‘And I am dumb(ed down) to tell’?

Dealing with the Dylan Thomas centenary

By John Goodby

 

An extract from Poetry Wales Autumn 2014

June 2014. We’re halfway through a year-long celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. Under the umbrella of DT-100, hundreds of events have been organised by a slew of organisations, from the Welsh Government down, with the various shrines (Laugharne, the Boathouse, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Mumbles, the Uplands, Fitzrovia) near-continuous hives of activity. There’s an astonishing amount and variety of it – not just the usual workshops, exhibitions, readings and festivals, but an Under Milk Wood opera, postage stamps, notebooks repatriated from Buffalo, even a travelling Dylan Thomas writing shed. As an ‘expert’ I’ve been involved in a fair bit of it, consulting and broadcasting for the BBC, lecturing in Bangor, Swansea and Aber, holding forth in libraries, theatres, churches. Under the circumstances it might seem churlish, perverse even, to say that there have been worrying gaps in the coverage. Hasn’t Dylan Thomas been done proud, even if he has almost been done to death?

It all depends what you mean by ‘coverage’, and the extent to which Thomas’s writing itself has been addressed, as well as the responses to it. Certainly, the legend, and the rather unrepresentative handful of works everyone knows, have had a good airing. This is as it should be; Thomas himself was an entertainer and a performer. However, he was at root a daring modernist poet. Much of his best poetry is in this vein, and even later works like ‘Fern Hill’ rest on it. Alongside the responses I’ve sketched above, then, any centenary programme worth its salt has a duty to help general readers discover more about what makes Thomas’s work tick, what makes it unique.

There was a better chance of managing this in Thomas’s case than in that of just about any other poet, given Thomas’s iconic status. On the eve of the centenary year, thousands already knew something about his writing, and were fascinated by it as well as by him. It would almost have been easier to offer some bread, as well as the inevitable circuses. And to do so would have meant creating a genuine, lasting legacy; not just an enjoyable nine days’ wonder, but a raising of the cultural level of Wales – indeed, a way of showing that Wales took its culture seriously, as well as knowing how to sell itself and how to enjoy itself.

The two bodies, above all others, with the chance to realise this possibility, were Literature Wales and the British Council. All the other players could legitimately argue that they had other primary agendas; these two alone could be said to have an obligation to broaden horizons, to do more than serve up what people already knew. Yet both, it is now becoming clear, decided to ignore it.

There isn’t space here to deal with the British Council’s failings. Suffice it to say that efforts to throw off their upper-middle class image seem to have led to wild overcompensation, a desire to be seen as ‘street’ at all costs. Their ‘Bible Black and Starless’ Thomas programme, in Argentina, India, US, Canada, Australia and the USA, has been notable for a focus on dance, music, theatre – on anything, in fact, but the actual writings. Its launch to a one-third full Reardon Smith Hall in December, with an African-American keynote speaker, Kevin Powell, an expert on rap and hip-hop who, it was embarrassingly clear, knew nothing about Dylan Thomas, set the painful tone. Apart from a few admirable initiatives, such as the dramatization of Adventures in the Skin Trade, the vast bulk of the literary aspect of ‘Starless and Bible Black’ involves sending abroad the same Welsh poets who would have gone anyway, but under a Dylan Thomas banner. Shunning anything that remotely smacks of analysis, there are no talks, seminars or workshops, nothing picking up on Thomas’s visits to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Ireland and Iran, no reference to the interest European poets such as Tzara and Celan showed in him, or the forty-two different languages he’s been translated into, nothing on his crucial role in breaking West African writing in 1952. You’d weep at the squandered chances if it wasn’t all so ludicrous.

