In the two decades following his death in 1953 at the age of 39, Dylan Thomas’s poetry was the subject of numerous critical studies as well as being popular with the general reading public and highly regarded by many in the literary establishment. But despite Thomas’s continuing popularity with the public, his work has, in recent years, been largely ignored by literary academia, and his influence on the development of 20th century poetry called into question.
In his new book, “The Poetry of Dylan Thomas : Under The Spelling Wall”, Professor John Goodby of Swansea University addresses these issues in the first major critical study of Thomas’s poetry for many years. His book considers Thomas’s fate at the hands of the literary critics, reappraises his work in the light of contemporary critical theory, and offers a re-evaluation of Thomas’s poetry for the 21st century.
Professor Goodby is one of the world’s leading authorities on Dylan Thomas and is currently working on a new collected poems which will be a major highlight of the Dylan Thomas centenary when it is published in 2014. Professor Goodby kindly agreed to talk to us about his new book and the fascinating new insights into Thomas’s work that it offers.
Professor Goodby on Dylan Thomas & His New Book
AD Why do you think the work of Dylan Thomas has been neglected as a subject for literary criticism?
JG There are several reasons. First, he had an amazing amount of attention in the 20 years after his death, and it was bound to die down a little eventually. The people who had met and known him, and built their careers on his work, gradually retired. And much of the best of his work is difficult; it’s hard to précis, or fit into a 50 minute seminar, like a Carol Anne Duffy poem or a Shakespeare sonnet. This is why most people only know a handful of the poems (and Under Milk Wood, of course). But the main reason is that he came not to fit the dominant narratives of British poetry.
In the mid-1970s, you may remember, there was a big shift to the right in British politics and culture. This affected the poetry world too. English critics in particular, tried to counter post-imperial decline and the increasingly US-oriented, Modernist account of twentieth century literature which was developing at the time. So they hit on the Little Englander idea of promoting W. H. Auden as a major poet – up there with Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Williams. Auden had just died (in 1973) so it was a good time to canonize him. And the form this had to take, because Auden left England in 1940, and because his writing after the mid-1940s is rather bland, was the notion of Auden as the Voice of the Thirties, and above all as English. So you get a collection of his work called The English Auden, and studies of 1930s writing which place Auden in a totally dominant position. The point is to be able to turn round to everyone and say: ‘Look, we produced a Great Poet too’. Unfortunately, in reality Auden shared the poetry scene after 1934 with the powerful presence of Dylan Thomas. So Thomas was simply airbrushed out of the histories, almost in the way Trotsky vanishes from Stalinist histories of the Russian Revolution. He was redescribed as ‘a Forties poet’, even though two-thirds of his published poetry appeared before 1939. In Wales, something rather different happened. ‘Anglo-Welsh Literature’ was established, as a separate academic subject, in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was clear that Dylan Thomas was central to it. But Welsh critics were, like their English counterparts, increasingly uneasy about Modernism and couldn’t really deal with Thomas’s early writing at all. There was also the fact that the Welsh intelligentsia were shifting from a broadly socialist to a broadly nationalist outlook. One strand of the nationalist outlook – and it’s very strong in Welsh Writing in English studies (as it’s now known) – doesn’t really like writing which didn’t ‘reflect’ the aspiration towards national self-realisation. It is desperate to ally Anglophone Welsh writing with that in the Welsh language, to the extent that it submits to its cymrocentric priorities, even if these aren’t relevant to Anglophone writing at all. In this situation, Thomas is seen as anomalous; they can’t kick him out of the canon, but they have marginalized him. Have a look around you – how many Welsh academics in Welsh universities specialize in Dylan Thomas? The answer is zero. I’m the only academic under retirement age doing so, and I’m English, and I did my doctoral research on Irish poetry. I was amazed when I arrived in Wales in the 1990s and found there was so little going on. It’s as if Scottish critics had refused to discuss MacDiarmid very much for the last twenty years.
