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.