Continuing our series of interviews with significant figures in the world of Dylan Thomas, Jasper Rees talks to John Goodby, poet, critic and Professor of English at Swansea University. Goodby’s book The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (Liverpool University Press) was published in 2013. His new edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is published in the month of the centenary of Thomas’s birth.
Jasper Rees: How good was Dylan Thomas?
John Goodby: He was a major poet. A major mid-20th-century English-language poet. The legend has got between readers and the real size of his reputation. He’s one of the three, four, five most important poets writing between 1934 and his death in the Anglo-American literary sphere. He invented an original style, it’s the main contender against the style established by Auden and the new xxx poets, which was a very plain style and overtly politically committed. He was the inspiration for the existential apocalyptic style which dominated the 1940s. He was the main reviver of Blake as an influence on English poetry from the mid-20th century. And he has a legacy which isn’t noticed because the legend overlays this, and it goes down on the one hand through people like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – Plath once broke an engagement with a boyfriend, for example, because they disagreed about Brinnin’s biography of Thomas: she was incredibly influenced by him – and on the other hand through experimental poetics. And that goes down through people like WS Graham’s Cottage Poets who have influenced the current Cambridge school of poets.
So, hugely influential, but not just in the Anglo-American sphere. Abroad as well. As well as being the last British poet to have a major influence on American poetry, he also has a European impact. For example Paul Celan, the Romanian-German language poet, said by some to be the most important European poet since the Second World War, a survivor of the camps, died in 1970s. Celan was a reader of Thomas’s work and some of his early work resembles Thomas’s early work. Tristan Tzara, the leading Dadaist, once said that he’d only accept the Taormina prize because Dylan Thomas had accepted it once. There are links between him and the style of early Mandelstam, Lorca. I could go on. And then further abroad, a review by Dylan Thomas of Amos Tutuola’s ‘The Palm Wine Drinker’ in 1952 basically broke West African literature in English into the international sphere. Every subsequent African writer from Achebe to Soyinka have confirmed this, that Thomas’s review of Tutuola in The Observer in 1952 was the recognition that they needed, and it propelled them into the world limelight. And there are Dylan Thomas societies in Japan, Australia, Poland. He is an international poetic figure.
It’s only in England particularly, and in Britain more generally, that his importance tends to be denigrated, and that’s because the legend looms so large and gets between readers and the inventiveness of his poetry.
I know what you mean by the legend but, from where you’re sitting, could you talk about what it actually consists of?
People are actually more interested in books about Dylan’s pubs than books about Dylan’s poetry or prose, or his importance to English literature. There are various strands to the legend. I’ve nothing against his ability to cross the boundaries between high art and low art. I think that’s one of the things that makes him unique, so he’s a sociological phenomenon as well as a literary one. And he obviously had the common touch, and he wrote some of the most difficult poems of the century: ‘Altarwise by owl light’, which I still don’t completely understand. And everybody’s grandma’s favourite poem – ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. He was uniquely capable of straddling the whole range of difficulty and appeal in poetry.
I don’t begrudge that. I think the fact that he’s on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album, and Bob Dylan took his name, and people like Pierce Brosnan and various American ex-presidents like him, is generally a good thing because that draws people into the poetry who wouldn’t otherwise read poetry. It gives him a sort of cachet. The film and the rock stars take him up because he seems like a precursor of their own problems with addiction and celebrity and so on, and so he feeds back into the contemporary culture in that way.
But there is a downside to it. To me the more malign aspect of the downside is the literary critical one. That’s where I have to work. And that has two phases. The first one was the immediate backlash against Dylan in the late Fifties period with the movement, people like Larkin and Amis who made a big deal of trashing Dylan – they defined themselves against him. And they bigged-up the reputation of the drunken wild boy who didn’t really have any conscious input into his writing. But that went away because the reputation soared in the Sixties. By the mid-Seventies there was more or less a general consensus among critics that he wasn’t in the top league, he wasn’t there with Eliot, Pound, Williams, Yeats and so on. Maybe not the top half dozen or even ten, but he’s in the next band below. And that seems fine to me. That’s about where he is. He said himself, ‘I’m the captain of the second XI’, which is a nice way of summing it up.