Literature Wales, who promote Welsh literature in Wales itself, have done more that is good. Hannah Ellis, Dylan Thomas’s grand-daughter, is rightly keen to use her grandfather’s work to develop children’s love of literature, and Literature Wales’s Dylanwad schools programme reflects this. But the same fear of seeming too literary (but this is Literature Wales!), of the desperate desire to seem of the moment, has produced a plethora of media-friendly events – ‘mass poems’, competitions, tourist opportunities – whose main aim is to signal popular engagement, without any attempt to increase understanding of Thomas’s work or leave a lasting impression. The commercial flavour is evident in their lavish DT-100 brochure, four-fifths of which is devoted to the ‘Dylan Odyssey’ cultural tourism strand. This may be because Literature Wales’s DT-100 funding comes from the Welsh Government’s Tourism, not its Culture budget, and he who pays the piper calls the tune; yet the absolute absence of events with any intellectual content is striking nevertheless. It’s not that the Dinefwr festival and kayaking in the Towy are bad (though tourism and festivals are arguably better left to the specialists); it’s more that these things, fine as they are, ought to be secondary, not the substance. Just where is the provision for those curious about the origins of the amazing style of 18 Poems works, for example? Or Thomas’s take on science, religion and gender? Or on just where he fits into the story of twentieth century poetry? Nowhere, is the answer – alas. And given that it’s Literature Wales’s specific task to do this (who else if not them?), such a lack amounts to a dereliction of duty.

Apart from the funding tail wagging the literary dog, there are several reasons, it seems to me, for this. An inexperienced leadership and external pressure may be part of it (it’s hard not to see Peter Finch organising a Dylan Thomas centenary poetry festival, for example), but there is the more basic, enduring fact that Thomas’s own paradoxical spirit tends to trouble authority. He’s hard to place in poetic terms, and the current intellectual climate, in which an overweening corporate power tries to project its values into every cranny of the cultural sphere, is particularly inimical to what he represents. While Thomas’s own popular positions invite readers towards his complex poetry, a more market-oriented consumerist populism reduces them to saleable ‘themes’ and ‘messages’, sees textual resistance as an irritant, not as a challenge to be relished, an obstacle to success defined by the tourist pound, attendance figures and accessibility.

As with the British Council, succumbing to this logic has had serious outcomes. No centenary poetry festival. No talks or weekend courses or workshops to dig into the meat of the poems. Nothing on the several new critical studies of his work, or the new edition of the Collected Poems. It’s telling that plans for a bilingual lecture tour of Welsh colleges were dropped in favour of ‘Dylan Live’, a ‘music and spoken word’ show (an account of the creation of this melange of Beat poetry, rap, Thomas excerpts and jazz can be found at www.developingdylan100.co.uk/dylan-live). The excerpts confirm what many who have seen it say about it’s being a rather half-baked affair, and despite the (unattributed) ‘Rave reviews’ on the website a sense of its true appeal may be reflected in the fact that, aside from an appearance at the PEN World Voices Festival, only Literature Wales’ own festival at Dinefwr booked the show. More important, however, was the flawed nature of the basic concept. Thomas may have inspired Beat and African-American poets in his performance and lifestyle. But bohemianism is one of his least interesting aspects, and his poetry has little in common with the improvisational aesthetic of Beat, jazz, and rap. Plus, there is surely a dodgy flavour to a show based on black cultural forms presented by an all-white (all-male) ensemble, and something quite grotesque about its being sent by the British Council to New York, as it was in May. Rather than one of the more egregious examples of cultural coals to Newcastle of recent times, we could have had something that took Thomas’s ‘colour of saying’ out to colleges around the country; but no, that would have been far too elitist and uncool.

The fate of my own main contribution to Literature Wales’s DT-100 programme reflects the same lack of interest in literature unless it is disguised as something else. Back in September 2013 I was asked to give the Gwyn Jones Annual Memorial lecture, on Dylan Thomas, at this year’s Hay Festival. But in April, I discovered that this had dropped off the Hay programme – due, I was told, to Literature Wales’s ‘miscommunication’ with the organisers (although, by odd coincidence, it transpired around the same time that Owen Sheers was giving a lecture on Thomas there). The casualness of ‘miscommunication’– their word – speaks volumes about the lack of interest in a genuine discussion of the poetry. I agreed, slightly reluctantly, to its rescheduling at the Dinefwr Festival. However, when I signalled that I’d be mentioning some of the issues raised in this article in the talk, I received an irate phone call from the head of Literature Wales, and was told that I couldn’t do so because it would be ‘inappropriate’ and ‘upset our sponsors’. When the lecture appeared in the Dinefwr programme it was in a graveyard slot, and had been stripped of its title and my bona fides as a speaker. My own demotion was inconsequential; however, the cavalier treatment of the name and reputation of a leading twentieth century Welsh scholar and writer, Gwyn Jones, was a more serious matter, another sign of Literature Wales’s lack of respect for literature, the final straw which led me to cancel the gig. What’s saddest about all of this is the way that everywhere else is happy to have Thomas’s poetry talked about in detail. I’ve analysed ‘And death shall have no dominion’ and ‘After the funeral’ and others at half a dozen festivals so far, from Dartington to Buxton, and at events in Italy, Ireland and France, and no-one has batted an eyelid or given me the impression that this kind of thing needs sexing up, and can be treated with something close to disdain. It’s yet another dismaying example of a Welsh body grasping at a London trend – the corporatisation and marketising of literature – and copying it slavishly and unthinkingly; the result is Dilute Dylan, Thomas-without-tears, bums-on-seats as the one and only bottom line (excuse pun).

