The legacy of Dylan Thomas

Remembering the ‘unusual’ poet

Ian D'Alton

The 50th anniversary of the death in New York of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is being celebrated in many ways. Recently, some Irish libraries have been visited by a portable replica of his work room at Laugharne, the Welsh seaside village where he lived for a time, which had reproductions of his manuscripts.

An unusual idea, but then Thomas was an unusual poet. He emerged to fame as one of the school of poets encouraged by the poetry editor of the Sunday Referee. He was taken up by established poets such as Edith Sitwell, who also delighted in the very sound of words and their recitation.

With his wonderful Welsh voice, Thomas seemed to be made for radio and it was as a radio poet that he became famous. His drama for voices in Under Milk Wood must have served as an introduction to what poetry might be for many people. His beloved Laugharne partly inspired Under Milk Wood.

Some of his efforts, notably his work in films, did not always prove fruitful, with a history of failed or thwarted projects – but that is in the nature of literary life.

He developed a reputation as a bohemian poet and hell-raiser. The account of his last days in New York and his death, perhaps due to medical neglect, makes the saddest of reading. He had gone to the US to make money to support his family. But he found that on his readings in American colleges, he became an object of sexual interest and was too constantly plied with alcohol by what Edith Sitwell later called “a Comus-rout of boring little floozies”. John Malcolm Brinnin’s account of this time, Dylan Thomas in America, makes for grim reading. Thomas died, or rather was destroyed by fame, at the early age of 39.

The circumstances of his death seemed in part a confirmation of the legend, but in part this was undeserved, as a reading of his poetry, which delights in rural scenes and the days of childhood. It seems that he has now become one of the poets who will not be forgotten or neglected again.

Yet his poetry, whether read by himself or others (such as his friend Richard Burton), or read off the page, was an exciting experience for many young poets and writers. He opened up the very notion of what poetry might be after what had been for many the aridity of the 1930s. But he stood on the cusp of the passage of poetry from the hands of men of letters into the grip of the academic world. It was the impingement of the academic into literature that killed him. Since then, poetry has ceased to be a popular expression, and has centred itself on the academic world to its detriment.

Religious conviction

Dame Edith again, herself a poet of religious conviction, noted the same feeling in Dylan Thomas. “With him, all is prayer and praise. Poetry to him is prayer. ‘When we pray,’ said the Curé d’Ars, ‘we should open our heart to God, like a fish when it sees the wave coming.’… And so might have spoken Dylan Thomas. But then, as I have said many times, the experiences of the saint and of the great poet are related.”

His qualities have retained their majesty, which is more than can be said for the work of many of those lesser talents, who gave too much of their time to criticism, and not enough to their verse.

However, his great skill as a reciter and reader of his own poetry raises a point for me. These days it is rare to hear a poet who can read his own poetry well, or even recite it from memory. I have often wondered how it is that if young poets cannot be bothered to know their own poems ‘by heart’ (significant expression), we should all be expected to do so. They do not see themselves as performers.

Dylan Thomas was a performer, an heir perhaps of the medieval Welsh bards with their repertoire of thousands of lines. It is perhaps that Celtic strain that lies at the heart of his genius.