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Sunday, 26 January 2014

TODD SWIFT ON DYLAN THOMAS

In this centenary year of Dylan Thomas (and the 60th anniversary of Under Milk Wood), I offer these thoughts on the greatest Welsh poet of the 20th century, originally from my doctoral research.

Dylan Thomas in the Forties and His Critics

 

Dylan Thomas has been defined as the quintessential Forties poet, though his work had already been widely published and celebrated in the Thirties. Associated, sometimes ambiguously, with the aims and manifestoes of several key movements of modernism, such as English surrealism, then the Apocalypse, or New Romanticism, his oeuvre has ultimately transcended, even as it remains somewhat hobbled by, those groupings and entanglements. Thomas is virtually unique among major British twentieth-century poets for remaining controversial more than fifty years after his death. The controversy circles around whether in fact he is a major poet. For example he is not included in The Cambridge Companion to English Poets whose six twentieth century poets are Hardy, Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Auden and Larkin. Thomas, representative of the Forties Style, is skipped over, as if the narrative arc was simply Auden-Larkin.[1]

Perhaps the best comparison would be with his friend, the poet Edith Sitwell, who never regained critical respect after being labelled as a self-promoting charlatan as Chris Baldick claims in his The Modern Movement.[2] The difference with the Thomas legacy is that, unlike Sitwell’s reputation, which is now nearly unsalvageable,[3] his poetry is still intriguingly ambiguous – and this ambiguity lends to the age he represents its own flickering glamour and intrigue. That poetic language remains the main point of contention is both puzzling and also reassuring – for how else should poets be evaluated, than by how they deploy their language and style?

The broader critical case against Thomas has tended to be a moral or psychological one bolstered by a circumstantial mix of the banal and melodramatic, that often skirts the literary qualities of the poetry altogether. This could be described as the Leavisite tendency to ‘slip from the text to the man’. The Thomas rap sheet could read as follows: he was Welsh, started writing young, was not educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, read poems aloud in a sonorous voice, drank a lot, borrowed money, was a womaniser, became famous in America, and died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in a hotel in New York City.[4]

After his death, it was not Thomas himself, but his spectre, the idea of Thomas, his reputation, which became a whipping boy, for a whole spectrum of writers who tended to do him down, loudly and often, in print and in public. Thomas comes to represent, I think, an idea of rhetoric personified – but worse than that, a Celtic rhetoric – which seemed to combine the verbal disorder and disease of romanticism with the worst excesses of sophistry – an oral running sore oozing bad poetry. Thomas, being ornamental, religious and emotive, was also, and apparently fraudulently, a sober craftsman – so that, what in other poets was admired, was in him seen as representing hucksterism.

Curiously, there is very little of Dylan Thomas on film (though he appeared on television in 1953). This does seem odd, as he was one of the first post-war poetry celebrities: even as radio was being surpassed by cinema and TV in America, and voice becoming less important than image. It is hard to imagine another opportunity for a poet to achieve such celebrity mainly on the back of sound recordings and public appearances at colleges and town halls.

Thomas seems to have had his poetry tainted by its successful contemporary reception, and provokes an anxiety of jealousy – as well as displeasure occasioned by poets who genuinely abhor the performance aspects of poetry (as Auden did). However, the work of Dylan Thomas also exemplifies the final stages of modernist lyricism – a stage where complex diction was mixed with religious and personal sentiment, and also impersonal statement.

Dylan Thomas had many critics who tried to wreck his posthumous reputation, but few as dedicated as Geoffrey Grigson, a self-described ‘Non-Dylanist’. Grigson, founder of New Verse, and a one-time acolyte of Auden, was liable to lash out, as late as 1982. In his volume of occasional essays and reviews, Blessings, Kicks and Curses: A Critical Collection, he both kicks and curses Dylan Thomas in a brief essay, ‘American and Welsh Dylanism: A Last Word from a Non-Dylanist’. He comments on how academics fond of Poe and Baudelaire have now discovered Thomas: ‘This time the bourgeois have turned round, and lighted a flame of sanctity from the dead poet’s alcoholic breath.’ Grigson refers to the fact that Thomas drank heavily. He asks, a little rhetorically, ‘Who cares if this poet sozzled, or made a public dive at parties for the more appetizingly outlined, if still virginal breasts?’[5]