For ultimately, this is the most patronising assumption of all – that Wales can’t take Thomas without some spin or angle added; that he must be dissolved into a word-cloud, packaged as interpretative walks, made over as Dyl.I.an, or even that he cannot possibly be presented by anyone but ‘young Welsh artists’. Why let mere facts prevent the ticks being made in the right boxes, after all? And maybe this is why – though I’d have predicted the opposite in January – the most varied, imaginative response to the centenary has come from the BBC, an organisation sometimes maligned for ignoring Welsh culture. This may be because it is less navel-gazing than others, more resourced, more resistant to commercialism; but it is also, as the Laugharne Live radio festival in May demonstrated, due to open-mindedness. Rather than the faux populism, the BBC took a genuinely populist, eclectic and contemporary approach – Thomas in classical music and radio pub quizzes, Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone and radio essays (personal favourites include Ian McMillan’s ‘Dylan Day’ selection, and Rachel Trezise on Thomas and radio, in which she told of overcoming her dislike of the saccharine bard she encountered at school through her discovery of his darker early imaginings). The BBC wasn’t obliged to cater to intelligent general readers (and their films on the life, poems, and new Under Milk Wood all had their flaws), but at least they gave them plenty to think about.

How, then, might Thomas have been presented? Well, rather than being dumbed down, his apocalyptic, visionary concern with the fundamental issues of birth, death, sex, faith, and (im)mortality should have been faced. He should have been presented for what he is – a Blakean and modernist revolutionary, whose work is experimental and bypasses social surfaces, still a radical challenge to dull contemporary plain-style orthodoxy. ‘Fern Hill’ should have been part of the mix, of course, but poems that more resemble ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ shouldn’t have been treated like dirty secrets. For the point is that, uniquely, unforgettably, Thomas wrote both kinds of poem. He was a hybrid, a product of the industrial-rural, anglophone-cymrophone border zone, caught between two world wars and two literary movements, modernism and 1930s’ realism; his inbetweenness was what allowed to him to fuse Auden’s retro forms with modernist intensity, and also gave him the ability to negotiate ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles. But it also meant that he still straddles the post-Waste Land fault-lines that exist in British poetry, making him difficult to categorise and a provocation to those who prefer neat demarcations.

Tough though it can be, Thomas’s hybridity is central to his universal resonance and his greatness, the way he speaks to our time. He crosses cultures; his body-centredness anticipates modern neuroscience’s feeling minds and thinking bodies; as the first great elegist of the civilian war dead, he writes for Gaza and Homs as well the victims of the Blitz; and his final poems are ecological, deeply concerned for a world threatened by atomic weapons. Above all, he ‘bent the iron of English’, working ‘from’ words, not towards them, mutating fresh meanings within rigorous yet golden cages of stanza, off-rhyme, and syllabic pattern. What greater gift for readers in 2014 than such a challenge to language’s enslavement by the debased discourses of advertising, micro-management and corporate politics?

Although a chance has been missed to develop a longer-term legacy in certain quarters which should have known better, there have been many good things about DT-100. Intentionally or not, it has become a pan-Wales celebration, or carnival, fifteen years on from the Assembly. Despite the efforts of officialdom, some people have found ways to deepen their appreciation of Thomas’s work. Nevertheless, as one advisor to the First Minister warned some months back, unless Wales develops its knowledge economy, its obsession with making itself a tourist destination will soon render it a low-wage theme park. Avoiding this fate requires creating a literary knowledge economy too; one that isn’t afraid of literature as literature, that isn’t based on gimmickry (the old loss of national nerve by another name), the only kind that can make sense of the ‘intricate image’ of reality in twenty-first century Wales.

