Time to reconsider Welsh windbag tag

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Imagine failing to turn up at a friend's wedding when you are best man.

Such insensitive behaviour would not go down well. Yet Dylan Thomas managed to avoid Vernon Watkins's marriage in such circumstances in 1944. Instead he visited his London publisher, got an advance and went on a bender.

Remarkably Watkins, a contender for Poet Laureate after John Masefield's death in 1967, forgave his fellow Swansea poet whose quality of Christian compassio he use regularly to extol. This was the line Watkin's took in his friend's obituary in The Times. Predictably, Thomas's drinking had got the better of him and he died in New York, aged just 39, in sordid circumstances, 50 years ago this weekend.

Thomas's dissolute life is well-known. Less so the admiration in which he was held by his peers. Stephen Spender, Roy Campbell, Louis MacNeice, TS Eliot and a host of American poets revered him. In spite of his Dionysian excesses, they identified him as possessing the potent blend of humility and vision, necessary for a great poet.

Not everyone agreed. His romantic wordiness was loathed by the next generation of poets: Kingsley Amis and the Movement.

His professional reputation plummeted in the decades following his death.

His natural Welsh constituency turned against him. At a time of rising nationalism, he was accused of failing to treat Wales seriously. His most famous creation, Under Milk Wood, was regarded as unfriendly satire of the worst Welsh stereotypes of drinking and whimsy.

Recently the tide has begun to turn. Universities (particularly in Wales) are looking afresh at his work and liking what they find. His Anglo-Welshness accords with the cross-cultural zeitgeist.

Like Salman Rushdie and the Anglo-Indians, his Welsh sonorousness is commended for having brought a new dimension to the dry English locutions of the age of Auden.

In schools he is again regarded as worthy of study. Under Milk Wood never strayed far from the curriculum, at least in Wales, where it features as a set text on the GCSE syllabus of the Welsh Joint Education Committee.

His poetry has had to fight its way back into contention. His Selected Poems is a set text on the WJEC's A-level syllabus. With his enthusiasm for declamation and in his use of new media such as radio, he stands on the cusp between the written and spoken word, between academic poetry and modern performance. So now you also find him studied on the national curriculum under "other cultures", namely Anglo-Welsh.

These developments have encouraged me to go back to the roots of his poetry. Even those equivocal about his overall opus have been willing to grant that he wrote a handful of good poems, but these have tended to come from his later years.

I found myself more interested in his earlier work. Three-quarters of his published output was written before he was 21. In the notebooks which contain his youthful verse I discovered a precocious teenager. He wrote of the inexorable passage of time and the inevitability of death, bolstering his research with inspired pickings from favourite poets such John Milton, John Donne and William Blake.

It was clear that he cared greatly about his vocation. He may have played wantonly, but he was serious about poetry. He never drank when writing. He laboured over words and phrases, paying as much attention to sound as to meaning. His wall of Welsh sound sounded fresh when set against the brittle ideological output of the early 1930s.

Adamant that politics was not the stuff of poetry, he refused to be co-opted into any cosy metropolitan consensus. Throughout his short life, he remained very much his own man. Inevitably he still has detractors who argue he was a windbag or not Welsh enough.

I see him as a leading British poet, an individualist who incorporated the best of different verse traditions from our islands.

Dylan Thomas - A New Life by Andrew Lycett is published by Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson price pound;20

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