The other thing that happened in the 1970s was Critical Theory. There was, and is, nothing wrong with this, and in fact it has a lot to offer a reading of Dylan Thomas – attention to the body, to gender, to his manipulation of language and rhetoric, and so on. But this cutting-edge way of writing about poetry wasn’t the language that established Thomas scholars were using. They had grown up in an earlier era. So although during the 1970s and 1980s, critics like John Ackerman, Walford Davies, Ralph Maud and Barbara Hardy carried on writing about Dylan Thomas, and brilliantly in some cases, it was in the language of an older criticism. It didn’t attract young, emerging academics who might have made the connection between Thomas and Critical Theory. And this led to a long period of neglect – until recently.
AD How is Thomas’s poetry viewed in today’s literary academia?
JG As I say, the damage done since the 1970s hasn’t yet been undone. There are two main attitudes. The first is: we like him, but we don’t know how to place him in our narrative of mid-century poetry, so we’ll say vaguely pleasant things but skirt round him. The second is: we don’t like him, so we’ll say negative things. English critics often still peddle discredited stereotypes of the drunken, exuberant, undisciplined Celt, and focus on the (alleged) misbehaviour of the man, rather than on the poems. The power of the myth lets them get away with this; it acts as a kind of smokescreen around the poems, and it makes it dangerously easy to slide from reading a poem to reading Thomas’s morals. What they always refuse to do is read any poem closely. This is because, close-up, just about every Thomas poem shows manifest signs of high intelligence, wit, structural mastery and shrewd self-knowledge. But even the less negative critics are guilty of this; in their case, the excuse is usually that Dylan Thomas was a kind of branch line off the main route of British poetry, that he didn’t influence anyone and is therefore not worth saying much about, despite being colourful and quite impressive in certain ways.
“Close-up, just about every Thomas poem shows manifest signs of high intelligence, wit, structural mastery and shrewd self-knowledge”
AD How has his reputation as a poet fared in the years since his death?
JG Dylan Thomas has remained, and always will remain, popular with the general reading public. The myth is double-edged, attracting attention as well as dissipating critical intelligence. It means that he is a cultural icon, something of a folk-hero to the majority, and a touchstone of sorts for rock and film stars who see in him a prefiguring of the perils of celebrity they face themselves. As long as that continues, there will always be the chance of literary journalists, critics and academics waking up to their responsibilities, and starting to read him with due care and attention. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a very conservative poetry culture in Britain generally. The poetry published by the big publishing houses – Faber, Picador, Cape, Chatto – is overwhelmingly an anecdotal, prosy, empirical post-Larkin sort of poetry. It is scared of modernist experiment, terrified of embarrassing things like vision. It’s a poetry of understatement, summed up by Thomas’s friend Roy Campbell: ‘You praise the firm restraint with which they write – / I’m with you there of course: / I see the snaffle and the curb alright, / But where’s the bloody horse?’ This kind of poetry has lately acquired a more streetwise-savvy, side of the mouth way of talking, but it’s still basically the same kind of poetry. Some modern poets fail to treat language as a medium in its own right. Language is primarily, for mainstream poets like these, about conveying information, a means to an end, with a few frills attached to show it’s poetry. But Dylan Thomas always felt that poetry must work from words, not towards them. In this sense he has more in common with today’s alternative poets, who are rigorously excluded from the limelight of prizes, awards, Guardian Saturday Review publication and review, by the mainstream establishment. What makes Thomes even more interesting, of course, is that although (I believe) he is a fundamentally experimental writer, he is a populist one too. And how, in a polarised poetry and critical scene, do you place a poet who could write both ‘Altarwise by owl-light’, one of the most formidably difficult poems ever, and ‘Fern Hill’, your Mum’s favourite poem? Dylan Thomas refuses to be categorized, in other words, and he won’t go away, so he continues to expose the fault-lines in the British poetry scene – and, at present, to be viewed by poetry officialdom as a bit of an embarrassment.
“Thomas refuses to be categorized…and he won’t go away, so he continues to expose the fault-lines in the British poetry scene”
AD Does your book offer a reappraisal of Dylan Thomas’s poetry?
