BLOG Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 104

Dylan Ha Ha Ha: Dylan Thomas at the National Library

Why do our eulogies for Dylan Thomas continue with such shameless gusto? The question has been a hot topic in recent months, with contemporary poets Robert Minhinnick, Gwyneth Lewis and Jasmine Donahaye making equally passionate contributions to the debate.

Minhinnick has suggested that Dylan’s fame persists because he had the good fortune to die in New York at the age of thirty-nine; Lewis has argued for a return to his poetry, praising his ‘great thundering poems’ and ‘ferocious intelligence’; while Donahaye has criticised the current epidemic of ‘Dylanmania’, speaking of her ‘pathological lack of interest in Dylan Thomas’. The current exhibition, ‘Dylan’, at the National Library makes an extremely valuable contribution to the debate and, while ‘Dylanphobics’ will inevitably see it as a celebration of Dylan ‘god-like’ in extremis, for me the exhibit amplifies the talents of this exceptional poet.

Many people think of Thomas and hear his strident, somewhat mournful voice reciting ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. Others immediately think of the gossip: the drinking sessions, the women, the ‘chaotic’ private life. What is often forgotten is Thomas’ humour and playfulness: his prolific joie de vivre – and I was glad to be reminded how damned funny Thomas is by this most playful of exhibitions. The curators don’t focus solely on the poetry – which I found to be an extraordinarily canny move – but instead, draw together excerpts from Thomas’ Manifesto from 1951, his correspondences, playscripts, short stories, works for children and innumerable word lists [the latter touring this winter to the Dylan Thomas Centre’s exhibition from Buffalo University]. Reading through these ‘prose’ works, I felt suddenly the sheer pleasure Thomas experienced in language. All are dripping with wit, self-deprecation, and show the workings of a pathologically quick imagination at play in the world. They are, in fact, closer to poetry than the ‘poetry’ itself – so ranging, playful and multifarious are they.

I should also mention Peter Evershed’s sketches, which present Thomas as we commonly picture him: chubby in his later years, slightly morose-looking and surrounded by over-flowing ashtrays. Perhaps, I thought, as I looked at these images, our nostalgia for Thomas is actually a symptom of our nostalgia for the possibility offered by the romantic poet: that is, one who offers his life and art as a simultaneous proposition. After all, which poet lives his art with such profligacy, such integrity of purpose these days? It is not that excess equals integrity, but that life and art, for the true poet, are one and the same thing. The strength of Thomas’ determination to pursue language at the expense of what we might term ‘ordinary ambitions’ seems utterly incongruent with our current age, in which the professionalisation of the creative writer has led to a culture of self-promotion, hobnobbing and ultimately, I would argue, compromise.

The audio-visual installation, ‘Ach y Fi: A Play for Vices’, splices images of rural Wales with moments of slapstick. Men in nightshirts run into an estuary; a hand yanks the teat of a cow; the clap of rookwings is followed by an image of Elizabeth Taylor. This reimagined Under Milk Wood brings out Dylan the bawd, Dylan the shameless: the Dylan who writes: ‘her thighs still dewdamp from the first mangrowing cockcrow garden his reverent goat-bearded hands.’ Go and see it: you will never hear Under Milk Wood in the same way again.

Dylan Thomas elicits a very peculiar kind of fascination – one that is indistinguishable from our fascination with what it means to be a poet. And perhaps it is our fascination with the myths surrounding the idea of the true poet – one who sacrifices all (including conventional values) for the sake of their vocation – which kills the thing a true poet stands for. Because when we focus on the myths, we forget the language. In fact, the thing that seems so easily lost in these centenary year fiestas is the radicalism and bloody-mindedness of the language, the work itself. Which begs the question: do we want true poets?

Amy McCauley reviews, writes and blogs for New Welsh Review online and in print.

Photo of the Buffalo section of the exhibition courtesy of the National Library of Wales

Exhibition runs until 20 December, tours in part to the Dylan Thomas Centre from this winter and is part of the DT100 centenary celebrations


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