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Saturday, 27 October 2007

Deaths and Entrances

Speaking of Welsh poets, Dylan Thomas (pictured) was born on this day in 1914. He would die 39 years later, in November, 1953. There is an extraordinary, brief letter, in The London Magazine’s first ever (Volume 1, No 1) issue, which opens, “Sir, the death of Dylan Thomas at the age of thirty-nine is an immeasurable loss to English letters. In memory of his poetic genius a fund has been started for the Establishment of a Trust to assist his widow in the support and education of his three young children.”[1] It is signed by thirteen hands, including T.S. Eliot, Peggy Ashcroft, Kenneth Clark, Graham Greene, Augustus John, Louis MacNeice, Edwin Muir, Edith Sitwell, and his dear friend Vernon Watkins. This sounds like an establishment view.

And yet, an unfortunate and I think misguided rear-guard action was already underway, in Scrutiny, well before 1954, to undermine this “genius”. It only grew, after his death. As G.S. Fraser puts it, “… Dylan Thomas’s reputation as a poet has undoubtedly suffered at least a mild slump. He was always far too directly and massively an emotional poet, and in the detail of his language often too confusing and sometimes apparently confused a poet …” for the newly-dominant critics of the Scrutiny school.[2]

Neil Corcoran, writing forty years after the London Magazine letter, begins by arguing that Dylan Thomas had his origins in an interest in Surrealism (among other things) but, mainly, himself[3]. The problem is, apparently, one of narcissism. “His is a poetry much taken up with the fact of, and with the emotions attached to, certain forms of psychological regression.”[4]

This is not considered a good thing, for the poetry. “There are too many poems from the 1940s in which the nebulously vatic seems repellent in its myopic self-assurance or triumphalism.”[5] The poems are trouble, and cause trouble. “The trouble with numerous poems is that their glamour and charm cannot disguise the fact that they are elaborate tautologies.”[6]

Apparently, the surface pleasures of a Dylan Thomas poem (almost like a 40s silver screen goddess, charming and glamorous) hide a troubling fact: poems are meant to be logical statements that must not contradict themselves (or else they become tautological). For Corcoran, a poem cannot, then, be a sheer verbal pleasure, enjoyed, say, for its ornamental qualities. It must be rigorously worked through, an equation that yields clear, new results. “The effect (of a Thomas poem) can seem like being insistently told, in some baffling way, some extremely simple things that we already know perfectly well…”[7] – which, despite its obviously critical intention, seems like a rather good job description for most mainstream English poetry.

Dylan Thomas is a snake charmer, or charming snake, his poems wild: “with their libidinous dictions of friction and flow”[8] – “the body of the poem always turning back in on itself”[9] – and this self-sustaining interest in body, fluid and experience is deeply troubling to a critic who wants, ideally, the poet to turn their work “outwards to a recognisable external world of action, event, suffering and relationship”[10].

Linguistic, primitive energy, with its potential slippage, its force, might render the world “unrecognizable” and therefore draw a veil over the rational order of things. In short, Thomas is “Dionysian” and therefore threatens a different order of things, one which wants its apples back in the cart – actually back on the garden’s tree. Recent anthologies of the last decade or so (for example, The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford) pay short shrift to any post-war Forties poems or poets, neo-Romantic or otherwise, other than George Barker, Dylan Thomas and W.S. Graham (and they have 14 pages between them). Lynette Roberts and F.T Prince are not included. This is a period that time has selected to forget.

In Sean O’Brien’s recent anthology, The Fire Box: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, Graham is described as a “major” poet, in the Introduction, and is included, though Dylan Thomas is not. Nor are Roberts or Prince, again. It is unclear why Thomas, whose best work, arguably, was published in 1946, is excluded; his name is not mentioned, either, in the Introduction, though we are told that “the Movement also saw itself in reaction against the poetic excesses of the 1940s, exemplified by the hysterical irrationalism of the New Apocalypse School”.[11]

[1] London Magazine, February, 1954, Vol. I, No. I, Correspondence, p. 79.
[2] G.S. Fraser, Vision and Rhetoric: Studies in Modern Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), p. 238.
[3] Neil Corcoran, English Poetry since 1940 (London: Longman, 1993)pp. 39-42.
[4] Corcoran, p. 43.
[5] Corcoran, p. 42.
[6] Corcoran, p. 44.
[7] Corcoran, pp. 44-45.
[8] Corcoran, p. 44.
[9] Corcoran, p. 44.
[10] Corcoran, p. 45.
[11] O’Brien, Sean, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (London: Picador, 1998), p.xxx.
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