It is hard not to become polemical in the process of discussing such writing, but, it must be observed, as dryly as possible, that very much of the criticism against Thomas is polemical. Grigson offers a more literary opposition, which I shall quote in a moment, but I do want to observe, first, how intensely nationalistic anti-Thomas feelings can run, how much issues of Welshness and class seem to matter to some critics – to them, Thomas is no English gentleman:

 

Mr. John Ackerman, in his book on Dylan Thomas, the newest, doesn’t tell where he (Mr. Ackerman) is to be located: he signs his preface ‘Wales, 1963’, which is running up the Red Dragon on the doorstep. He says ‘a knowledge of the country and the culture which produced Dylan Thomas is fundamental to a full understanding of the poet.’ He doesn’t bother ostensibly about Dylan Thomas’s public legend (good); but having run up the flag, and sung ‘Men of Harlech’, he ties poet and poems to a Swansea childhood (new details about the school magazine), to the influence of Anglo-Welsh writers (including Margiad Evans) ‘who helped to create a national consciousness, the sense of a life being lived that was peculiar to Wales’, and (as if hoping to satisfy all Welsh parties) to ‘the tradition of culture existing in and through the Welsh language.’ [….] Mr. Ackerman (it doesn’t sound such a very Welsh name, Ackerman?) has to say that Dylan ‘is an ancient Welsh name found in the Mabinogion.’[6]

 

Now, there are a number of things that can be said about this passage, including the observation that it seems hostile to any attempt to contextualise, culturally or historically, poetic texts, but there is a different sort of odour that emanates from the uncomfortable ‘it doesn’t sound such a very Welsh name, Ackerman?’ whose diction and syntax has a creepy affinity with Larkin’s ‘Jake Belowksi’ figure in his satire on American academics. For Grigson, Ackerman, with that foreign-sounding name, becomes a hypocritical ‘Other’, eager to play the Welsh card, but from somewhere else really, where people have names like that.

Grigson states the more academic poetic case against Dylan Thomas clearly when he notes ‘the stale sentimentalism of language’; ‘the literary stuffing, the echo of Keats, Francis Thompson, the Bible, Joyce, Hopkins, Owen, even Eliot’; ‘The properties – the worms, the mandrakes, the shrouds, the druids, the arks, the soul’; ‘The soft words canned (with canning’s horrible power to soften still more), and then scrambled, with a show of being original, into premoulded rhythms – the words (so unlike the vocabulary of Hopkins, whose idiosyncrasy Dylan Thomas so often borrowed and pulped) never tested against reference and usage, against the living body of English, and against the totality and resistance of things’.[7]

Grigson has here dropped his sarcasm, and put into clear terms his problems with the style of the poetry of Dylan Thomas. In many instances, such criticism can easily be turned on itself, with a simple inversion. What is wrong with sentimentality (or sentiment)? Or, what is so rare about poetry full of allusion – especially to the Bible? Eliot is a master of such allusion. I am not sure what ‘premoulded rhythms are’ if not another way of saying a crafted use of metre, rhyme and form; and as for using words like ‘soul’ and ‘shroud’ – other than their slightly ecclesiastical trappings – surely they are available to poets? I think, ultimately, Grigson’s anti-Thomas case rests on that of empiricism, Locke’s arguments for plain speech and Pound’s for prose-hard diction: Dylan Thomas’s language is non-verifiable, having failed to test itself against ‘things’ – and the ‘living body’ (which has a religious subtext of its own) of English. This leaves us where we began.

There is something tautological about the critical claim that ‘all rhetorical poetry is bad because good poetry isn’t rhetorical’, and I am not sure the sort of case that Grigson builds extends very far past such a rudimentary sort of evaluative process of circular logic, or taste.

