In summer 2015, I was writer in residence at the Dylan Thomas boathouse in Laugharne. I spent the time writing a sonnet for each of the rooms in Dylan’s tiny, rickety house, strolling round Laugharne, getting sunburnt out in the water-lapped backyard, and giving readings and workshops. One activity involved getting some of the visitors to read one or two of Dylan’s letters and write him a reply. On the last day of my residency, I collected all the answers together, tucked them into a bottle, and stood at the water’s edge. A shrug, and the bottle was spinning through the air, landing with a splosh, which I’m pretty sure Dylan – always the most sonic of writers – would have approved of. Sometimes, especially when I’m writing, and especially when I’m finding writing difficult, I think of that bottle filled with words, filled with all those expressions of how a hundred visitors to the home he left long ago still feel about Dylan. I think of that bottle, bobbing out there in the water, on its way to him.
I know though, that there are people who don’t feel this way about Dylan Thomas. For some, he is a difficult writer, the poems allusive and complex, the pages of editorial endnotes overwhelming. For others, he is a sensationalised version of his biography, the self-destructive life and glamourised death fulfilling preconceptions of a Celtic identity, with everything given over to feeling and excess. I want to present in this article what Dylan Thomas is to me: the best literary friend I’ve ever had who, because of his completely individual talent and the extent of his crafting, worked his way, by the time of his death, to a perfect balance between the challenging, rip-roaring way with language which had been there throughout his career, and an increasing accessibility and willingness to communicate, which suggests so much in terms of what could have come next.
Like many great poets, Dylan is at his best when he is at his most personal and intimate. This is nowhere more true than in his late masterpiece ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ The idiosyncratic approach to language which makes Dylan’s voice immediately recognizable is fully present: consider the simple move from ‘gently’ to ‘gentle’ in the poem’s title, which is also a refrain line. The poem uses the repetitive villanelle structure to work through a range of approaches to death, evaluating the attitudes in turn of ‘wise men,’ ‘good men,’ ‘wild men’ and ‘grave men’. It does so, though, simply to prepare us for its true emotional heart:
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
The poem is full of sonic pyrotechnics and startling imagery and, in the midst of this, those four simple words, ‘And you, my father,’ hit home. In those words, Dylan is not the public figure he was known as, but a man in a room, talking to his father, whose death is breaking them both. As readers, we are allowed to eavesdrop on this intimate moment. I love the poem’s repetitive lines, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, because they are an exhortation to continue fighting, even in a battle that can’t be won and even in the absence of a consoling religious faith to place against mortality. But I love them even more because Dylan is employing his huge linguistic talent and work, all those hours in a room, in the service of the most generous and important human impulse. As the poem addresses the poet’s own familial grief, so we share this with him, and are allowed a way to deal with our own.
In many ways, death and time are the most significant of Dylan’s themes, and they add texture to even the most uplifting of his poems. Another late masterpiece is ‘Fern Hill.’ As with ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ Dylan focuses his poetic talent on a universally accessible and important subject: nostalgia for childhood. In this idealized youth, though, time is a constant presence, the word repeatedly returned to, leading us to the poem’s famous conclusion:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, Time held me green and dying Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
As with the refrain lines of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ these lines are powerful because they are an expression of rebellion. I often think that in several important moments in his poems, Dylan is essentially channeling the very central position of anti-establishment, working-class thinking in South Wales communities. His genius is to graft this To hell with you spirit to a struggle against time and mortality, and the daftness of such a struggle, in the sense that it’s unwinnable, makes that fight all the braver.
Of course, this struggle is essentially the reason why poets write, because they want to create something that lasts beyond the present moment, and I love the way that Dylan is a writer who understands the specialness of poetry: the wonderfully careful construction of the stanzas of ‘Fern Hill’ shows the poet’s commitment to really make something magic. The last three lines of the poem are endlessly quoted because of Dylan’s linguistic craft. I love the mellow sound patterning of ‘mercy of his means’, and the way this contrasts with the ‘s’ sounds in the final line. And I love the way the kindness of the verb ‘held’ smashes up against ‘dying.’ But of almost greater importance in these final lines is the word ‘Oh’ at the start of the sentence. This is only a small touch, but it adds such a sense of direct and spoken emotion to the line. That one word transforms these lines, which are highly ornate, to lines that put Dylan in the room with us, whenever we read them, speaking to us as a fellow human being, invested with us in our most important struggles.
By the premature end of his life, then, Dylan was aiming his talent at the most important subjects, in poems that we can all connect with. The way I think about his development is by looking at a writer who, through the experience of writing prose, had taught himself how to balance his astonishing linguistic complexity with a greater accessibility. This brings us to the last extract of Dylan’s work I’d like to mention, ‘Holiday Memory,’ a less famous piece written as a radio script. Here, he wonderfully describes a childhood day out on the beach:
August Bank Holiday. A tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.
If push comes to shove, ‘A silent hullabaloo of balloons’ may be my favourite sentence in the English language; it’s certainly the one that brings me the most joy. It’s fantastically sonically self-aware – all those ‘l’s and ‘oo’s – and just so much fun to say, as well as being invested with Dylan’s distinctive approach to opposites of meaning. But it’s also infused, as his work so often is, with the spirit and silliness of childhood, and perhaps the greatest thing he gave us in the fight against time, which he writes about more widely, is this celebration of the language of being a child.
Those balloons also send me spinning back to the start of this article, to that residency at the boathouse, and a day in 2015 when I stood by the shore Dylan knew. One of my ideas, before I thought about putting visitors’ letters to Dylan in a bottle, was to tie them to balloons and release them, let them float into the sky. It was my mother who told me what I’d daftly overlooked: that for this to work, we’d need to source some helium, that balloons simply blown up would bob round Dylan’s backyard, be earthbound, refuse to leave. There’s so much, of course, in that, of Dylan’s writing, which stays right here. The bottle I ended up launching into the water has the contact details of the boathouse taped to it and, though I’ve never heard anything back, I have no doubt at all that the bottle will reach Dylan because, whatever happened in New York in 1953, I know he’s still here. I know this in the way we know it about writers we love, who live every time their words float across our minds, or when we take down one of their books, or when we say the sounds that they said first out loud, to a room, as I am saying Dylan’s words, out loud, right now.