When introducing the scriptwriter and leading actor of A Poet in New York, Hay’s festival director Peter Florence gave praise to the Welsh Government for its efforts to promote Wales as more than a country that might attract foreign golfers. By investing in Dylan Thomas’s centenary year, he welcomed its intention to back our cultural legacy.
Following two weekends of events at Laugharne, the film release and broadcast of several TV programmes including the acclaimed showing of Thomas’s ‘play for voices’ (Under Milk Wood), the festival at Hay-on-Wye did not disappoint in its coverage of Wales’ most prominent literary figure. As well as the event about A Poet in New York with Andrew Davies and Tom Hollander, there was one analysing his poetry by Owen Sheers and a special celebration of his writing in performance. Onward from New York into the American interior, the Hay Festival also gave a platform to songwriter Gruff Rhys who has produced a quirky multi-media account of his journey in the footsteps of one of its earliest explorers, then Ray Davies who gave a talk about the lure of America informing his book Americana: The Kinks, the Road and the Perfect Riff, with reference to the influence of Wales on his writing and career.
When Owen Sheers announced that he had thrown his talk together as might have Dylan Thomas, presumably meaning at the last minute with a hangover, there was no trace of one as he examined the efficacy of his earliest published poem ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’. Published in The Listener magazine, it got the attention of the literary world’s heavyweights. When T.S. Eliot read it, he was moved to send Dylan Thomas a letter which must have been a tonic for the nineteen year-old poet in his garret at Cwmdonkin Drive.
Owen Sheers described the effect of ‘Light breaks’ on the literary establishment as a depth charge. It is the perhaps the finest example of his ‘biomorphic’ style which stretches events going on inside his body onto a cosmic scale. ‘Dawn breaks behind the eyes; from poles of skull and toe the windy blood slides like a sea.’ I liked Owen Sheers’ suggestion that the rhythm of his poetry has rapport with the circulation of our blood. He referred to Dylan Thomas as a sonic trickster as while Thomas can often be obscure with his meaning, his poems always tell their truth in the patterns of their syllables and sound. Owen Sheers must have been referring to this when he described Dylan Thomas’s approach as ‘writing from words, not to them.’
With reference to the apparent ease on the ear of Dylan Thomas’s poems, Owen Sheers said his best poems are like a glass eye, a totally artificial thing that appears real. Poetry is hard craft but the poet must not make it seem so. A reason ‘Do not go gentle’ is such a powerful poem is because of its form. The villanelle is often used to convey light-hearted ideas, yet Thomas makes a virtue of its constraints to express his imagery and exhortation on the gravest of subjects, the death of his father. After showing his audience a reading of it by the poet Paul Muldoon, Owen Sheers remarked on hearing our murmur. This poem too had worked on our body chemistry.
Complementary to Owen Sheers’ analysis, Peter Florence compèred a reading of Dylan Thomas’s work by Rob Brydon, Tom Hollander, Cerys Matthews, Lisa Dwan and Jonathan Pryce. This was a satisfying representation of his work, popular favourites ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ mingling with lesser known poems such as ‘Especially when the October wind’, ‘A letter to my aunt’, ‘The hand that signed the paper’ and ‘Being but men’, another paean to childhood wonder curiously omitted from Dylan Thomas’s collected poems as Cerys Matthews pointed out when she introduced it. Later she sang a delightful rendition of Eli Jenkins’s sunset poem from Under Milk Wood. Tom Hollander’s reading of ‘Fern Hill’ was at least as evocative as the reading he performed in A Poet in New York, the scene designed to show how he so captivated his audience when he started touring the USA.
On the American theme again, Dylan Thomas’s prose had fair representation too. Cerys Matthews gave us the first page of an amusing piece titled ‘Visit to America’ about the sapping effect of the US tour on European lecturers and writers, as ‘twittering all over, old before their time, they are helped up the gangway of the home-bound liner by kind bosom friends (of all kinds and bosoms) who have a farewell party in their cabin,’ the list of such visiting windbags and others finishing with a self-mocking ‘and I am afraid, fat poets with slim volumes.’ Then Rob Bryson performed a first reading of Dylan Thomas’s last letter from to his paramour Pearl Kazin, from the Parthian publication A Pearl of Great Price: The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas to Pearl Kazin, edited by Jeff Towns. Written in 1951 from Persia, the style of this letter seems to foreshadow the sensuous wit of Under Milk Wood in describing ‘young britishers, well-groomed pups with fair moustaches and briar pipes, who in the smoking summer soon age… go bristled about, toss themselves trembly all sleepless night in the toss-trembling bachelors quarters, answer the three-knock knock at the midnight door, see before them in the hot moonlight wet-mouthed Persian girls from the bazaar who ask for a glass of water, invite the girls in, blush, stammer, grope, are lost. These old-young men are shipped back, packed full with shame and penicillin.’ The pre-allocated hour of these performances passed all too swiftly.
