portsmouth poetry 

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Early in the second world war, before beginning his work for Strand Films in London, Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and baby son Llewelyn lived briefly in Blashford near Ringwood in the New Forest. OK, it's a tenuous link for Portsmouth Poetry but both Liz Weston and Josh Brown are Welsh. (Though Liz comes from West Wales and Josh from the North ["Welsh Wales"] but we don't mention that!)


Responding to requests from some of our connections, we have included a page on the site dedicated to the greatest poet from the land of poetry and song - Dylan Marlais Thomas. It will include posts written by us and links to interesting information about the Swansea Bard.

To be born Welsh is to be born privileged. Not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but with a song on your lips and poetry in your soul.

Welsh Proverb

[also in the poem "In Passing" Brian Harris 1967]

Portsmouth Poetry is proud to publish the following poem by local poet Maggie Sawkins adopted from a selection of love letters Dylan wrote to his first love, the writer Pamela Hansford  Johnson in 1934

On the Borders Of DTs

(from The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas)


It’s a wild wet day in this tided town and it’s too cold to write.
Scarlet ants crawl from the holes in the rocks onto my idle hand.


The wind’s blowing hair across my face. I stare from this muddied
edge at the shapes of rocks carved in chaos by a tiddly sea.


Three broken masts stick up in the distance from a stranded ship
like nails in the breast of a wooden Messiah. O listen


to the near breaking of the heart as the sun peers for a tick
from its cloud & lights up the raggy sails of a fisherman’s boat.


O where are they now – the hundreds of rabbits I saw last night
as I lay in a field of buttercups and wrote of death?


Where’s the jawbone of the sheep that I wished could fit
into my pocket. Where’s the brown worm in my beer? O hell


to the wind for blowing these pages about. Woe to the sun
that he shines not. There’s no pattern, no purpose – just a torture


of words. A twisted vein of evil, like poison in a drinker’s glass,
coils from the pit to the top of this hemlocked world. O oracle


in the lead of my pencil, let me drop this customary clowning,
let me sprinkle onto this stolen paper some sweetheart words


It was the Buddha who said, apart from not being born at all,
it’s best to die young. The only solution’s for someone to garrotte


me as I nibble at my vermicelli, else pour a little poison in my cup.
The wind’s blowing hair across my face. It’s too cold to write.


Maggie Sawkins

 


Maggie Sawkins is the winner of 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She is the founder of Tongues & Grooves in the Community and runs creative writing projects in and around Portsmouth.


for more information visit Tongues & Grooves at


https://tonguesandgrooves.com


“A Welsh mam, a Caedmon recording and a red Dansette record player”: How my passion for poetry began. 

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.


Josh Brown, Portsmouth Poetry (Copyright 2016)


The Caedmon recordings are still widely available on Ebay

An audio recording of Dylan reading 'Lament' can by found on You Tube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8AH9xQn7v8

We will be publishing an outline of Caedmon and the artists they recorded on this site soon....

IS DYLAN THOMAS THE 'WELSH BARD'?

There was a time when Wales wanted little to do with Dylan Thomas. The 'Rock 'n' Roll Poet' image did not sit well with a nation for whom the chapel and non-conformist politics was at the heart of its culture. That has changed. Dylan is fast becoming an icon of Welsh identity and pride as well as a potential "brand ambassador" for Wales and Welsh tourism. So there is a widespread desire to make him the 'Bard of Wales'!


The word ‘bard’ means a poet but we now use the term to refer to someone of importance, often held to be the greatest or leading poet of his (usually) people as in the application of the term to Shakespeare (“the bard of Avon”) in England and Burns (“the Bard of Ayr”) in Scotland. (Other examples include Rabrindranath Tagore, “the Bard of Bengal” and John Cooper Clarke, “the Bard of Salford”!) In this context, there is increasing pressure for Dylan Thomas to be hailed as the Welsh Bard or Bard of Swansea. But the significance of the status of ‘bardd’ in Wales makes this more significant.

