The Dylan Thomas Question

Dylan Thomas

This afternoon I’m part of a panel discussion at the London Welsh Centre in Gray’s Inn Road, talking about Dylan Thomas. (It’s at 5pm if you want to come along; it’s FREE.) The talk is being run by Rack Press, as part of the Bloomsbury Festival, because Rack is based in both Wales and, er, Bloomsbury.

I as surprised to be asked to speak about Dylan Thomas, but I said yes because I thought it would be a good chance to confront the problem. It felt like a problem, and I think there is a sort of  Dylan Thomas Question, a knotty thing to be disentangled… I felt a bit bad about this until I read Seamus Heaney’s essay on him in The Redress of Poetry, where he approaches Thomas from exactly the same position. He begins, ‘Dylan Thomas is by now as much a case history as a chapter in the history of poetry’, and lists a ‘multi-channel set of associations’: ‘Thomas the Voice, Thomas the Booze, Thomas the Debts, Thomas the Jokes, Thomas the Wales, Thomas the Sex, Thomas the Lies…’

Like most of us – I suspect – I read Dylan Thomas voraciously as a teenager, drunk on the sounds and not really getting a word of it – no, okay, that’s an exaggeration. I can remember the mad exhilaration of ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/drives my green age’: the sounds, the inverted syntax, the working out of the metaphor which is half abstraction and half conceit… The rhyme schemes – the in-&-back-out rhyme of ‘Prologue’ – the diamonds on the page, the records my mother used to play us, with that voice… Even now if I read certain of his poems, they enter my brain – or rather, are activated – in his voice.

I read him over and over, I read biographies of him, I read that book, Dylan Thomas in America. I knew there was also a John Malcolm Brinnin Question. When I arrived in London at 19 – the age he was when ‘And Death shall Have No Dominion’ was published – one of the first books I bought was Caitlin Thomas’ angry memoir, Leftover Life to Kill. Needless to say, I was a bit in love with Dylan, but I was firmly on her side. There was real pain in the fact that New York was the bad guy in this story. Even my Uncle Pete had been drinking with him in the White Horse (along with half the city, apparently, and if they weren’t there, they said they were).

And then eventually I stopped reading him. I think it just got too much about the story and the poems stopped working. So this panel discussion has been a good chance to re-engage with a ghost, as it were. I’ve spent my week with the ghost, reading his poems, and Heaney’s essay, and a wonderful book review by John Berryman, and smaller things by Randall Jarrell – ‘Dylan Thomas is very Welsh (he reminds me a little of Owen Glendower)’ – and the unforgiving Ian Hamilton.

In fact, everyone is agreed what the crux of the Dylan Thomas Problem is. Here’s Randall Jarrell:

If poetry were nothing but texture, Thomas would be as good as any poet alive. The what of his poems is hardly essential to their success, and the best and most brilliantly written pieces usually say less than the worst.

But at least this time the problem is about the poems, not the myth of the man (who sounds by all accounts an utter nightmare – I had his Letters but finally sold them last year, just too depressing). Dylan wrote in a letter (sold by me, quoted by Heaney): ‘I think poetry should work from words, from the substance of words and the rhythm of substantial words set together, not towards words.’ Heaney speaks of an ‘almost autistic enclosure within the phonetic element’, and cites Eliot’s remark of someone-or-other as ‘a case of technical development proceeding ahead  of spiritual development’. Certainly, I knew even at 14 that to Dylan Thomas the sounds were paramount. They were thrilling, and reading them again this week they’ve thrilled afresh. I only wish I’d been as diligent with metrics as he was at that age. Don Paterson, as I’m always saying, writes that ‘sound is sense’. He means it literally, that the sound of the poem and the meaning of the poem are one and the same, and it’s impossible not to think of that when reading this:

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea… [&c]

Go on. Read the rest. This poem, published in the poet’s teens, is a case in point, and a point where the Dylan Thomas Question looms large, in all its paradox. Because this poem has everything. It has absolutely everything. Just speak those words. Go on. And Death shall have No Dominion… it can’t be read in any tones other than ringing ones. His language actually functions as musical notation. Look at lines 3 and 4:

With the MAN in the WIND and the WEST MOON;
When their BONES are PICKED CLEAN and the CLEAN BONES GONE…

These are very unusual, written in anapaests and spondees, and they tell you how to read them, where the emphasis goes. And the sounds – which control passage of air through the throat and mouth, and the speed with which that happens, and the register in which it happens – function almost like singing instructions. His technical aspects are flawless; his imagery is both startling and reminiscent of Shakespeare or the Metaphysicals; the repetition of that main line is just staggeringly effective. As Jarrell says, ‘anyone interested in poetry will read’ him.

But the poem goes on, and even while it grows in its rhetorical stature and imagery – ‘Though they be mad and dead as nails,/ Heads of the characters hammer through daisies’ – it becomes more and more abstract, and you realise: this was written by someone who is sort of trying to imagine what death might be. ‘Death’ is a big word; but, like ‘love’, it means different things to different people and in different circumstances. It’s heroic teenage boy poetry. He might as well be writing it about Alexander the Great. It’s beautiful, and – as Jarrell says – successful. But it isn’t having to struggle very hard against the dead weight of the dead hand of death – if anything, it’s conveniently pretending its ignorance of it is a kind of knowledge. Which maybe it is, thinking about it; it is a kind of innocence, a wishful thinking that nevertheless leads to a psychic truth, anyway.