Dylan Thomas was not a marginal figure or pariah, at the time of his death. There is a brief letter, in London Magazine’s reincarnated 1954 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.’[8] 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 close friend Vernon Watkins. Add to that William Empson’s tireless support of Thomas, and this begins to sound like something of an establishment view.

And yet 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.[9]

A more serious case against Thomas is made in Neil Corcoran’s significant study, English Poetry Since 1940, as we shall see in a moment. Chapter 4, ‘A New Romanticism: Apocalypse, Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, George Barker’,[10] lays out the major problems with much of the Forties Style, as if published in Scrutiny, in 1952, and not, instead, more than forty years later, in 1993. It is surprising to read such dismissal of certain elements of diction, syntax (and subject), in a collection that otherwise covers a wide range of postmodernist or avant-garde tendencies (J.H. Prynne, for instance). Forties poetry does seem to upset the critical apple cart.

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.[11] The problem is 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.’[12] This is a position originally advanced by David Holbrook in Llareggubb Revisited, which claims there is a ‘persistent immaturity’ in the work and language of Thomas.[13]

This narcissism 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.’[14] 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.’[15]

Apparently, the surface pleasures of a Dylan Thomas poem 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 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 […]’[16] For Corcoran, then, it seems a poem cannot justify itself by being a sheer verbal pleasure alone – it must be an argument of logical clarity. This rational-empirical approach might suit a New Critical perspective, where form and content must work in tandem for a clear goal. But it is not the best sort of critical approach with which to appreciate the special qualities of Thomas.

For Corcoran, Dylan Thomas is a snake charmer, or charming snake, his poems wild: ‘with their libidinous dictions of friction and flow’ – ‘the body of the poem always turning back in on itself’ – 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’.[17] 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. Thomas is ‘Dionysian’ and therefore threatens a different order of things, one that wants its apples back in the cart – actually back on the garden’s tree.

Time and again, criticism and critique that appears elevated to higher concerns returns to disquietude with diction and syntax, never quite put into words, or often projected on to bigger thematic debates and quarrels. Corcoran admits to not approving of the language of Thomas, the ‘ultimately wearying incantations and runes of the earlier work’[18] – as if he was some kind of witch doctor from a particularly offensive tribe. Or something someone puritanical cannot enjoy without vestigial guilt.

But not all Thomas is bad, apparently. His later work (from 1946 or so onwards) shows a marked improvement. ‘That these later poems invite the reader to ponder such issues of poetic tact, decorum and responsibility is a measure of their superior discrimination and scruple.’[19] It is interesting that Corcoran feels the later Thomas poetry is better. This is not the view of William Empson, who ‘liked the early obscure ones best’, and felt that the Dylan Thomas ‘style had become a mannerism’ by the time of ‘Altarwise by Owl-light’.[20] The point is, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that Thomas was necessarily developing into a better, more mature style.

Consider how many of these evaluative terms used to approve and affirm the ‘later Thomas’ (as most criticism does the ‘later Graham’) patronise aspects of style, in the earlier work, that constitute, in their own aesthetic systems, not simply immature mannerisms of a weak or diseased or primitive mind, but a different kind of writing style. I have italicised this last, because, strikingly, it often comes about, in these forms of criticism, that the main ‘problem’ (and a different style is always problematised, as if it were an invading disease) is that the writing is, as I said earlier, not identifiable with the dominant position.

Corcoran wants poems that are associated with tact, decorum, responsibility, and scruple. It is a biographical certainty that Dylan Thomas, the man, was not particularly responsible. This hedonistic free-falling lifestyle seems to have contributed to his becoming gravely ill in New York – but it is in no way sure that his poems would have greatly improved had they become increasingly scrupulous, even well-behaved, cleaned up and presented as a kind of Movement poetry, finally come into its own, at the end of the Fifties. Curiously, this moral-aesthetic shift happened, after a fashion, with the career of W.S. Graham. As Corcoran informs (using another hygiene trope): ‘W.S. Graham’s earlier work is helplessly parasitic on Thomas.’[21] Critical writing on Graham seems to confirm this idea, positing a mythic arc for his writing, whereby the ‘early Graham’ is a deeply-flawed Forties poet, who, by 1955 (that time of transition to more lucid styles), with his long poem, The Nightfishing, begins his miraculous journey to redemption.

