Written by John Goodby | 9th May 2023
This year is the seventieth anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s death in 1953, and appreciation of his work seems to be high as we approach Dylan Day. But appearances can be deceptive, and appreciation is not always understanding. Even now, for such a well-known writer, Thomas’ work is still surprisingly little-understood. There are reasons for this. He had the popular touch, unlike almost any other poet of his stature, and produced work that has mass appeal, but at the same time much of his poetry is ‘difficult’, or rumoured to be. He also led a colourful and tragically short existence. As a result, those promoting him focus on a small handful of simpler pieces which can be linked to the life in a rather banal way. The result is dumbed-down Dylan, drowned in anecdotage and kitsch, condemned to intone the opening of Under Milk Wood or ‘Do not go gentle’. The great deconstructor of stereotypes is reduced to one himself.
The chief casualty is the tough, brilliant poems. It’s a pity, because not only are they Thomas’ most original creations, but – rightly understood – they speak directly to our own twenty-first century concerns. Those in 18 Poems, for example, are about coming of age in a time of austerity, afraid of the impending world war (sounds familiar?). They blend that fear with anxiety and fascination about sex, sexuality and identity (when Glyn Jones, encountering the then-rare name ‘Dylan’ for the first time, wrote to ask if he was male or female, Thomas was pleased: ‘I hope I do not write with too masculine a pen’, he replied). Criticism of mass media manipulation fuels in ‘Our eunuch dreams’ and hopes for sexual and social liberation ‘All all and all’. And so on. The demands of a love relationship and becoming a parent, reflecting a deep empathy with the unborn child and its mother, shape ‘I make this in a warring absence’, ‘If my head hurt a hair’s foot’ and ‘A saint about to fall’. The civilian dead of WWII are elegised unforgettably in ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’, in a way as applicable to Yemen or Ukraine today as to London or Swansea in 1944. Near the end of his life, with the threat of atomic war looming, Thomas became an eco-poet, caring for the green earth, ‘this turning lump of mistakes’, in relaxed and expansive masterpieces like ‘In country sleep’. Again, the point about relevance, if relevance is what we ask of poetry, hardly needs making.
To unlock the vast majority of these poems we only need to know that Thomas saw human beings as inextricably bound up with the rest of the cosmos, from microbes to the galaxies – ‘The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars’ – just as, according to his ‘process poetic’, the present moment contained all past moments (‘A process in the weather of the heart’ is the poem which gives a blueprint for the vision). Death in the poems is not distinct from life, but active within it, just as life inhabits death, and grows out of it. All is relative in this universe, the poems suggest, while paradoxically finding their shapely form amid its ceaseless flux. This means that they are often about their own creation (as in one of my own favourites, ‘How shall my animal’) or self-making (‘I dreamed my genesis’, another starts).
And that’s it. With these few ideas and a little patience, any intelligent, open-minded reader can unlock the thrilling hinterland that lies beyond the tired old favourites. More fully immersed in Thomas’s weirdly beautiful, dynamic world, they will learn that to ‘love the words’ – his advice to the actors giving the first reading of Under Milk Wood, and a phrase flogged to death by the Dylan industry – means actively playing with them, rather than just responding passively. For, whatever else they may be, Dylan Thomas’ poems are always adventures in language, which he cherished for its ambiguous, slippery and multiple nature, and treated as an object in the world it is used to interpret. Read the poems aloud, to grasp how they work ‘from words’, emerging from pun and paradox, not merely ‘towards’ them; their sense will clarify, ‘in a wind on fire’, spells and charms, to be sure – but every one of them making sense too.