan Thomas “sounds without sense” as Geoffrey Grigson and his hardest critics sometimes insisted, the dizzy spinner who could, with “a clash of anvils for my / hubbub, and fiddle this tune / On a tongued puffball” as he wrote in the “Prologue” to his Collected Poems? Yes, sometimes he is. The ten completed sonnets of Altarwise by Owl-Light drew accusations of wilful obscurity when first published in 1936. As he munched and crunched and hunched over the production of a single line of poetry in a whole afternoon, Dylan sometimes produced what was euphonious but did not say a great deal. He played games. The notorious 102 lines of the “Prologue” to his collected poems, probably the last poem he completed outside Under Milk Wood, are a long game where, only when you get to line 51, do you realize it is a series of rhymes working out from the centre.

But think hard on this. If we say Dylan appeals mainly to the ear, we can also say that he does at least appeal to the ear – which is more than can be said for most poets writing in English in the 1930s and 1940s. This was known as soon as “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines” woke up comatose readers in 1934. Start reading “Fern Hill” and you find yourself delightfully awash with beguiling assonance and alliteration and internal rhyme and sprung rhythms “young and easy under the apple boughs about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green”. And the poetry sings and you have to read it aloud and you know that it was made by a craftsman and not by some fool who whipped it spontaneously off the top of his ale-filled head. And you hear the echo of bardic oratory and the psalm-chant influence in “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”. And you understand this is a poet living in a strong tradition, though he pretended not to. And all credit to Dylan for refusing to join any literary gang, even if they were the “New Apocalyptics” who admired him and came knocking on his door fruitlessly asking him to sign their manifesto. Please, please read Dylan’s satirical jibe “How to be a poet”, written in 1950 and reprinted in A Prospect of the Sea, showing that he was fully aware of the tricks and follies of literary schools and did well to avoid them.

And when you have done the reading and the realizing, think on this. There were other English-language poets greater by far than Dylan in the 20th century – Yeats, Eliot, even Auden – more mature, with a broader vision and a clearer grasp of the world and a much finer sensibility.

But how many 20th century poets can you think of who wrote so many titles that still make the hair stand up on the back of your neck? And how many can bewitch adolescents into a love of poetry in the first place, and make grown-ups remember so vividly that first poetic fire.

So we gather here on this almost-centenary because at least seven people still have favourite poems by Dylan Thomas that they know are worth declaiming and sharing.

And we are now going to declaim and share.

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