Graham’s career can be, conveniently, broken into an early and later period, and it is the case that his post-Forties poetry, now widely admired, is significant and delightful. However, too often, the admirable critical impulse, to celebrate and approve the later poems, comes at the expense of Forties poetry – indeed, the Forties Style becomes the Other, that must be somehow chastised, punished and denigrated, in some kind of primitive rite of passage, in order for the maturity of English poetry to be established, and a rightful order restored. In this liminal reading, Forties poetry is the savage child; and we are reminded again of how class and origin determines, in some criticism, and for some critics, how a poet shall be received.

Might we hold out hope of a different reading of the Forties, where it is not necessary to consider the qualities of the early Graham poems as something taboo, or badly wrong? Corcoran has this to say about the early Graham’s poetry:

 

It has the same incantatory rhythms; the same small field of reiterated, unspecific imagery of plant, season, sexuality and the ‘Celtic’; and the same melodramatic and portentous straining towards ‘vision’, towards some illuminative or revelatory ecstasy. Collisions of apparent accident and spontaneity tenuously negotiated into coherence by a fraught will to closure, these poems seem as a result not only derivative but unreadably and earnestly verbose, a prime case of that fevered neo-Romanticism whose combating gave an initial impetus and rationale to the 1950s Movement.[22]

 

Continuing the trope of invasive disease (popular with wartime propaganda fixated on the enemy and hygiene) that runs throughout Corcoran’s chapter on the 1940s, Graham’s early writing (and by extension all Forties poetry of this kind, deriving from the Dylan Thomas style) is figured as a rampant disease, which has caused a fever – a verbal fever than can only be combated, and hence cured, by the triumphant arrival of liberating forces, the Movement.

It is odd to see this urge to purify, to cleanse the diction, articulated so vehemently in the 1990s. The language is similar to the introduction in the New Lines anthology of 1956, edited by Robert Conquest, which introduced the ‘Movement’ poets – dismissing the younger poets of the 1940s as representing ‘the sort of corruption that has affected the general attitude to poetry in the last decade’.

Corcoran is not alone in diagnosing the writing of the period as some kind of gross physical ailment, a bodily disturbance. Michael Schmidt, in his Reading Modern Poetry, refers to ‘the 1940s twitch one associates with Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Moore, and the early W.S. Graham [...]’.[23]

Robin Mayhead, writing a review for Scrutiny of Thomas’s Collected Poems, 1934–1952, in 1952, is alert to the pagan forces at work. Thomas has ‘exuberant verbal energies’ that have led to ‘something of a cult’ – as if he were, instead, a foreign idol, and not a Welsh boy made good. Finally, he concludes that ‘the attitudes implicit in the widespread acceptance of Mr. Thomas as a major poet […] may well strike one as potentially disastrous for the future of English poetry’.[24] Those pestilent attitudes have, over the past sixty years or so, been mainly eradicated. English poetry was saved.

To see how, one may turn to Andrew Motion’s study, Philip Larkin, published in 1982. Motion’s introductory chapter[25] introduces a significant trope that this chapter has been tracking – that of foreign poetry as disease or illness. Motion first brings it up when quoting Larkin, who claimed that after his ‘Celtic fever’ (the period when the Irish poet Yeats influenced his early work of the 1940s) had abated, he was now a patient ‘sleeping soundly’.[26]

Motion keeps the metaphor running, as he explores how he sees the relationship between ‘two traditions – native English and modernist’ that collide in the first sixty years of the twentieth century in English poetry. Motion writes that Larkin ‘has done more than any other living poet to solve the crisis that beset British poetry after the modernists had entered its bloodstream’.[27]

This is an important sentence, not least because, as can be seen by reading the whole of the chapter, it is based on an argument for an ‘English line’ of ‘intensely patriotic poets’ who use a ‘moderate tone of voice’ that exhibits ‘an unmistakably English tone of voice’ and – for the Movement writers – a ‘traditionally English stance’, to defend ‘the interrupted English tradition’.[28]

Motion argues that Larkin, able to withstand and absorb trace amounts of foreign modernist and symbolist elements (the ‘crisis’) in his poetry, is able to inoculate himself, and by extension, an entire English bloodstream, from the more destructive aspects of the disease that had entered it.