JG Yes. It argues that its roots are in a blend of Modernist content (from Eliot, Lawrence and others) and regular form (from Auden) with the wordplay of Joyce thrown in, and fused with a peculiarly Welsh gothic-grotesque strain. I call what Dylan Thomas did in his early poetry ‘surregionalism’, a development of a native Blakeian tradition in British poetry with a mid-twentieth century twist. Thomas is what Ortega y Gasset called a ‘vertical invader’ – the political equivalent, as Stephen Spender said, was David Lloyd George – who, by learning how to make his outsiderness an advantage rather than a disadvantage, was able to take on the metropolitan centre on his own terms.
I also try to place Thomas in the context of science as well as poetry – his process poetic owed a great deal to popular science, the books about the new physics, especially one by Alfred North Whitehead, who was the Stephen Hawking of his day, and also to the discovery of hormones in the 1920s and 1930s – today’s equivalent of surrogate pregnancy, stem cell research and cloning. And I don’t see his work, as most critics do, as ‘progress’ towards ‘clearer’ and more autobiographical work, really. Although he draws on his own personal social situation and setting more in his later poetry, it’s a means to an end, as Tony Conran has said; what he’s interested in more is devising new ways of exploring the process poetic of his early work and creating new, ever more elaborate kinds of rhetorical double-binds and shimmering verbal webs.
Finally I say that Dylan Thomas actually does ‘represent’ Wales, in the form of its abject, grotesque history which some nationalists don’t want to confront, and that he confounds the plain style / alternative style dichotomy of official English poetry. I show also that he had a huge subterranean influence on contemporary poetry – via W. S. Graham, who lies behind a lot of today’s experimentalists, and via Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, who were both Thomas’s acolytes. Other leading poets, such as Roy Fisher, also testify to the significance of Thomas’s work for their own.
AD What have been the major discoveries you have made?
JG Apart from what I mention above, I have found references and allusions in the poems to sources people didn’t know before – writers such as Webster, Beddoes, Sir Thomas Browne, and so on. Dylan Thomas is a much more allusive poet than most people believe. I think I can show, for example, that the speeches of Winston Churchill (ironically) and an allusion to the Nazi concentration camps lurk within ‘A Refusal to Mourn’. I’ve found an explanation for the working title for ‘Ballad of the Long-legged Bait’, ‘The Ballad of Samson Jack’. I can prove that Thomas purloined a few words from Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood. But the major discovery was that Dylan Thomas was a poet who is relevant to us in the 21st century, with his concern for embedded consciousness and the body, his sense of the way we perform our identities, his eco-awareness, his grasp of the way that language is usually used not to say things more than to say them.
“the major discovery was that Dylan Thomas was a poet who is relevant to us in the 21st century”
AD What was it like visiting the archives and viewing the original manuscripts and notes?
JG Seeing and handling the original manuscripts was terrific. The scribblings and scrawlings and tortuous workings-out, the doodlings, the lists of words, made over many days and weeks, of various poems, was fascinating. Perhaps the best of them was the manuscript of ‘Ballad of the Long-legged Bait’, which is at the Special Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo. This is 154 pages, many of them very small sheets, in tiny handwriting, of the developing poem. You can see Thomas testing this phrase and that, going off at a tangent here, returning there, throwing of superb phrasings and compounds, many of which he will never use again. There’s terrific wastage, you might say, but a sense of focus too; that even if something is striking or beautiful in its own right, if it isn’t best for the poem it must be discarded. He has a sense of the finished poem in his head, almost like a map – a kind of gestalt approach – and you can feel him groping slowly, but almost fiercely towards it in a kind of prehensile, intuitive yet rational and systematic way. Seriously, the material Dylan Thomas threw away when he was writing that poem (and it’s the same for the manuscripts of later poems I’ve seen, such as ‘In the White Giant’s Thigh’) would have been enough to produce a whole collection for the average middlepace poet of the time.
AD Has writing the book changed your opinion of Thomas as a poet? or as a man?