The word ‘Bard’ is of Celtic origin and is found in Irish & Scots Gaelic and in Welsh as “Bardd”. In Medieval times a bard was a professional story-teller, a ‘Troubadour’, poet or musician/singer with the function of oral historian and genealogist when only a small minority of people, irrespective of class or status, could read and write. By the 16th Century, bard had become a derogatory term for an itinerant musician. This was inevitable given the rise of secular grammar schools offering education outside the church which elevated the importance of literacy and undermined the traditional oral function in urban communities. 


Medieval bards were employed by a patron such as a nobleman to commemorate their ancestors and praise (fictionalise) their own activities. This meant that the story-tellers were often comfortably off and played a significant role in the propaganda of status and power. In line with this role, a hierarchy of names existed designating different statuses of poet. ‘Bard’ tended to be a term for a lower level of versifier with names like “Fili” in Ireland and Scotland being reserved for high status poets employed by kings and aristocrats. 


As the tradition of oral history and story-telling declined, the word bard first lost its importance and then became a generic term for a poet before developing a reference to a single individual like Shakespeare.

Sir Walter Scott played a key role in developing this meaning by romanticising the bard in poems like ‘The Bard’s Incantation’. At the same time the emergence of ‘Druidism’ created a largely fictional or romanticised notion of ancient Celtic ‘traditions’ that became a key part of the Welsh Eisteddfod.


The Welsh tradition varies to that of the rest of the UK and Ireland. Welsh Celts had survived the onslaught of the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. Their culture was developed to protect the identity of the ‘Cymru’ or Community who occupied central and northern Wales. (The word comes from the Brythonic ‘combrogi’ meaning ‘fellow countrymen’.) 

Welsh culture holds a long tradition of famous and respected poets and works who are honoured with the title “the Bards of Wales”. Its likely, that the Welsh respected the term as a way of maintaining a distinction from their English neighbours that placed emphasis on being a nation of poets and singers.

Guinevere by Henry Justice Ford 1910

One such is Taliesen son of Cerridwen who is both a character of Welsh myth and a poet whose works have survived (though the two need not have been the same person). Modern day Druids (sic.) often claim Taliesen as the greatest Welsh bard.


Bards like Taliesen wrote about the great myths and mythic heroes such as King Arthur, Merlin , Guinevere (Guenevere) and Tristan & Iseult. The most famous of these works is “The Mabinogion” written from collected oral stories in the Fourteenth Century. It consists of 11 stories in two sections, the White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and The Red Book of Hergest (1375 – 1425). The title of the collection is a mistake. The word “mabinogi” appears in the text and is a reference to boyhood or youth. This was misunderstood by Lady Charlotte Guest who produced the C19th publication and wrongly applied it to the two sets of texts!

But the Mabinogion has another significance. 

Dylan Thomas’ parents, although Welsh speakers, raised their children to be aspiring middle class ‘English’. Dylan and his sister were not taught Welsh and were sent to elocution lessons to remove any traces of a Welsh accent leading Dylan to describe his own speaking voice as “Cut-glass”. Dylan went to Swansea Grammar School at 11. His father was head of English and the school rigorously excluded any encouragement of ‘Welshness’ This approach to the national culture and language was not uncommon in the early C20th before the resurgence of ‘Welsh Nationalism (my Welsh speaking grandparents from a mining community raised my mother and her sisters to only speak English). But strangely and in stark contradiction, DJ and Florence Thomas choose profoundly, indeed uncommonly, Welsh names for their son. His middle name ‘Marlais’ is a Celticised version of ‘Marles’ the pen-name of Dylan’s great uncle Gwilym Marles a radical preacher and poet. The name 'Dylan' comes from the Mabiogion and translates as “son of the sea”. The character appears on the fourth tale “Math fab Mathonwy”. Math is king of Gwynedd and Dylan is his great nephew, son of Arianrhod and assumes merman like characteristics on being submerged in the sea at his christening.

William Thomas who wrote under the 'bardic name' Gwilym Thomas. He is thought to have been the inspiration for the Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood

Thanks to Dylan Thomas and the American musician who plagiarised his name, Dylan is nows an extremely popular and common name and it is hard to imagine that in the 1920’s when he was at school the name would have been unknown even in Wales to all but a few literary scholars! Nor is the name ‘Dill – Ann’. In Welsh it would be pronounced “Dull-un”. Florrie Thomas is largely responsible for the contemporary mis-pronunciation. Dylan did not perform well at school. Asthmatic and not sporty he was subject to some bullying. When he was about to go to Swansea Grammar, where academic achievement was the over-riding goal, his mother was worried that his non-Welsh-speaking peers would parody his unusual name into “Dull-One”! She instructed her husband to tell his colleagues that her son’s name was pronounced “Dillan”!

