Monday 27 October 2014

Welsh whimsy

If you hadn't noticed, it's the centenary of Dylan Thomas's birth, and the Today Programme on Radio 4 decided to chip in with a piece on Saturday. A fundamental rule of the Today Programme is that if a piece has anything to do with haggis or kilts, James McNaughtie will be wheeled out. If it's leeks or anything to do with Cardiff, John Humphrys is your man.

The programme's researchers had unearthed a recording of Dylan Thomas reading one of his poems in that  plummy accent which the young Dylan had been persuaded was how proper English people spoke back then.

"Dylan Thomas, the National Poet of Wales", intoned the avuncular Humphrys with a hint of a question mark, he claimed later in the interview, before introducing Graham Parker, a Cardiff journalist, and Dr Non Vaughan O'Hagan, the chief executive of the London Welsh Centre - no one in Wales itself being available, it would seem.

Graham Parker is a self-confessed Dylan Thomas nut, and he would like to see Wales celebrate with an annual Dylan Night, a bit like Burns Night in Scotland, only with middle class dinner parties in Cardiff reading extracts from Thomas's poems while dining on cawl and slurping Chablis. He has even created a website to promote the idea of Dylan Night.

Non Vaughan O'Hagan's role in all of this was unclear, but she did not sound wildly enthusiastic and probably wanted to say "other poets are also available". But didn't.

And so the chatter continued for some five minutes, a bit of Welsh whimsy on a dull Saturday morning to bring a little light relief from all those wars and dire economic predictions. All gossamer and apple blossom, without a single mention of any other Welsh poet or the existence of the glorious, rich and living poetic traditions of Wales.

It is fair to say that in no other culture in Europe is poetry so closely bound up with the language and cultural traditions of a nation. Welsh poetry, especially as expressed in the tradition of cynghanedd, is without exaggeration one of the glories of human cultural achievement. Cynghanedd is described by the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics as "the most sophisticated system of poetic sound-patterning practised in any poetry in the world".

Earlier this year Wales lost its greatest living poet, Gerallt Lloyd Owen. Gerallt developed his mastery of cynghanedd over a lifetime, and his poems are some of the best known in the language. They are also some of the most accessible.

Although Dylan Thomas was well to the left of today's Labour Party and was said to be passionate about his politics, there is little evidence of his political beliefs in his work, and none at all in his later poems. Gerallt, on the other hand, had a deep and lasting impact on many of his readers. His poems have the power to change minds and lives.

Where Gerallt makes his readers sit up and think, Dylan Thomas for all his verbal fireworks is sentimental, cosy and about as challenging as listening to Jason Mohammed with a mug of Horlicks.

"He had a few major lyrics, the rest is dross", was the verdict of RS Thomas on his namesake, according to a piece in the current edition of Golwg.

RS Thomas, whom no one could describe as populist, was a much better poet, and yet his centenary passed almost unnoticed last year. No films, celebrity performances or National Lottery grants: £820,000 for a Dylan Thomas Park, another grant for a permanent exhibition at the Dylan Thomas Theatre and more dosh for the Swansea Print Workshop to celebrate the Dylan Thomas Dialogues, now on sale as limited edition prints. Hurry, hurry! If that was not enough, the Heritage Lottery Fund has given £935,000 to the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, with some of the money going on another replica writing shed to join the "bespoke" shed previously commissioned by Carmarthenshire County Council.

Among the exciting artefacts on display in the revamped centre is a shopping list. Wow.

There is nothing wrong with apple blossom, Horlicks or even the occasional wallow in dross and gossamer, but Dylan Thomas is now not so much a poet as a marketing campaign. A drunken scumbag turned safe poster boy for the establishment and hotels and B&Bs from Swansea to Laugharne.

RS Thomas and Gerallt will never attract millions of pounds in grants or be turned into a heritage industry, and that is something we can be thankful for.

Meanwhile poetry in Wales is alive and well. Ceri Wyn Jones, who won the chair at this year's National Eisteddfod, is teaching cynghanedd to packed classes in his home town, and there are popular and free classes on Twitter.

Recently a group of young poets took part in what is becoming an annual tradition of writing 100 poems in 24 hours to celebrate National Poetry Day, and there are some real jewels to be found there.

As in so many other aspects of life in Wales, we are confronted with an officially sanctioned, establishment version of what it means to be Welsh, laden with OBEs, CBEs and grants, and a genuinely popular, democratic and less comfortable alternative.

Let's not have a national poet. We could never agree on one, anyway. Instead, let's celebrate the vibrancy and richness of a tradition as old as the Welsh nation itself.


Anonymous said...

What a load of utter tosh ! Are you really saying that England does not have a tradition of poetry and prose I can think of many many many English Poets and authors who wrote and write such lovely poetry.

For god sake, Dylan Thomas was a wonderful poet but he had style and class and I'm afraid unlike the other welsh poets you mention he was interesting !

Anonymous said...

methinks Cneifwr you are Raging but not gently against the night !

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@13.37 I think you may need to go to Specsavers. There is nothing in this piece about English poets or prose writers.

Anonymous said...

"No other country in Europe" etc. pretentious twaddle and I suspect you know it !!!