Arguably, there is no one clear ‘English tradition’ – but several – and there has never been a time in ‘English’ poetry when there have not been influences from abroad – and in all instances these influences, whether repelled or accepted, have enriched British poetry. Owen Barfield writes: ‘A certain foreign element, impinging on the native genius, has, in point of fact, played a fairly prominent part in the history of English poetry.’[29] One thinks of all the English poets who based their work on classical sources – not least Shakespeare; of Wyatt using the Petrarchan sonnet; of Milton, influenced by Italian poets; of Coleridge studying German romanticism; Symons,[30] deeply influenced by the French tradition, and contemporary poets influenced by O’Hara and Stevens.[31]

 

 


 

Ian Hamilton, in his essay ‘The Forties’, writes: ‘the now notorious forties, has been thoroughly written off in most contemporary pigeon-holings. It has popularly become the decade dominated by the punch-drunk Apocalypse, the foaming horsemen, and – as John Wain has diagnosed it – by a wartime hysteria which could only have produced such rubbish.’[32] He then goes on to quote Wain, who found much of the Forties poetry ‘impossibly overblown, exaggerated, strained, rhetorical’.[33]

Hamilton does think there is some good (mainly wartime) Forties poetry, and that F.T. Prince might be one of the better poets of the time, although he also thinks he suffers occasionally from a ‘grandiose-rhetorical impulse’ – especially in ‘Soldiers Bathing’.[34] My thesis differs from Hamilton (at least) by not seeing such grandiose, rhetorical impulses as being such a bad thing; not that an arch-minimalist such as Hamilton (whose own poems have themselves become a stray style) would have been likely to appreciate the grand gesture.

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 fourteen pages among them). Lynette Roberts and F.T Prince are not included – omission or inoculation?

The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 has an introduction subtitled ‘The Democratic Voice’. Choosing to elide the complex interrelations between the end of World War II and the Cold War realities that emerged almost immediately, the editors state that ‘World War II marks a fissure in history and poetry in Britain as well as Ireland.’[35] They neglect Tony Judt’s argument that 1945 is not as clean a break as has been claimed.[36] In a paragraph, the Forties is mainly highlighted as being where Auden became American, Eliot became truly English (with ‘the highwater mark of modernist poetry in Britain’ Four Quartets) and English poetry found its own (Northern and regional) champion in Basil Bunting.

The period, lost in a fissure, is then caricatured, rather easily: ‘The short-lived, strained and clotted New Apocalyptic movement of the 1940s was sloughed off like a skin. The democratic voice was arriving.’[37] Once again, the skin rash that was the less austere variant of poetry, as experienced in the Forties (albeit the Apocalyptic variety), is diagnosed rapidly, and then scrubbed away. The snake has shed its skin.

Now there is a new problem with it though – somehow, it was not ‘democratic’ – a new voice was arriving (one ushered in by the Butler Education Act of 1944). This confuses facts on the ground, but paves the way for the arrival of post-colonial, Irish, Northern and other working class figures, born between 1939 and 1963 or so, who bring to the poetry table their ‘voices’ that speak a language people want to hear. It is perhaps an inconvenient truth that Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and other Forties poets were hardly university-educated toffs themselves, and in many instances were widely popular and democratic in their writing. Some of the ‘clotted’ cream rises?

Graham rises, in estimation, in Sean O’Brien’s 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.[38] Nor are Roberts or Prince, again. It is unclear why Thomas, who had very good work published in 1946, and who died in the Fifties, 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’.[39] Exemplified also by the New Romantic movement, which included Kathleen Raine, Graham, Thomas, Barker and other poets not quite ‘hysterical’.

