Dylan Thomas: Wales prepares to resurrect the poet’s reputation.
October 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
The little park where he played as a boy in Swansea has had a facelift, and a bronze statue is to be erected outside his childhood home. Manuscripts and rare photographs have been borrowed from an archive in New York, and his quotations have been liberally applied to council vehicles. Wales is preparing to embrace once again Dylan Thomas, its errant son, 100 years after his birth. Next year the poet who was too “English for the Welsh and too Welsh for the English” is finally to receive the full accolades many feel he has long deserved.
Announcing that £750,000 would be made available for the “DT100” festival, the Welsh government hopes the centenary will boost tourism, but first minister Carwyn Jones said the festival would also be used to raise the status of Thomas, and Welsh tourism minister Edwina Hart called for “resurrecting” a passion for the poet.
There are strong feelings that Wales, and the rest of the UK, have neglected Thomas, allowing his work to be overshadowed by a conception of the man as a drunkard, scrounger and womaniser. His admirers want to use the occasion to debunk the myths and rediscover the poet who in his lifetime was dubbed “Britain’s finest” – the poet who worked so hard that there are as many as 200 versions of the same poem, and whose reading tours were gruelling.
Thomas made an unlikely hero – a short, curly-haired, tubby man, usually in a borrowed suit, with a cigarette permanently cushioned on a fat bottom lip. But he is the man who inspired John Lennon to write songs, put the Dylan into Bob, took the girlfriend of Augustus John to bed (and had him pay for the hotel room), hung out with Salvador Dalí, was feted by Charlie Chaplin and photographed for Vogue by Lee Miller. He is even credited with opening the west’s literary doors to black African literature by promoting, in this very newspaper, Nigerian Amos Tutuola’s novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and with starting the spoken voice LP. Thomas was one of the first to recognise the huge cultural potential of radio and TV.
Yet he is not on academic curriculums, and even Welsh schools are only now being encouraged to examine his work. There has never been a complete works, and academia has snubbed him. Dr John Goodby, of Swansea University, said Thomas has been “airbrushed” out: “Thomas fell from grace. There was a whole slew of books in the 70s … and then nothing. It was as if in Wales there was this inwards, more nationalistic, discourse, which Thomas didn’t fit. He didn’t write in Welsh, for a start.”
Although some later works, such as Fern Hill and his play Under Milk Wood remain popular, it is the kind of popularity that makes academics suspicious and his reputation has declined, said Goodby. He said that Thomas fell between the cracks because he was hard to pigeonhole and his work had such an embarrassing richness when plainer, anecdotal poetry was being critically acclaimed.
Goodby said Thomas would never have been able to write anything if he’d been as drunk as people said. He represented a spirit of freedom. “But things are getting better,” he concluded. “Swansea was in denial of him for a long time but now they see he could be a moneyspinner and do for Wales what James Joyce has done for Dublin.”
In Thomas’s day middle-class parents discouraged their children from speaking Welsh for fear it would stunt their career prospects. His schoolteacher father even sent him to elocution classes. He himself didn’t want his poetry to be “regionalised”, although his love of Wales is undeniable.
“He echoes what a lot of us feel: sometimes you love to hate Wales,” said eminent Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, “I once wrote a poem in the shape of a boomerang because that’s how I felt about Wales – ultimately you are pulled back to your roots in a search for a quiet spot.”
Jo Furber is Swansea council’s literature officer, based at the elegant Dylan Thomas Centre, an arts centre with an exhibition devoted to the poet. “We have so many people coming in to learn more about him. They sometimes don’t arrive as an admirer but leave as one. He has probably suffered because he is difficult to categorise, both in his life and his poetry. He was a man who didn’t go to university yet was incredibly well read. He loved the classics, but was happy to read detective stories in the bath, eating jelly babies.”
She is applying for funding to put the centre on the literary heritage map. “We’d love to expand. What we’d love the most is to find some moving footage of him; there has to be some out there somewhere. Perhaps the centenary will bring that out of an attic somewhere.”