 

John Goodby lectures at the University of Swansea; he is author of The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (2013) and the new annotated centenary edition of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. 
COMMENTS

14 Comments

  • Jim Perrin

    Necessary and scintillating comment, at last, and finely expressed and argued! Thank you, John Goodby. The role of Literature Wales in the dumbing down, or indeed deliberate infantilizing, of responses to Anglo-Welsh literary culture is a matter of urgent concern for any writer working in Wales. Under the current regime, Literature Wales is no longer the inclusive and intelligent body of Peter Finch’s day, that sought to represent breadth and depth of our writing, but an increasingly disengaged faction promoting the interests of a limited and mutually self-laudatory Cardiff-centred coterie. It is bringing shame on the literatures of Wales, and embarrassment too, not least through the mawkish and cliche-ridden occasional pieces of our current national poet.

  • Mrs Penn-Thomas

    I have to disagree with you assessment of Dylan Live but that is my opinion so not worth us debating. However I do agree that we have had rather too much froth as part of this centenary year and not enough coffee. Constant repetition of the drunkard legend. The ‘popular’ poems done to death. A touring writing shed? But this is what happens when an icon becomes a marketing campaign I guess. Keep fighting the goodby fight.

  • Robert Watts

    This appears to be a rant rather than a critique, and a badly written one at that. Did anyone proof read this? Not sure who John Goodby is but he doesn’t come across well here. Personally I have enjoyed the majority of the Dylan Thomas activity. Opera, concerts, readings, walks – they all have a place in the programme because it demonstrates our artistic diversity as a nation, and also brings new people to Dylan’s work. I saw Hannah Ellis speak in Swansea and this is what she wanted.I am sure a dry academic tour discussing meaning and structure would put people off, especially young people!
    Also, it is interesting he’s singled out just two organisations when seemingly lots took part. If we’re going to be consistent in attacking these organisations what about the Arts Council who put hundreds of thousands of pounds into a Dylan Thomas arts programme? What about Taliesin Arts Centre who put on an opera (which was a triumph)? I think it’s been a fabulous year and shame on you and John Goodby for writing and publishing such an unpleasant and provocative diatribe.

  • The dumbing down of Dylan Thomas. | PLUNDER AND SALVAGE

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  • Harriet

    Just the kind of petty, chip on the shoulder, out of touch, academy-bound rubbish that Literature Wales is nobly trying to move away from. When Goodby says, inexplicably, that ‘festivals should be left to the professionals’, it’s clear that he feels exactly the same way about literature. Literature is created by everyone and belongs to everyone and it is right that Literature Wales is letting some air into those stuffy old lecture halls.

  • John Goodby

    This is itself ‘petty’, I’m afraid, and a gross misreading of my article which misses its argument entirely. I don’t say anywhere that literature shouldn’t be ‘left to the professionals’. I say that Literature Wales’ primary role is promoting the understanding of literature (it’s ‘Literature’ Wales, not ‘Educational’ Wales, or ‘Tourist’ Wales), and that quasi-music festivals, or spurious ‘street’ linkages with hip-hop, or pony-trekking with poems, or even creative writing programmes for under-16s may be fine but should never come before the basics, as they so obviously did. ‘Academy-bound’? Odd, that one, and perhaps I know more about this than you. I’ve spoken on Dylan Thomas to general audiences at a dozen literature festivals this year in Ireland, Wales and England, read Thomas’s poetry with Michael Sheen, appeared on 4 TV documentaries and 8 radio programmes, acted as advisor to the BBC’s programming and Aardman’s ‘The hunchback in the park’, made short films for the British Council and the Cwmdonkin Drive Poetry Hub (check them out, Harriet, they’re online). Two weeks ago I was on BBC Breakfast talking about Dylan Thomas’s newly-discovered notebook. I believe in taking Thomas to as wide an audience as possible. But I don’t ever neglect trying to explain why the poems are important, how they work and what they mean, or avoid discussing them them because they’re ‘difficult’ and might be hard to sell to a bottom-line, bums-on-seats, accountant’s-eye-view of culture, as Literature Wales and the British Council have. My new edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems has a general introduction and detailed ‘academic’ notes; it’s been reprinted twice since since it was published in October, and was top of the British-Irish Kindle poetry bestseller lists. It proves, what you refuse to believe, that it’s possible to make Thomas appealing, and to explain and inform. Maybe you should get yourself a copy. There is a huge adult audience out there, eager to know more about Dylan Thomas’s actual writings; it didn’t want to be patronised by gimmickry, and flim-flam, but it was sold short by the dumbed-down Dylan that Literature Wales and the British Council (Wales) offered them. As for ‘stuffy old lecture halls’, that’s merely your caricature of a legitimate thirst for knowledge; it says much, much more about your own lack of faith that literary explanation and excitement can go hand in hand than it does about my article.

