It may seem strange, but Dylan Thomas’s successes in numerous literary and performance fields, coupled with some salacious biographies, seem to have been detrimental to his core reputation amongst other writers and academics. His writing was never easy to pigeonhole, with attempts to force his round body into the square holes of surrealist, new apocalyptic, neo-romantic, pastoral traditions or the undefined ‘nature poet’ or ‘Welsh poet’ doomed to failure. If you did a blind test on some of his best known poems, say ‘Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Altarwise By Owl-Light’, ‘In My Craft Or Sullen Art’ and ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ it would be difficult to categorise the five works together, though are all quintessentially and recognisably ‘Thomas’. What amounted to high profile smear campaigns on the back of vitriol from Kingsley Amis (who bizarrely ended up a trustee of the Dylan Thomas literary estate) led to a situation where for many years there was barely any serious criticism (Walford Davies aside) of one of the best known and best loved poets of the twentieth century.
I use the terms advisedly, as outside the realms of poets and critical study, in the second half of the twentieth century Thomas was one of the few poets whose name was known with affection by the general public. Aside from the poems themselves, stories like ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, broadcasts like ‘Quite Early One Morning’ and the currently ubiquitous ‘Under Milk Wood’ remained hugely popular; ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ was referenced in everything from American teen TV series to a Frankie Goes to Hollywood top ten single, and the (inaccurate) famous last words ‘I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s a record’ stayed in the public consciousness, along with the image of the ‘first pop star poet’. Dylan the icon rubbed shoulders with Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious in some quarters, Rimbaud and Swinburne in others.
And across the years, other art forms recognised and celebrated Thomas. Ceri Richards, Peter Blake and Ralph Steadman all flew the flag in the art world (along with Steve Dillon in a graphic novel), composers and performers as diverse as Stravinsky, John Cale, Stan Tracy, Ralph McTell (and currently Cerys Matthews) produced full length works dedicated to his life and poetry, ‘Under Milk Wood’ has had several high profile and celebrity packed versions released, and film has done its part with DT original scripts for ‘The Doctor and the Devils’ and ‘Rebecca’s Daughters’ brought to the screen with Timothy Dalton, Peter O’Toole, Joely Richardson, as well as a dvd release of some of his documentary films. Dylan’s audio recordings have been selected dozens of times on ‘Desert Island Discs’ and his early records for Caedmon essentially launched the modern spoken word market. I could go on. Easily. And I often do.
The one area Dylan Thomas hasn’t been truly appreciated as he deserves though, is by those who should by rights be best placed to recognise his literary worth, in the one thing he loved most and did best, his poetry.
I’m glad to say this is changing, and this is helped hugely by John Goodby’s new book ‘Under The Spelling Wall’. Hopefully the renaissance of Dylan Thomas as a major poet worthy of study will continue and his praises will still be sung/ On this high hill in a year's turning. Happy Birthday Dylan