Nearly fed up of the various Dylanothons or other Laugharniferous verbo-frenzies? Then look away now. I’m going in there for one last gloopy submergence; right in to the heron-stalked sticklebacked, reedy pockmarked estuarine slap of it. Fondling the cockles and snorting in the brilliant, briny green bay-ness. Because there’s something life-affirming in there, something wonderfully open. Isn’t there?
With Dylan, you either get it or don’t. Okaaay, we can say that of everything but what I mean is Thomas is seemingly destined or well-equipped to polarise. There are legitimate calls either way – he can be a pompous, adoration-seeking preacher or a deliciously boozy revolutionary – your call. You could hate him for that ridiculous voice, booming and faux (post elocution lessons) and for his dumb wading (or wallowing?) in the highbrow and the posh. Or you could melt, melt into the stream, the malt, the whisky that is Thomas at his finest.
I do know proper Welsh folks who simply cannot get past that voice, mind; I struggle myself. Because it reeks of a kind of appallingly grasping aspiration towards god-fearing elevation and therefore, well… private schools and hops and horses and England. How can anyone who sounds like that – like he’s auditioning for the RADA/BBC of the forties – be anything other than a complete nob? How, mun? Even if Thomas was effectively auditioning, more or less desperately, for the holy grail of paid work at the Beeb or elsewhere for much of his short career, Dai the Bomb of Solva won’t buy the sub-Etonian in-tone-ay-shunns. You need then, to be seduced past the bombast.
But what, pray, if you are (for example) a feisty gel minded to strike out at the poet’s diabolical treatment of ‘the women in his life’? Or immediately suspicious of anyone who needs a bevvy or eighteen to flush out the creative urge? Or anti-welsh? Or magnificently bright but favour the lean, the skeletally insightful, the tight-arsed prose of contemporary favour? Let’s face it, there are lots of ways to skin the Thomas cat.
Then there’s his status, which in the minds of some may convey instant naffness – ‘cos people love him. Ordinary peeps – yes, those trackie-wearing plebs, those lottery ticket-buying donkeys – some of them too, love Thomas because of those words; not from study but from the whiff or memory of Dylan and of something shared in the air.
Naturally (and maybe I do mean this as a sociological observation) the Welsh intuit or ‘get’ or tap in to something that hums between the landscape and the bloke here. Visitors to the province or the works may of course enter the kingdom of Llarregub or the teenier but no less compelling worlds of Fern Hill or A Child’s Christmas on production of a sherry-stained visa or perhaps just a big daft, responsive heart. Once in, all do feel welcome, I think.
There’s a fascinating link between this now iconic Welshman with his ‘ailing lung’ and the national sport of immersing in song. Is it that Thomas captures something pleasingly characteristic which has a particular rhythm? Certainly – but difficult to specify whether that rhythm is just felt or (even) trace how it springs from the page. The sensation is maybe received musically, as though in an alcohol-stimulated ‘glow’ – which again appeals to most of us as a notion as well as an experience. This should not however deflect us from acknowledging the imaginative power and prodigious intellect at work.
But let’s be honest, it’s more or less accessible poetry – sing-song – that wins us over. Does that make it merely… saccharoidal? No. The greatest triumph and therefore best example – Under Milk Wood – is way too rich for that. Popular sure but also funny, sexy and profoundly beautiful. I’ve been this way before but please do sit and draw in the magnificent windows-opening-simultaneously ‘bible black’ of the Michael Sheen opening to the 2014 Beeb Wales version. (Link in a previous blog – may no longer be available there!) It’s spellbindingly wonderful. Find it and stay with the entire production if you can. Here is all the proof you need, brilliantly understood, superbly executed.
This recent Under Milk Wood is excitingly contemporary as well as true to the work. It brings the words to life far better than Thomas himself could through his own readings. The Sheen masterclass is merely the precursor to a sustained execution of the poetry of this remarkable play. For me it’s then obvious – emphatic. Dylan Thomas may have been an incorrigible scrounger or duplicitous or worse but his legacy stands triumphant and triumphantly against cynicism. If you want to make the argument that this stuff is centred upon hypocrisy then crack on; for me what is left… is not for cynics. It’s for humanity and joy and I believe in it.
Tuning right in let me say I know Laugharne well and can tell you that both the place itself and the writer himself make sense almost explosively, in some fabulous deep fashion, if you park yourself on a bench beneath (say) the castle walls. The estuary village is both quietly delightful and throbbing with daft stories but it needed to be written to be.
Nowhere have I been that gave the epiphanic thwack that standing by the Writing Shed in Laugharne offers. Under Milk Wood – and plenty else – becomes viable, thinkable, familiar and goes scorching to the very heights of word-as-document, as expression of the gorgeous. Both the sound of it and the glorious human warmth of Milk Wood embed it in the hearts of millions the world over. It’s unique in a way that’s at once a lot of fun and stylistically beyond (as we say in Wales.) Meaning it’s both entertaining and bona fide as a work of art.
This is my 200th post and I wanted to write about something important- to me. I love the madness and the boldness in Thomas. I love that being a palpably inadequate bloke, he blazed a trail, he made something mighty and essentially generous. Turn to Under Milk Wood and find his vindication, his moment. Here most obviously he surely floods out beyond local stereotype into things universal; foibles, the workaday truths, the daily poisons, love.
Thinking whilst writing of Thomas, I have been reminded of Joan Miro’s determination to ‘pursue the golden sparks in his soul’ – something I wrote about some moons ago. I said of the Catalan genius
He knew his purpose was to make a poetic response to experience. And he did it for decades. Call me an old tart, but I find that inspiring.
Thomas lacked longevity – that ailing lung failed him. But he had that drive towards the wondrous and I salute him too.