  • November 2014 News Round-up | Dylan Thomas News

    […] Wales has published an article by Professor John Goodby of Swansea University that criticises aspects of the Dylan Thomas […]

  • “…grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water…” | Anna Lewis

    […] An article by John Goodby in the latest issue of Poetry Wales challenges the programme of events organised around the Dylan Thomas Centenary by the British Council, Literature Wales and other bodies. Most of the celebratory events have, according to Goodby, prioritised the drama of Thomas’s life and personality, and his influence on art-forms such as rap and Beat poetry, above serious engagement with his own poetry, with the innovation he brought to his writing and with his intellectual preoccupations and compulsions. His legacy has, in other words, been “dumbed down”. This, Goodby suggests, is due to a “fear of seeming too literary” on the part of the organisers, and a trend for the “corporatisation and marketing of literature”. […]

  • NiaDavies

    Zoë Skoulding has responded to this article on the Poetry Wales site. Read her piece on Literature Funding in Wales at http://poetrywales.co.uk/wp/lang/en/2132/literature-funding-in-wales/

  • Clare Davies

    I don’t have an issue with most of what is said in this article (I do however, have a problem with the overall tone of the piece). My main criticism of it regards Professor Goodby’s comments about Dylan Live, a pet hate of his all year. Having seen the Dylan Live show, I can say that the show was vibrant, engaging and clever. To echo your earlier comment, Professor Goodby, I know more about this than you as you haven’t even had the good grace to go and see it for yourself when it has been at your own university twice this year. Therefore, your assessment of this shows lacks any authority as you haven’t even seen it, although you helpfully provide(unattributed) remarks from other people that the show was ‘half-baked’. Dylan Live is, as you say with more than a hint of a sneer, a music and spoken word event. It is not a mighty monograph on the poetry- you have already given us that. At the heart of it is a lecture about Thomas’s reception, influence and impact on post-war America poetry, and the surprising but illuminating comparison made between Thomas and Charlie Parker. Thomas’s Bohemianism may not be the most interesting aspect of his work. But the show actually explores Thomas’s ‘primitivism’ (as seen by John Malcolm Brinnin and others) and is surely worthy of further engagement. You show a complete lack of respect for other intellectual/creative endeavours and a narrow understanding of the richness of comparative approaches. The show doesn’t really say anything that hasn’t been said before: it simply ties the strands together in a unique way. And, it never once used the term ‘street’, nor does it make desperate appeal for ‘street cred’. But I am sure it has offered a way into Thomas’s work, which must be a positive consequence.

    I don’t want to get into the endless bickering over how often Thomas is discussed: the fact is, it is quite a lot, and within Wales and a Welsh context. He is far better known, if only nominally, than other Welsh writers equally deserving of our attention. Just because Thomas does quite wonderful and startling tricks with language however, does not mean he will be received and appreciated by everyone in the same way. Different writers speak to different people in different ways, and Thomas is not an easy poet to get on with if you aren’t used to reading poetry. What has been good about Dylan 100 (and I agree with you that it hasn’t been all good) is the effort that has been made by various organisation to engage with Thomas and the creativity that has stemmed from this difficult poet. You overlook the Dylan Unchained Conference held at Swansea in your critique/rant, a conference that saw some encouraging academic engagements with the work of Thomas which shows that, despite the claims you have made this year, that there are people who care about the work. But the fact we all have to accept is that the audience was made up primarily of academics/students. Conferences, despite the fact they are in no way elitist or exclusionary, simply don’t attract great numbers from a (and I hate using such a term) ‘non-specialist public’. I think the events organised this year have been valiant attempts to inspire interest in Thomas the man, the myth and the poet. Yes, sometimes the poetry (and the, in my humble opinion, better stories) have been secondary to the image. But who can honestly say that they have never become interested in writer’s work because of their human interest in the writer’s life first?