But then something else kicked in which is part of that late Seventies general rightward swing in the society, and it took the form of ‘the Americans have got all these important figures in the early 20th century literature. Who have we got? Oh, WH Auden, we’ve got to big him up.’ You could see it in the critical writing at the time, books like The English Auden. They take that decade of Auden’s writing before he left for America in 1940, and they try to make him into a major poet, somebody who can stand beside Eliot and Yeats and Pound. But in order to do that they have to make the Thirties a completely Auden-dominated zone, which means that Thomas gets airbrushed out of those big histories in the Seventies and the Eighties by leading Cambridge and Oxford academics, in the same way that Trotsky disappears from pictures of him standing next to Lenin in Soviet Russia. He just gets airbrushed out of the picture. And at the same time, because he was an important Thirties poet – two thirds of his work was published before 1939 – he gets shoved into the Fifties which is automatically the dire decade by common agreement. Now I don’t agree with that and part of what I’m trying to do is rehabilitate Forties poetry but it was a very difficult period to read and understand because of the war. It’s chopped up, it’s confused, careers end abruptly and so on. So he’s excluded from the Thirties which is the important decade in favour of Auden. He’s thrown into this rubbish decade and he’s seen then as a sort of sport, an eccentric – you might like him but he leads nowhere. And if you dislike him then there’s all this bile which has been pre-produced by people like Larkin and Amis in the Fifties, which you can heap on his head.
That tends to be what’s happened in Dylan Thomas criticism since the late Seventies. People haven’t been reading the poetry closely. They’ve reproduced the stereotypes that were used back in the Fifties and not much has happened except for the work of a few people – I suppose I’m one of them – who have tried to point out that the important thing is the poetry, not the stereotypes, and that it is hugely significant to Anglo-American poetry generally in the 20th century. So I resent the stereotype in a way, the legend, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and it attracts attention to my subject. You wouldn’t be asking me about Spender or MacNeice on an occasion like this. I think the legend is a mixed blessing. Generally it’s not good because it prevents people getting past the first hurdle, but it’s good in the sense that it gets them there in the first place and I’m trying to lead them over that to get them a bit further into the work.
A loathsome word sometimes associated with Welshness is ‘windbag’. Has the fact that Dylan Thomas comes from Wales, and comes from the oratorical tradition of the pulpit, damaged him in England?
It’s helped. A lot of the criticism from Amis is specifically anti-Welsh. He worked in Swansea for ten years and developed a kind of love-hate relationship with Wales. Generally speaking the English are prepared to be prejudiced about everybody so there is plenty of anti-Welsh sentiment knocking around still. It’s an easy gag, isn’t it? The Welsh aren’t black so you can make jokes about them occasionally. Again, though, I think it’s a little bit of a distraction. There is a theatrical tradition in this part of the world, isn’t there? If you look at Burton and all the actors from the Port Talbot area, there’s a whole dynasty of them going back 60 years. And Thomas’s own connection with theatre – he was involved in amateur dramatics before he went to London, and then his performances – you could say that here is a theatrical aspect to him and a performance aspect to his work.
That can be conflated to windbaggery if the writing isn’t good, but if you look at his writing, especially his early writing, it’s incredibly tight, it’s the opposite of windbaggery. There’s too much going on rather than too little. My definition of a windbag is someone who says very little but takes a lot of time and sound and fury to say it. So he’s the opposite of that in his early writing. The later writing – I’m talking about the poetry here – is more diffuse, but it’s still very very tight although it gives the impression of being relaxed and lyrical. As for his own performances, because I think this is what comes close to the nub of it, I don’t think they’re generally very good. They do give the impression of somebody booming in a parodic way like one of the great actor-managers. Or that character who owns the local shop in League of Gentlemen. It’s a sort of parody voice of mid-century theatre. When he’s allowed to read not to an audience of 1000 people but just whisper into the microphone he’s brilliant. And he does voices very well as well. He’s a great mimic. So I think the records which helped to establish his reputation in the Fifties work against him now. So most of those historic recordings do give the impression of windbaggery and that ties in with Welshness.
But English critics find it very difficult to admit that non-English writers in the 20th-century canon can be important. It’s taken them 80 years to get to grips with Joyce being the greatest novelist of the 20th century. They’re certainly not going to admit that Thomas might be as good as or even better than Auden. So there is something of that, I think, behind the prejudice. And the windbag tag probably could be applied to about 10 percent of his radio writings. You can see him spinning stuff out because there’s something that’s going to be paid for. But I just say, ‘Read the writing’, you know. It’s very calculated and very tight, almost all of it in fact.
How about here in Wales? To what extent does he belong in Welsh literature?