JG Not that much. To be frank, while I’m amused by and interested in the man, both the man and his myth have come far too much between us and the writing over the years. The myth has made it dangerously easy for people to feel they ‘know’ Thomas before they even read him. He was a very complex character, perhaps impossible to ever ‘know’ – as his first biographer, Constantine FitzGibbon says, ‘The stories told about him are not those which belong to one man, but to six or eight’. His writing is all about flux and instability, reality and deceptive appearances, about saying one thing and meaning another. It’s completely opposed, in other words, to the fixed character the myth, and so many who write about him, try to turn him into. Think trickster, think chameleon – that is what he is, ‘a dog among the fairies’. But I have to say that writing about him did increase my respect for what he did under such difficult circumstances, circumstances we don’t really appreciate today. The penury, however much some of it was self-inflicted, was shocking. He had to have an incredible self-belief and strength of character and purpose. And people like to harp on about his scrounging, but there were far easier ways to make a much more comfortable existence open to him. He could flatter with the best of them occasionally, but he was never a careerist, a brown-noser, a systematic butterer-up of those who could get him preferment. So many of the literary world was, and is, composed of such people, who don’t have a tenth of Thomas’s originality. We need to give him credit for that. He was never given a permanent job by the BBC, never offered a placement on a university campus, he had no wealthy friends or relatives, and none of the connections, through public school or Oxbridge or family, that so many of his contemporaries had. So he had to be an opportunist, an improviser, always protecting the core of his existence, which was writing the next poem.
AD What can we expect from the new collected poems?
JG Well, it’s more various and contains many more poems than the current Davies / Maud Collected. About 160, rather than their 91. I’m including a selection of the notebook poems, plus comic squibs, poems Thomas published in journals but didn’t collect, his verse film-script, Our Country, one of the short stories (which is a prose poem, really), the poems in the letters, the pastiches and parodies, the lyrics from Under Milk Wood. There is a quality control operating, and stuff has been omitted, especially the juvenilia and the rather boring bulk of poems in the notebooks; but my basic principle is that it’s a good thing to see how Dylan Thomas was writing satire or obscene limericks at the same time as he was writing the poems he collected. This is the contemporary editorial practice. Poets always try to determine how they will be thought of in a collected poems, and editors always try to revise that choice and expand the franchise after they’re gone. I also include both versions of poems where these exist, such as ‘Unluckily for a death’; both are great poems, it seems to me, equally valid. This is the modern preference –for the totality of a poet’s work, so we can view it in the round, see how the very different parts reflect upon each other, not treat it like a sacred, pure artefact. The poems are all organized chronologically, too, unlike the current Collected, so you’ll be able to see exactly how Thomas evolved as a poet. Finally there are annotations which are more comprehensive than any previously drawn up. I’m a bit worried that some of the poems may be a little smothered by my attentions, but I do believe, very strongly, that it’s crucial to get those who like Thomas’s work but only know a handful of things to venture out of their safety zones. I want the person who likes ‘Fern Hill’ but is scared by other poems to be able to have a go at, say, ‘All all and all’ and think afterwards: ‘Well that wasn’t so bad; I like that one too.’
AD What other Dylan Thomas related projects will you be involved in during the centenary?
JG There are too many to list them all, to be honest. There will be launches of the new edition, in London and maybe New York if I’m lucky. I may be doing a Dylan Thomas Facebook page for the BBC. I am definitely making a film with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) about the entire Dylan Thomas research project. I’ll be speaking on Thomas at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, and the Hay Literature Festival. I hope to do something at the South Bank Centre with the Poetry Library and the Poetry Society. I think I’ve been invited to a place called Enniscorthy, where they have a Dylan Thomas Festival (it’s Caitlin’s father’s place of birth), and definitely have to Dublin, to give papers on Thomas. We’re having a Dylan Thomas conference at Swansea University 3-5 September. And in November I’ll be at a Dylan Thomas panel at the Modernist Studies Association Conference in Pittsburgh with two younger Thomas enthusiasts from Cambridge University – an encouraging sign, I think. One of them was at the 2013 MSA conference earlier this year, and tells me US scholars are really interested in Thomas is now being read. Finally, perhaps the project I’m most intrigued by – I’ve managed to hustle up cash to get a Chinese poet and academic based in Salt Lake City over to Swansea in May 2014, thanks to Swansea University and Swansea City Council. His name is Wu Fu-Sheng, and he’s going to be working with a poet-friend of mine, Graham Hartill, on the first substantial translation of Thomas’s poetry into Mandarin Chinese. There’s already a publisher, in Beijing, and I’m looking forward to hearing ‘The force that through the green fuse’ in Chinese!