In developing the screenplay for A Poet in New York, Andrew Davies wanted to focus on Dylan Thomas’s creativity at least as much as the tragic and lurid story of the falling star on his trajectory to demise in New York. No more than with a glut of boozy sequences did he want to swamp the film with an excess of poetry so he was sparing in his selection, choosing ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Do not go gentle’ which were made to work well for his dramatic purposes. Tom Hollander got into the role through the poetry as much as the study of his character. With their RP, the result of elocution lessons Thomas had as a boy, the Caedmon recordings Hollander used might sound quaint but, as Andrew Davies explained, have the virtue of enhancing his cadences, as if his line endings are borne on an airstream to generate momentum. Reflecting the close relationship of life to death in so many of his poems, Hollander wanted to portray the best and worst of Dylan Thomas at the same time as far as possible in the same scene. Seeing him get drunk in a New York bar was not interesting to watch of itself but well served as a visual accompaniment to the declaration of his feelings while composing a letter to send home to Caitlin after debauching with the ‘ardents’, as his female admirers were referred to.
Gruff Rhys in concert was more than a performance of songs by the front man of Super Furry Animals. To complement his book, film and phone app on the same subject, it was another form of narration about John Evans, his ancestor who was the first explorer to map the American interior. He had sailed to America in search of a tribe of white Indians known as Mandans, who were believed to be Welsh-speaking descendents of Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, said to have discovered America in 1170. Gruff Rhys appeared on stage dressed in a wolf-skin headdress and carrying a dummy of his hero. The tone for the concert was set by this and the droll description of John Evans’s background as a poor farmhand in 1790 living in primitive conditions with only dial-up for his PC since broadband hadn’t yet reached Snowdonia. His commentary was seasoned with such humour though it didn’t always work to his advantage. Early in the show, Gruff Rhys ran a short film to introduce the subject, featuring Gwyn Alf Williams whose documentary Madoc: the making of a myth (1979) examined the evidence for the discovery of America by Prince Madog. This got some laughs as if it was rather mockumentary which I presume Professor Williams did not intend it to be.
Maintaining the humorous vein as he performed his songs, Gruff Rhys flicked through a series of accompanying slides that were the visual focus of the show. Wherever he went on his journey, his John Evans dummy appeared with him, on the London underground, travelling the Missouri and Ohio rivers and at John Evans’s final resting place in New Orleans. He died disappointed that having followed Madog’s trail and finding the Mandan tribe used leather-sealed boats supposedly derived from coracles, the Indians were not Welsh-speaking. Like the journey he was describing, his songs rolled along pleasingly, and his delivery wistful and light-humourous as if Gruff Rhys himself were a water boatman skating the surface of his mythical narrative so as not to damage its credibility. In performance, Gruff Rhys moved effortlessly within his comfort zone where he had been halting and hesitant in his struggle to answer the questions posed earlier in the day by Jon Gower about his project.
If it was over 200 years before John Evans received the recognition he deserved as a pioneering explorer in America, the mere twenty years in the wilderness before the Kinks conquered America were a source of frustration for Ray Davies. Enamoured since boyhood of American values as portrayed in film matinées, then moved to sing and play guitar after seeing John Grierson’s documentary on Big Bill Broonzy, the Kinks’ progress to international stardom was put on hold after they were banned by the American Federation of Musicians from touring there after their 1965 tour as part of the ‘British invasion’.
While the Beatles and Rolling Stones were fulfilling their dream of taking the trip down Route 66, the Kinks were condemned to slogging up and down the M1. According to drummer Mick Avory this was due to ‘a mixture of bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour’, which included the legendary concert at the Cardiff Capitol when Avory threw a cymbal at Ray’s brother Dave and hospitalised him. And Ray Davies believes he is still banned from Neath. ‘We had mistreated a dressing room and the promoter, who was wearing a bow tie, rushed out and shouted after me: “You’re finished in Neath, Davies!”‘ In answer to a question about his Welsh family roots, he had been brought up to sing in the church choir and at gatherings around the family piano. Though confessing to be ‘a north London honky’, he has long felt affinity with community as he sensed it existing here in Wales, playing the festival at Laugharne in April, his song ‘Polly’ being inspired by Polly Garter.
After the Kinks had made it in America, Ray Davies moved across the pond to live there. Like John Evans, he gravitated to New Orleans where he also could have died. He was shot after giving chase to a mugger but managed to dodge the bullet aimed at his heart. He is reflective in his book that ‘New Orleans taught me a lesson. Always trust your dreams and stay in touch with the spirit world. We can’t make music without it.’ Having attended his concert, Gruff Rhys would endorse that, I am sure. Such artists are to be encouraged for their sense of adventure away from the safe and parochial. Let us hope the efforts of the Welsh Government and Arts Council of Wales to promote Wales’s cultural assets do not stop with Dylan Thomas 100.
Illustration by Dean Lewis