Who was Dylan Thomas?
Augustus John’s tousled angelic Fitzrovian? The Brown’s Hotel boozer, drinking at a book signing, staring back in the White Horse, almost lost!? At the BBC relaxed before the enormous microphone, ultimate performer of his own genius? Dissolutely sailing out from the Chelsea, a rock star poet seduced by the love America offered? In the garage overhanging the Taf counselled by herons? Master of his craft directing Milk Wood, lifting his head to blows of fame, fag hanging from full lips? Welsh bard, like Burns fated to be brand ambassador for a nations dream of itself? Dylan is all of these and none.
Dylan Thomas took me by surprise one summer afternoon in 1961 from inside a red Dansette record player but it was my daunting Welsh mother I thank, though she had no time for poetry. I was fourteen, had started to write, desperate to escape the suffocating limits of a small country town.
Mam was born two months before Dylan in a cluster of pit villages outside Wrecsam. Until her death at 93 she retained a fierce love of her father’s land and a perfect lilting accent. In the eulogy at her chapel funeral, I spoke of the loveliness of her voice and Eli Jenkins’ sunset prayer was my farewell.
My mother went to school when recitation was common practice. Reading aloud her intonation became stronger, words framed carefully through each syllable, clear, proud and songful. Mam’s accent embodied my love of her and gave me an instinctive understanding of the beauty of words. The ‘feel’ words possess needing to be spoken rather than read which Dylan called the “colour of saying”.
The brother of a school friend had a couple of Caedmon recordings. One of these, sparsely entitled 'Dylan Thomas Reading – Volume 2', contained the poem “Lament”, the rueful deathbed confessions of a libertine who, marrying late in his prodigal life, finds himself tied to a ‘Sunday wife’ (like the ‘tidy wives’ in Milk Wood). Libidinous but curiously moral, routed in ideas of redemption and purgatory that could only be born of Wales in the 1940’s by someone who had chosen to love and reject its strictures.
Unlikely to be set as course work the TES said, it was a perfect introduction to Dylan for a rebellious hormonal teen. No poems I had encountered had talked of lust in such a way. No poet had used words as Dylan did. But above all there was the way he spoke them. The rolling cadence of a voice I recognised somewhere below consciousness. How could I not? I had lived every day with that verbal pulse!
“With tongues that talk all tongues.”
It was a shock at first. The libertine content of the poem and the almost bombastic way Dylan chose to read, mimicking the chapel preachers of his childhood. The rolling playful regard for words was what came through. The colour of the word not only as important as the message but the power by which that meaning was conveyed. It was so unlike the poetry I was familiar with. It was a heritage I did not know I had.
That it was also frowned upon made me love it more. The literary establishment was disdainful particularly when Dylan combined seemingly unconnected words like “heron priested” and “unicorn evils” dismissed as meaningless or doggerel. They frowned on his fondness for alliteration to strengthen words and give them impact when spoken. “Bible black” is a fine example, literally spat out! Frequent references to grace and lost innocence, death and the long struggle to uncover meaning in life were deemed dated or naive by intellectually obsessed critics. The collection of “Modern Poetry” in my A Level Literature course had nothing by Dylan. My teacher pointed to a literary elite not ready to overlook the stain of being popular in America!
Nor was Dylan popular for decades in a Wales unhappy with the association. Relatives were shocked that I read Dylan Thomas and rebuked my mother for “allowing” me to read “that drunkard”! There was the drinking (age old enemy of the chapel) and Brinnin’s revelations from America. The eroticism of many of his poems – “their dust was flesh the swineherd rooted sly”. Then there was Milk Wood exposing eccentricities that could have been any small town in Wales including our pit villages . Many felt ridiculed, failing to see the gentleness and affection in the play.
A lived life later, I wear the dragon tattooed with the lines “Though lovers be lost, Love shall not” and poetry is the identifying passion I owe to Dylan, to Wales, to Mam, to Caedmon and a red Dansette.