    It may pain you to hear this (the position of exile is quite alluring for intellectual types) but you are not a lone voice crying in the academic wilderness. Constructive criticism is always needed in academia: but snide swipes like this? Unprofessional and unnecessary.

  • Lyndon Davies

    John Goodby makes some valid and important points in his recent Poetry Wales article (see above). Arts and media organisations often underestimate the public, assuming they want the bubbles without the soap or that they won’t accept the soap without the bubbles, but the reality is that people often relish the chance to engage substantially in areas that may be strange to them, rather than just to be tickled and entertained. On the whole, for the Welsh Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations, safe and, cheerful seemed to be the mantra.

    We all know that public bodies such as Literature Wales and the British Council have to cover certain bases: there has to be the school thing, a bit of light tourism, and some razzmatazz like the Great Poem etc; and, probably, some kind of – however tortuously fabricated – connection with youth culture. Even granted that there was more to the celebrations than that, the overwhelming impression the year has left behind for many of us, is of a reinforcement of the old national cliché (though sometimes glimpsed in a weirdly distorted mirror) – built around the biography, the geography, half a dozen lilting poems, a funny play and some sentimental stories about snow. Dylan, the commodity, endorsed by celebrities. This, if ever, was the opportunity, for cultural organisations such as Literature Wales and the British Council, to really set about pushing beyond the rickety old myth and opening up ways for non-specialist readers to find their way into the less easily negotiated, less easily commodifiable spaces of the work itself – those spaces in which it could be argued the real centre of gravity of this astonishingly elusive and disorientating poet is probably to be found. That would have constituted a public service of some importance. It didn’t seem to happen, not unless I missed something.

    In their responses in the Western Mail, to John Goodby’s strictures, these organisations talk about their success in introducing hordes of new people to the work of Dylan Thomas. That’s definitely good, but what comes then? The introduction is the easy part; the real question is what comes after the introduction? What about the people who have already been introduced and would like to go further? Where, in Wales at least, were the structures to assist and encourage them? At the very least one could imagine, as Goodby suggests, a lecture tour of colleges, but why not also lectures, critical reading and discussion workshops on the less generally known works, in public spaces such as art centres, libraries, village halls, pubs and so on? The possibilities are endless, surely?

    One of the many things his illuminating new critical study – The Poetry of Dylan Thomas – Under the Spelling Wall – glances at in passing, is the way in which, over the years, a real engagement with the main body of the work has been displaced by an obsession with the life and personality of the poet and a superficial fixation on a few of the less challenging pieces. Well, the same thing is still going on, raised, this year, to new levels of national self-congratulation, and Goodby is absolutely right to challenge this and to pose questions about substance and legacy. Argument, debate, reflection, are the life-blood of a culture: it might be painful, but without it a culture is dead and might as well be buried.

  • James quinn

    So Goodby hasn’t seen Dylan Live?? And I know there was no dance in the British Council programme. There was a global education programme which he seems to have missed out and which he took part in! I would argue this article is seriously undermined by a startling disregard for facts. You should just enjoy the year, appreciate what everyone achieved, and move on.