Well, this is a question that should be asked of Welsh literature rather than Dylan Thomas, it seems to me. He is the central canonical figure and there’s no getting away from that, however much you like RS Thomas. And that is a problem Welsh literature studies has had to deal with ever since it was set up in the Sixties and Seventies. They still have big problems with it. This is why somebody from Birmingham who is an expert in Irish poetry ends up being the leading expert on Dylan Thomas under the age of 72. Welsh critics have a problem dealing with Dylan Thomas I think because he doesn’t fit the dominant nationalist paradigm from reading Welsh literature in English. There’s been a switch in the Welsh intelligentsia from roughly a socialist position in the mid-century to roughly a nationalist one now and some aspects of the nationalist paradigm are informed by a very language-centred view of what Wales should be as well. It’s called linguistic culturalism by Dai Smith, the great Welsh historian. And that seems to me pretty true. I think that the Assembly is creating a way of thinking of Wales in a different way now and so this is an opportunity. That form of going forward in a nationalist sense is brilliant because it means you can talk about Dylan in ways that aren’t tied to identity, which is what I’m more or less doing.
But I suppose my take on him is that he is a hybrid and hybrids always unsettle people. He is neither here nor there. He is betwixt and between. He is Anglo-Welsh and he lives on the hyphen. This is Swansea, it’s on the edge of the Anglophone area, Welsh-speaking beyond in Carmarthenshire – or it was in the Thirties. He’s positioned between the upper middle class and the working class. His parents had just made it from the working class. He’s positioned between high and low literature. He’s on the border with everything. For most writers that is debilitating. You continually flip one way or the other and you never feel quite at home. But he is a major talent so he makes the weakness work for him. The distance from London enabled him not to be a Welsh TS Eliot or WH Auden. He was strong enough to find a Welsh way, as it were. A new style. So he puts Anglo-Welshness, that dividedness, that hybridity – ‘Are we pure Welsh? We’re not English’ – to major creative use.
And you see that in his poetry. His poetry is full of monstrosities, grotesqueries, a gothic grotesque vision of the repressed nonconformist imagination. That’s what is in the early poetry and short stories and it’s brilliantly done. I think it’s quintessentially Anglo-Welsh. But it’s not a vision of Wales that a certain kind of nationalist would like to see. What they want is a smooth progression, all the best aspects presented and not this dark imaginary turbulence coming up, which is what he outs basically. And then in the later poetry I think his sin for this kind of person is that he decides to splice the English pastoral tradition onto something specifically Welsh. Again he does it brilliantly. The later poems are full of allusions to Keats, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy and so on. But it’s sort of a queasy sensation for somebody who would like their poems to have a nice Welsh title and to be set firmly in Wales and to include the odd Welsh word even if you don’t speak Welsh. He won’t do that. In ‘The white giant’s thigh’, which is one of the later poems, he takes a chalk figure on a hill in Hampshire and he splices that onto the landscape of the Laugharne estuary. The interesting thing here is there is a sort of double double take: the white figure was carved not by the English, it predates the Saxons so it’s Celtic Brythonic but it’s in England. Laugharne is in Wales but actually it’s a little England beyond Wales; it’s a place in Wales surrounded by Welsh speakers but actually speaks English and was established by the Normans. He’s playing a very elaborate joke here about identity. And they’re not just double, they’re triple or quadruple in Thomas. And they all undermine each other. I think he says at some point that a writer has no home. So all this cosy cwtchy sepia-tinted stuff is a little bit beside the point to me. I think the stuff that gets his poetry up there with the greats is its unsettledness and its ability to deconstruct itself.
Has Wales not made enough of Dylan in the past, and is it now making too much of him in the centenary?
Well, yes to both in the obvious senses. I think Wales has tried very hard. There is very very very good writing on Dylan Thomas and it was Welsh critics in the Seventies and Eighties and Nineties who kept his reputation alive, and batted away the accretions of myth. People like Walford Davies, Ralph Maud, John Ackerman, Barbara Hardy, James A Davies – these are all important figures who kept the channel clear and I wouldn’t be here it if wasn’t for them. I owe a hell of a lot to them. They edited Dylan properly, they brought out unpublished material. But no one listened to them. It was partly because it was done within Wales to some extent, although they are not linguistic culturalists and they don’t bang on about the nationalist aspect. But I think they grew up as critics in the Fifties and the Sixties so the language of criticism they were using was a dated one, alas. It was very clear but it wasn’t a new kind of literary theory. It didn’t bring in feminism, gender, Marxism, analysis of language, post-structuralism, new approaches to the body in writing which are really crucially important for Thomas, to appreciate what’s really going on in him. So that criticism tended to be left to one side.
In terms of making more of him in a broader sense, up until 1990, 1991, there was a general philistine attitude that prevailed to him during his lifetime among officialdom. The leader of Swansea council said that the council weren’t going to buy 5 Cwmdonkin Drive which they had been given an option on because Dylan Thomas was far more admired outside Wales than he was inside Wales. Which is a bit like the leader of Stratford-upon-Avon city council saying, ‘We don’t mind if Anne Hathaway’s cottage is turned into a multi-storey car park because Shakespeare is admired much more outside of England than inside of England.’ But that changed in the mid-Nineties when money became attached to Dylan with the Year of Literature in 1995 and they saw the tourist earnings trickling in. And the council have generally had a much better attitude to Dylan ever since.