O’Brien writes of ‘the Second World War, when large political gestures and the exploitation of emotive language had been put in the service of barbarism’.[40] Maybe so, though the speeches of Churchill might be considered an example of wartime oratory at its finest, and the actions of the soldiers so inspired were not uniformly barbaric. This suspicion of high rhetoric operates from the time of Davie, through Alvarez, to the present. A purifying fire is called upon to bring its own austere comforts. The madness is over, the enemy (foreign, surrealist, strange) has been defeated, the invasion repelled. The twitch is cured.

It seems to me that there is another way to read the work of Dylan Thomas – one that allows its great verbal pleasures and music to continue to be of relevance. In Empson’s reading of Dylan Thomas, the main aspect of a Thomas poem is not the ‘meaning’ per se (his poems are difficult for some critics to parse precisely because they do not have meanings in the usual sense), though they have ‘magnificent meanings’[41] but in ‘the extreme beauty of sound’. The general argument of all Dylan Thomas poems, for Empson, which can be applied as a template to reading and enjoying them all, is ‘the idea any man can become Christ, who is a universal’,[42] since ‘events in Dylan Thomas’s body are related pantheistically to more massive ones outside’.[43]

According to Empson, the Dylan Thomas style was not monolithic, but developed over time in its influences, from Donne to Shakespeare, [44] and he was ‘coming to write more directly and intelligibly – not, I think, better […].’[45] Empson observed that the style he had made his own was ‘not part of T.S. Eliot’s “tradition’’’, which is intriguing.[46] I should like to reiterate my point that clear-cut histories of poetic lineage in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties are very complicated; not least because the usual claim that the Movement is based on Empson’s poetics seems to entirely avoid his long-running support of Dylan Thomas.

For Thomas, the poem is performative of a style itself – in this case, a style that emphasises the continuity between rhetoric, verbal complexity, paradox, the surreal, religious and emotive statement and the poet’s own body. Empson’s position suggests that a Dylan Thomas poem is a deliberate microcosm. I might say the poems are homunculi. Much like the diagrams from Hobbes, where state and body are elided, the passions and pains of his unique but not original sins and experiences perform themselves out into the poetic texts.

Given that Thomas was a canny, hard-working craftsman and editor, fully aware of the modernist debates in poetry, and by no means a religious zealot, this pantheistic link, fully formed, between poem and body, between self and text, cannot be simply a visionary leap; rather, it suggests that his verbally rich poems were modernist objects, ironic artifacts. Operating within his works is what I call ‘emotional irony’ – which, as we shall see in the chapter on Prince, is the fusion of neo-Romantic and modernist modes of style. The poem/poet is both sincere and artificial.

Within the last decade, books by or edited by Chris Wigginton and John Goodby, and articles by them as well as Edward Larrissy, have begun to emphasise the complexity of Thomas’s poetic achievement, as a modernist and figure of contemporary relevance – no longer a mere bogeyman or whipping boy. Larissy explicitly links the poetry of Empson and Thomas, as in both cases their styles abound in artifice and rhetoricity. Empson’s poetry ‘offers an appropriate and absorbing intensity of artifice’,[47] what he reminds us W.S. Graham called ‘the rich clutter of language’ in the poems of Dylan Thomas.[48]

Thomas has begun to be appreciated by a younger generation of critics, who recognise the continuities in his work with the avant-garde, and language-centered theorists such as Foucault and Derrida. Such critics celebrate the ‘monstrousness’ of Thomas, the ‘clowning’ and ‘excess’ of his linguistic performances, his sense of ‘display’, and, finally, the poetics that underscores all his work – that is, Dylan Thomas is not an orally fixated country bumpkin, but a Modernist no less than Joyce was, implicated in the full deployment of language to generate complex linguistic artefacts; but also, in the ironic slippage of his effects and style, one where everything was thrown in. As such, we reach a curious paradox: Dylan Thomas is potentially as much the source of the language poetics of Charles Bernstein, say, as Veronica Forrest-Thomson is. The Dylan Thomas period, then, remains a source of lively poetic invention, not a verbal dead end after an unrepeatable tour de force.
 
copyright Todd Swift, 2014.