  • David Woolley

    What a delight to see John Goodby locking horns with the establishment re DT100. Thomas himself of course was happy to challenge the status quo, & it’s long been one of the great weaknesses of culture in Wales that everyone relies on the patronage of the major bodies and each other’s goodwill to such an extent that no-one ever dares to speak out – and there’s much to speak out about. The wider attitude to Thomas and his work has long been ambivalent at best, largely to do with the mythologising of his lifestyle, his BBC vowels and his criticism of many aspects of Wales and Welsh life (& language). 1995’s Year of Literature in Swansea enabled Wales to begin to shed new light on Dylan and his work, while promoting contemporary writers and critics, and welcoming a wide variety of exciting literary voices from across the globe. Working on that marathon festival, I was struck by how many writers, critics, students and others from around the world loved Thomas, and lost count of how many I had to drive to Laugharne to see the grave and to drink a pint or three in Browns. And, to back up Goodby’s point, it was always the work they were interested in – not the myth. This fact was clear as we moved beyond the Year, opened The Dylan Thomas Centre and its permanent exhibition, and established the annual Dylan Thomas Festival from 1998. At that time, we were a beacon in the darkness, supported by a few lonely voices – The Dylan Thomas Society and Theatre, Jeff Towns and John Goodby himself chief among them. Swansea’s new local authority backed the Dylan Thomas Centre to the hilt when other bodies backed out, and for many years funded myself and others to promote the work of Thomas and through that focus, the work of many other writers past and present. The DT festival became a truly prized event, and the year-long events to mark the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s death in 2003 showed just what could be done (with minimal extra money)to celebrate Dylan’s work across the whole community without ever compromising either artistic quality or focus on the work. It is to the eternal shame of all concerned that this good work was not built on, that I was removed from my position in Swansea in 2010 in order to ease in a new era, concentrating very much on the Dylan Thomas exhibition rather than on continued exploration of the work, and to turn the vibrant, challenging and welcoming DT Centre into the Marie Celeste that it is now. Where was Swansea/the DT Centre/Festival in DT 100? Virtually nowhere to be seen – a ghost of its former self. Nothing short of pathetic. All of this chimes with Goodby’s criticisms of an establishment run by young marketeers who can’t stand up to the funders and the prevailing trend towards ‘accessibility’ and ‘relevance’ – in other words mediocrity. It sickens me too, to see so many who were totally disinterested in Thomas for years come out of the woodwork this year when there was copious funding available. The Year of Literature and the years beyond it DID begin to build a legacy, and it’s a tragedy that those behind DT100 have not taken the opportunity to really build on that legacy. John Goodby is one of the few people who is truly committed to the serious academic study of Thomas, but he in no elitist. Like myself he is passionate about poetry in all its possible forms, but equally passionate about matters of professionalism and quality. Our dear friend the late Aeronwy Thomas would have been equally scathing about some of the tosh that has taken place this year, and she was fond of pointing out that Dylan’s flame in Wales was kept alight mostly by people who were not from Wales (myself, Goodby, Jeff Towns…)My work over a decade and a half was dispensed with for political reasons, and I have only been able to make a living outside of Wales since. Goodby’s authoratative combatism is vital to literature in Wales, but I fear that, before long, he too will be hounded out by the jobsworths and the mediocrities that did for me, and if that happens, it will serve Wales right.

    David Woolley

  • Sam Adams

    There is a great deal to be said for a cultural appeal to the public at large. Dylan Thomas approved – if only for commercial reasons. (I witnessed the extraordinary effect he had on an audience at a reading in Aberystwyth in November 1952.) Those who previously knew little or nothing of the writer and his work will probably have gained a good deal from centenary year events, perhaps the beginning of a lifelong interest, and any activity that encourages a creative response from young people is to be applauded. The pity is that many more already familiar with the broad outlines of the poet’s rackety life and the handful of poems and stories that have characterised his writing in popular culture for more than half a century, if they had attended every event, would have added little to their stock of knowledge about Thomas’s poetry. That, I take it, is the nub of Professor Goodby’s critique. What we have been invited to survey again in this centenary year is that tip of the iceberg of Thomas’s oeuvre that is in danger of melting in the sun of over-exposure. The centenary programme has not done enough to reveal the serious, innovative modernist poet and the development of his poetry. Why should that be an academic interest only? The assumption that people generally, young people in particular, cannot or will not give their attention to ‘difficult’ poetry is perilous. It smacks of under-expectation. Looking at Thomas’s output in the winter of 1933-34, Professor Goodby tells us it was one of the most astonishing periods of growth in a poet since Keats’s annus mirabilis more than a century before. Isn’t that a statement worth weighing in the mind and testing by finding an occasion for careful shared reading of the texts? If, for example, he identifies ‘Into her lying down head’ (commonly excluded from the canon of popular favourites) as one of the ‘great’ poems, shouldn’t there have been an effort to bring it into the limelight afforded to ‘Fern Hill’? If Thomas says, as he did say, ‘What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly realised truth I must try to reach and realise’, ought we not in celebration to take him at his word and do justice to his intention and achievement in all the work, not just the readily accessible parts of it?

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