In terms of the national response, I think this slight queasiness about his hybridity remains and maybe it always will, because he doesn’t belong totally anyway, it seems to me, which is why so many places can lay claim to him. I’ve heard professors of Welsh poetry say, ‘He wasn’t a Welsh poet, he was a London poet.’ I mean, go figure. Do you not want this poet? It’s hard for me to say this because I walk straight into stereotypes if I do but there is a Welsh tendency to cut your nose off to spite your face. And I think this goes on all the time with Dylan Thomas. The Dylan Thomas industry is quite a contentious zone and people are doing each other down or up all the time. Everybody gets dragged. The artistic director of the Dylan Thomas Centre had a spat with the previous director when she took over in 2010. She blacklisted people who had been regularly put on at the Dylan Thomas Centre. She didn’t like her predecessor and he’d made her do lots of work before he got the elbow from the job. She didn’t have a great thing about middle-aged men dominating the agenda which was fair enough. Unfortunately, one of them was Jeff Towns who knows more about Dylan Thomas’s life than just about anyone else, and the other one was me. And I know more about the literature than most other people.
So you’re persona none grata.
More or less. It doesn’t bother me much because Dylan Thomas is an international figure and the Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea is neither here nor there to me. But it is an example of this kind of infighting which is malicious but amusing most of the time. The Dylan Thomas brand is enormous and they’re only just realising it. The Council realised it about a decade or so ago and now the Welsh government is recognising it. They put resources into it. There’s a problem here for me because I think the writing should be more central than it is. I don’t want to criticise the people who are doing the work because I think generally they are doing a very good job, but there is a little bit too much cultural tourism. There’s a lot of singing, there’s a lot of dancing, there’s a film festival, but there isn’t anything really that is to do with the analysis of the poetry. I think people are trying very hard in new circumstances to deal with Dylan Thomas as an international brand who might help pick up a flagging Welsh economy and they are tending to go a bit too far towards the colourful legend end and not enough towards the literature end. And I think that’s a shame because it means there won’t be much legacy.
So I think he’s important because it’s about Wales’s redefinition of itself. What do we do now we’ve got an assembly and we might be getting more powers of voting? What does Wales represent? It’s partly out of the genuine identity crisis going forward into the 21st century. I think there is a way of using Thomas to do that, but it could be done a little bit more imaginatively, to see him as a precursor of eco-poetry for example, the nuclear threat, and as, despite himself, a poet of gender, almost a proto-feminist in some ways. And there’s a pioneer poet of civilians under bombardment in war time. This poetry is applicable to Basra as much as it was to the Blitz. These are ways of actually getting Thomas and fitting him into a 21st-century matrix, it seems to me, and maybe they are being a bit neglected because people aren’t looking closely enough at the writing and just looking at the legend.
It’s possible that tourism is not going to be stimulated by highlighting the way he writes predictively about Basra.
I’m not sure. I think you could theme this and you could tie it onto tourism as well. For example, in one of his more obscure Thirties poems he uses the legend of Gwion and Taliesin. There is no reason they that can’t be used in educational circles. The Swansea three-day blitz of February 1941 – there’s no reason why that can’t be tied into his poetry and be part of the historical revisioning of Wales. I take what you say, but we don’t always have to opt for the easiest route to accessibility, especially if you’re planning for the long term. If these clichés are retrodden over and over again, people will get tired of them and they’ll be sick of them.
Can you nominated your favourite Dylan poem and why?
Just one? He is apparently the most favourite poet on Desert Island Discs and ‘Fern Hill’ is the fourth favourite poem requested on Poetry Please over the last 30 years. It’ll change from day to day of course. Well, say that it’s ‘A saint about to fall’. It’s orgasmic, it’s about the act of conception, it’s sexual, it does astonishing things with the English language. Who would have imagined a poem written from the head of a sperm about to leap into the womb and fertilise the egg? But it’s also about Europe on the verge of the Second World War. The saint is about to fall into this horrendous bad land of bombed flats and razed buildings. Guernica is in there. The Spanish Civil War is in there. The poem ends with the image of a bull ring. But so are the female midwives of history and one of the final phrases is a cry of joy. So Thomas’s invincible optimism is pushed up against this historical disaster which is about to happen very very hard, and it shows in the brilliance of the language and it excites me every time I read it.
original illustration by Dean Lewis