Danger, debauchery, drinking and Dylan Thomas seem to all the world like natural bedfellows and, one might add, what a rather adroit menage they would make. Despite the fact that he is unilaterally hailed as Wales’s artistic hero, he is less the literary father of the nation than its roguish, prodigal son. With Matthew Rhys, Keira Knightly and Sienna Miller all starring in The Edge of Love, a new film that explores the poet’s colourful love life, a shot of glamour and cool is bound to be injected into the growing Thomas phenomenon. He is now, if he wasn’t before, untouchably cool.
In fact, of late, people are practically tripping over each another to make public their reverence for the Welsh poet. Mick Jagger, for instance, owns the rights to his 1939 collection, The Map of Love. Pierce Brosnan had his son christened “Dylan Thomas Brosnan” and Neil Morrissey owns a handful of properties in Thomas’s spiritual hometown of Laugharne. Musician Ben Taylor named his recent album Famous Among the Barns as a tribute to the man and, if one decides to look for him, his work can be found in a smattering films, albums and television programmes from the likes of Chumbawumba to George Clooney.
So why Dylan Thomas and why now? Is his work just the new flavour of the month? Are people attracted to his rebellious persona or has this modern age discovered something truly remarkable and artistic in his body of work?
Well, not according to Nicholas Lezard from the Guardian. His attitude to the “rockstar poet” pivots on the fact that he takes Dylan Thomas to be the “poet for people who don’t really like poetry”
Quite an indictment I think you’ll agree. But then, he might have a point.
Thomas is certainly famous enough to be a touchstone for those with only a passing interest in poetry. It would be difficult to find a chap of a certain age alive that couldn’t recite one or two phrases from Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night or have an idea about what Under Milk Wood was all about. But is that enough? Is he, dare I say it, easy?
The answer, naturally, is: no, of course that’s not enough.
Thomas’s poetry is often striking and immediate, but it is never easy. The skill that Thomas constructs his verse is seemingly in its aural quality, which it has to be said, it holds above all other qualities. For example, digging out an old copy of Richard Burton’s reading of the play Under Milk Wood, we come across this description of the trees that lead to the sea in the opening monologue:
“limping invisible down to the slowblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea”
Sounds fantastic doesn’t it? The lilting, lolling tones roll beautifully. But does it make sense? Well, you could ague that: no it doesn’t, not in a strict or methodical way. But, if we look closer at what Thomas is doing we may be able to piece something together. The ‘limping’ of the trees for example mirrors their uneven line down to the sea whilst the ‘slowblack, slow, black, crowblack” echoes the limping. Hear it?
Then this part about ‘fishing boat bobbing sea’, well, Thomas here creates a striking image at the expense of standard grammatical laws; the word order is all of a pickle so to speak. But then therein lies the power. Thomas’s intensity comes from dislocating the image from that which surrounds it. It is an example of what, in Russia, they might call Ostrananie or “making strange”. A formalist idea that says that once we make something seem strange or new, it takes on a new freshness and vibrancy that we were not expecting. Its result is to make that which is normal seem bright and immediate.
It seems to me that that is why Thomas is going through somewhat of a boom of late, because his work is so lyrical and intensely visual. People are making films about him now because, largely, his work has such scope for cinema and theatre. One could argue that The Edge of Love is not so much about the poetry but the man, but then can we really separate the two?
Dylan Thomas is clearly someone that lived his profession; he would have been a poet if no one else had ever read a single couplet of his writing. What is attractive about Thomas though is that he lived his profession so intensely. He created a persona that, like his poetry, is clear and bright and a perfect (dislocated) image of his work.