Elsewhere in his lecture Heaney talks about phrase from Eavan Boland (in an essay in PN Review about Elizabeth Bishop) : ‘the suffered world’. Boland wrote: ‘Poetic tone… is not a matter of the aesthetic of any one poem. It grows more surely, more painfully, from the ethics of the art. Its origins must always be in a suffered world rather than a conscious craft’. It is this suffered world that Heaney feels is the lacking element in Thomas’ work – up to a point. If the dead do not die windily, on might be tempted to say there’s certainly a lot of wind around them here. And the abstractions – as Berryman points out in his review, ‘the key words: blood, sea, dry, ghost, grave, straw, worm, double, crooked, salt, cancer, tower, shape, fork, marrow, ..death light, time, sun, night, wind, love, grief’ – each of which appears ‘many times and has regularly one or several symbolic values’ – do stand in a universal, rather than a personal, position. His premises are more rhetorically established than hard-won spiritual triumphs.

Bu this is the starting point, not the solution. It’s only the statement of the question, not the answer. And the symbolism is no accident; it was Thomas himself who first coined the idea of ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’. Heaney comes down on the side of Thomas, in the end, partly on account of ‘Do Not Go Gentle’, which does resist a real suffered world; but Ian Hamilton takes the opposite view, agreeing strongly with The Problem and then predicting sourly that had he lived he’d have been all over the telly. (I know: eh?)

John Berryman, in his posthumous collection of essays The Freedom of the Poet (1976), reviews Thomas’ 1940 collection, The World I Breathe (whcih is what Jarrell was also reiewing; where Jarrell gave it one paragraph in a group review, Berryman gave it a considered few pages). Tellingly, the review is called ‘Dylan Thomas: the Loud Hill of Wales’. But he pays forensically close attention to the poems, and defends them mightily. It’s a fascinating fly-on-the-wall moment, a thorough, inquiring look at Dylan Thomas before his reputation was assured, near the beginning.

One Julian Symonds had written disparagingly in The Kenyon Review of Thomas’ poems, ‘that the seasons change; that we decrease in vigour as we grow older; that life has no meaning; that love dies. His poems mean no more than that . They mean too little.’ Berryman robustly routs him, writing, ‘I have not time to notice any considerable part of Symons’ nonsense; one quotation must serve’:

Evidently it is necessary to  point out to Symonds what is elementary, that a poem means more than the abstract, banal statement of its theme: it means its imagery, the disparate parts and relations of it, its ambiguities, by extension the techniques which produced it and the emotions it legitimately produces… there is a value and a meaning which cannot appear in Symons’ catalogue. Even the single lines mean more than their prose doubles:

The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars.

Glory cracked like a flea.

Sigh long, clay cold, lie shorn.

The terrible world my brother bares his skin.

The short poem from which all these come is very interesting, but as much as I’d like to simply type out Berryman’s essay and give it to you, that feels unwise… There’s almost a page of the lists of words Thomas used in these 40 poems, and he talks about Thomas’ ‘unusual  epithets’, compound words, etc. He makes very trenchant observations:

Certain technical derivations there are, despite  one’s impression of originality: from Blake (the Songs of Experience and Thel), Hopkins, Yeats (the middle and later poetry), Auden (the 1930 Poems); I think it is also likely that he and Auden learned, independently, something in tone, consonace, extra syllables, and feminine rhymes, from Ransom. Possibly the verse has roots in Welsh poetry, folk or professional…

The Welsh reference, though Thomas didn’t speak Welsh, echoes thoughts I’ve been having all week. Both the Welsh language and Dylan Thomas are full of rich consonantal sound and very expressive vowels. In the 2003 Arena programme about Dylan Thomas, Nigel Williams talked about this rhetorical style, too, saying Thomas clearly picked it up from everywhere: from the preachers in Swansea, from the air. He says that though this style of preaching has almost died out, Thomas had what he could only describe as the very Welsh (i.e., untranslatable) quality of hwyl.

So there we go. The questions are hovering, the position is stated, and it’s a starting point. I was very struck this week, looking for things to read, that in my half a wall of poetry criticism there were only these four things to read. Maybe everyone got sick of all the histrionics, but no one’s writing about him. There’s space for a feminist essay on Thomas the Patriarchy, but also one on Thomas the Earth Goddess. Thomas the Body. He wrote in a letter, quoted by Heaney:

All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Therefore the description – however abstruse it may be – can be beaten home by bringing it on to a physical level. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells and senses. Through my small bone island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, and sensed all.

There’s also Thomas the Radio, Thomas the Childhood, Thomas the Kitsch. I’d love to read about Thomas the Technique, something like Berryman’s approach applied to the whole work. You could almost take these headings and commission a critical anthology…

Anyway, first, come and hear us discussing him at 5pm: me, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, William Palmer, and Martina Evans. And then we’re doing a reading. London Welsh Centre, Gray’s Inn Road.

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