AD What was you first exposure to the works of Dylan Thomas?
JG We had an English teacher named Peter Hellings at my school in Birmingham. He was a formidable man, in his 50s then – irascible, but brilliant, and passionate about literature. And he was a poet, and he was from Swansea, and he took a shine to me. In the school library he had a cupboard of his own in which he kept work which he would loan to chosen students, of which I was one. I got to see Finnegans Wake (I won’t pretend I read it at 17!), Wyndham Lewis’s criticism and, of course, Dylan Thomas that way. I think the Thomas book he loaned me was A Prospect of the Sea – an aquamarine Dent paperback, full of weird and beautiful and funny things. Later, I found out that Peter Hellings had actually published poems in leading magazines in the late 1930s, when he was a teenager, and one in Life and Letters Today in 1940 alongside a poem by Thomas; he was also included by Keidrych Rhys in his great Faber anthology of Welsh poetry in 1944. In fact, Thomas mentions his work, glowingly, albeit in passing, in a letter to Vernon Watkins of 1940. After the war, Peter Hellings came out of the RAF, took a degree at Swansea University, published a fine collection of poems called Firework Music and then not a great deal happened. He had to make a living, and became a teacher in Birmingham until his retirement in 1980. He wrote almost nothing for thirty years. Then he came back to Wales, to Newcastle Emlyn, and got back into the literary scene. But he never had the writing career he perhaps could have had. It’s a sadness to me that just after I arrived to work in Swansea, in 1994, I discovered that he had just died. I took part in a memorial reading and learnt about Peter Hellings’s life from his widow, Manon. And I’m sure all of this was at the back of my mind when I came to organize a conference on Dylan Thomas in Swansea in 1998.
AD If you had to choose three favourite works by Dylan Thomas what would they be?
JG My own taste in Thomas is towards the tougher end of the spectrum. So I’d probably take 18 Poems, that ‘black bomb’ of a book, as Glyn Jones rightly called it. And I have a soft spot for The Map of Love, which contains some of my favourite poems, including the fabulous ode-like ‘How shall my animal’ and ‘A saint about to fall’ in it, as well as ‘Once it was the colour of saying’ – poems I have never been able to completely fathom out, and yet which keep pulling me back in. Plus it has some of Thomas’s strangest fiction, of course, and the romanticized portrait by Augustus John. And third, I think, I would have the Collected Letters – almost as witty as Wilde, and almost as good on poetry as Keats, and – it should never be forgotten – also some of the funniest ever written. If I could take one recording, it would be the Burton Under Milk Wood, still unsurpassable, or Dylan himself reading, breathily, heartbreakingly, ‘In my craft or sullen art’.
AD Thank you very much
The Poetry of Dylan Thomas : Under The Spelling Wall is published by Liverpool University Press.
John Goodby holds a Chair in English at Swansea University. He was born in Birmingham and educated at the universities of Hull and Leeds, lecturing at Leeds University and University College Cork before arriving in Swansea in 1994. He has published extensively on Irish and British poetry and co-edited the New Casebook on Dylan Thomas (2001), introduced the DVD of Thomas’s wartime films (2006), and has just published a monograph, The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (2013, Liverpool University Press). He runs Boiled String poetry press, and is also a published poet; he was the winner of the Cardiff poetry competition in 2006 and his most recent collections include Illennium, uncaged sea and Wine Night White.
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