The Discover Dylan Thomas website has the text of an interesting interview with Florence Thomas shortly before her death taken from "Dylan Remembered" by Colin Edwards

https://www.discoverdylanthomas.com/son-dylan-florence-thomas-conversation-colin-edwards

Druidism’ re-surfaced in the late C18th and C19th as part of a Romanticist movement in the face of unfettered industrialisation. The attraction was a fantasy past built around brave heroes and beautiful maidens depicted in fabulous stories and poetry that has its best expression in the fairy-tale paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. The great Celtic bardic myths were an obvious focus for this and it was not long before ‘Druid societies’ began to be formed. The key figure in this was an unlikely one, William Stukeley an C18th vicar who believed that the Druids had been monotheistic and declared himself to be a Druid writing several books on the subject leading to the formation of the first Druid Society on Anglesey shortly after his death. A second group was formed not long after in Ceredigion (Cardigan) and the ambitious but totally fake Ancient Order of Druids soon after that. The movement was closely aligned to the Freemasons with similar faux rituals.


There was no religious element to these initial groups but that soon changed and Druidism began to sit side-by-side with the chapel in the culture of Wales. Iolo Morganwyg (his name equally fictitious, he was born Edward Williams) began inventing Druidic rituals and along with William Price aligned the movement with Welsh nationalism and Chartism.


Festivals of poetry and music had been common in Wales up to the C12th when bardic traditions started to wane, so they were an inevitable attraction to this movement, a link with a past that distanced itself from the English and emphasised the artistic culture of the ‘cymru’. The Eistedfodd were revived in the C18th, initially on a small informal level. Derived from the Welsh ‘morphemes’ ‘eistedd’ meaning "to sit" and ‘bod’ meaning "to be" the word translates into English roughly as “session”. The first recorded Eisteddfod was at Cardigan Castle in 1176 and the first in this revival occurred in Corwen in 1789 organised by Thomas Jones. At Medieval sessions poetry competitions were held and the winning ‘bard’ sat to dine next to the king or lord. When the Eisteddfod was revived so were the competitions and the practice of awarding a winning poet a “Bardic Chair” was introduced.


When Dylan’s was a child there would be several sessions each year in different locations. The ‘Urdd’ National Eisteddfod is still held entirely in Welsh whereas the International Eisteddfod held in Llangollen every July is world famous and launched the career of Luciano Pavarotti. There are also several meetings among the Welsh communities of Patagonia in Argentina and Welsh descendants in Australia, South Africa and the USA.


Ellis Evans ("Hedd Wyn) 

1887-1917

Perhaps the most famous and touching story of the award of a bardic chair is that of the great welsh poet Hedd Wyn who died on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele in WW1. A radical Christian pacifist, Ellis Evans (the pen-name 'Hedd Wyn' means "beautiful peace" a reference to the landscape around his family farm in Snowdonia) was opposed to war and need not have fought. As the eldest son in a farming family he was exempt from conscription but enlisted to prevent his younger brother from being called up. He submitted several Cynghanedd poems to the Eisteddfod from the Western Front overcoming the objections of his commanding officer who suspected the poems in Welsh might be espionage. He was awarded the bardic chair six weeks after his death. It was carried to his family home in Trawsfynydd covered in a black cloth. Dylan would undoubtedly have known of Hedd Wyn. His “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” contains lines of Cynghanedd and is clearly influenced by the suffering experienced in WW1.


So, should Dylan Thomas be regarded as the Welsh Bard? Probably not. He is one of many in a nation of poets and singers. C20th bardic status is also clearly justified for Hedd Wyn, Edward Thomas, David Jones and Idris Davies. He is a product of a nation of bards and should not overshadow the many great poets associated with “the Eden of bards” (Welsh National Anthem). Whether he is the greatest poet Wales has produced is an opinion and is subject to taste but for me there is no question.


Josh Brown (copyright 2020)