[1] Rawson.
[2] Chris Baldick, 19101940: The Modern Movement, The Oxford English Literary History, 13 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 101.
[3] As Richard Greene tries to do in his new book, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius (London: Virago, 2011).
[4] As numerous biographies have shown.
[5] Geoffrey Grigson, Blessings, Kicks and Curses: A Critical Collection (London: Allison & Busby, 1982), p. 13.
[6] Grigson, p. 14.
[7] Grigson, p. 116.
[8] London Magazine, February 1954, Correspondence, p. 79.
[9] G.S. Fraser, Vision and Rhetoric: Studies in Modern Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), p. 238.
[10] Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940 (London: Longman, 1993).
[11] Corcoran, pp. 39–42.
[12] Corcoran, p. 43.
[13] David Holbrook, Llareggub Revisted: Dylan Thomas and the State of Modern Poetry (London: Bowes & Bowes, 1962), p. 185.
[14] Corcoran, p. 42.
[15] Corcoran, p. 44.
[16] Corcoran, pp. 44–45.
[17] Corcoran, pp. 44–45.
[18] Corcoran, p. 47.
[19] Corcoran, p. 47.
[20] William Empson, Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. by John Haffenden (London: Hogarth Press, 1988), pp. 391–92.
[21] Corcoran, p. 47.
[22] Corcoran, p. 47.
[23] Michael Schmidt, Reading Modern Poetry (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 69.
[24] Robin Mayhead, ‘Dylan Thomas’, A Selection from Scrutiny, ed. by F.R. Leavis, 2 vols, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 125–30.
[25] Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin, 3rd edn (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 11–21.
[26] As the critic Ronan McDonald recently reminded me, in conversation, this idea of the tensions between the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon derive much of their force from Matthew Arnold’s writing on the subject.
[27] Motion, p. 20.
[28] Motion, p. 20.
[29] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 2nd edn (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), p. 172.
[30] The key thing to think of here is the critical reception of F.T. Prince.  If the development of British poetry 1900–1960 is seen as a line interrupted, circa 1910, and then recommenced, circa 1950, what is posited is an interregnum period of roughly forty years, crowned by the Forties, which is increasingly ‘infected’ with influences and styles that do not properly represent the ‘English voice’.  A poet like Prince is interested in foreign styles and models, particularly the Italian, French and American, and writes in a ‘tone’ that is not, really, moderate.  Therefore, for poet-critics eager to see the English line reinstalled, and the foreign fever with its high styles downgraded, Prince becomes a part of the problem.
[31] It is one of the odder aspects of the rear-guard action against British modernism that modern poetry’s chief fault is taken to be its un-Englishness.
[32] Ian Hamilton, A Poetry Chronicle: Essays and Reviews (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), p. 55.
[33] Hamilton, p. 55.
[34] Hamilton, p. 72.
[35] The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945, ed. by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (London: Viking, 1998), pp. xix–xxxii.
[36] Nigel Alderman and C.D. Blanton, ‘Introduction’, in A Concise Companion to Postwar British and Irish Poetry (see Milne above), pp. 1–10 (p. 3).
[37] Armitage and Crawford, p. xx.
[38] Sean O’Brien, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland After 1945 (London: Picador, 1998), pp. xxv–xxxviii.
[39] O’Brien, p. xxx.
[40] O’Brien, p. xxx.
[41] Empson, p. 405.
[42] Empson, p. 397.
[43] Empson, p. 385.
[44] Empson, p. 388.
[45] Empson, p. 410.
[46] Empson, p. 405.
[47] Edward Larrissy, ‘Languages of Modernism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry (see Olsen, above), pp. 131–44 (p. 137).
[48] Larrissy, p. 140.
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