In Search of Dylan Thomas: Andre Bagoo in Wales
Posted: July 12, 2014 Filed under: 7 GUEST EDITORS, Andre Bagoo, English
Andre Bagoo in Laugharne_photograph by Ann Marie Goodwin
And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love.
Dylan Thomas, ‘This Side of the Truth’
WE ARE in the strangest town in Wales.
It is a Sunday afternoon and we walk through the lych-gate and up the long asphalt path leading to the church. Where is his grave?
The path forks. To the left, a graveyard and St Martin’s. To the right, another graveyard, added more recently. The sun is setting.
St Martin’s Church has a service every Sunday at 6 pm. We hesitate at the entrance. Is a service going on? Will we interrupt the worshippers inside? From behind the thick 13th century walls, we can hear the faint sound of an organ. Are those voices? The wind.
We walk in. A small group of old ladies—and one or two men—are huddled together in the sacristy at the far end. There are shields and flags and statues. The stained glass makes everything a kaleidoscope. On one wall near the back (where we stay, looking on respectfully) is a plaque in honour of him, bearing two of his verses: “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”. The light seems dazzled by these words, throwing long shadows on the rough stone walls.
Everyone in the church is kind, weirdly so.
“What took you so long? You should have come inside sooner,” one lady says.
“Here for Dylan Thomas, are you?” the rector adds, greeting us after the service and shaking our hands warmly.
Outside, we search among the graves and give up trying. It is quiet, the light is dying. We are tired after travelling for half a day. We will come again, we say, later in the week.
. . .
In the bar of Brown’s—the guesthouse/pub where Dylan Thomas spent most of his time drinking—the young bartender struggles to explain it. A sign on the wall advertises Laugharne as “the strangest town in Wales”.
“You’ll understand after a while,” he says, pouring a pint. “People here are really, really nice.” He says we are lucky the town is dead, because hundreds – if not thousands – of tourists will come for the Dylan Thomas centenary later this year. Our bartender is the youngest man we see all week.
A couple from a rival guesthouse a few blocks down on King Street stop in for drinks. They stare at us.
“You’re both so beautiful,” Janet says, eyeing my hamburger. Her husband, Peter, whispers into my ears that he has a hearing problem. She tells us a story about how she met Peter, who is her second husband. After her first marriage she was single for 17 years, she says, proudly. Then, she met Peter through an advertisement in the newspapers. She gives us a card for their inn, and says they have better rates. She never mentions her first husband’s name.
“She could get away with murder,” Peter jokes before they leave. I take a picture of them – just in case. That night in bed, I think of the town’s famous clock tower, standing black and white against the sky, just two blocks away.
Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea one hundred years ago, in 1914. He worked briefly as a reporter before his first published poem (‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’) appeared in 1933. He skyrocketed. His stentorian voice and beautiful language made him particularly popular over the wireless; his most famous work – Under Milk Wood – was, in fact, written for radio.
Thomas spent two major periods of his relatively brief life at Laugharne. He lived there when he first married. Then, after living in several different places (London, Oxfordshire, Iran) he returned, settling with his family in a boathouse overlooking the estuary at the mouth of the River Tâf. Near the end of his life, he developed a routine at Laugharne, right up until his trip to New York in October 1953. (It was there, after a night of heavy drinking, that he died at St Vincent’s Hospital.) He made his third, and final, voyage to Laugharne, where he was buried at St Martin’s graveyard. Thomas was 39.
Dylan Thomas’ grave at St.Martin’s, Laugharne, Wales_photo by Andre Bagoo
Today, the grave looks fresh, covered with yellow, red and purple flowers. A simple white cross marks the spot where the poet who was once Wales’ most famous son is buried. “In Memory of Dylan Thomas,” it says. His wife Caitlin, who had a tempestuous relationship with him and who had not been with him in New York, would, years later, have the last word. She was buried in the same plot, and the other side of the slender white cross carries her name. There is no poetry at the grave.
When you travel, nothing is as it seems. Everything has something of the air of the unreal. Each city, town, inhabitant, each landscape – becomes a mirage. But to the persons who live there, you are the one who is out of place. You are the apparition.
It seems every single thing in Laugharne is connected to Dylan Thomas. Or if it is not, it fast becomes so. The entire town is a memorial to him; a living and breathing tomb. It is a monument comprising: pubs, book-shops, a clock-tower, ruins of a gothic castle, and St John’s Hill.
And all of this can be found in Thomas’ poetry.
But how much of a poet’s life and circumstance do we need to know? Do we need the back-story in order to enjoy each poem? Is it not better the less we know? Must we see the writing-shed, learn of the love affairs in New York, visit the favourite drinking haunts, the neighbours, the aunties? Of poetry Thomas once said:
All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem.
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.
I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paranomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and in the twistings and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.
With Thomas, there is a focus on what is not in focus: on crafting effects and experiences within the poem which hint at deeper ebbs. In addition to the devices he lists, there is also careful attention to form and an overriding sense of rhythm which propels the poetry, giving it a zealous, almost evangelical energy.
Many of his poems reflect these qualities, including some of his best-known, such as: ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, ‘Poem in October’, ‘Fern Hill’, and ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. A good example is also his poem ‘Twenty-four years’:
Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance for as long as forever is.
Thomas deploys rhyme, alliteration, paragram, memorable and unexpected imagery (“meat-eating sun”; “red veins full of money”) all to commemorate a moment; a feeling. The opening line startles, inverting the normal cause and effect relationship we associate with the provocation of tears – it bathes the poem in ambiguity. The poem is, for me, an act of grief, and seeks to point to a life force able to overcome it (“bury the dead for fear that they walk”). Ultimately, this is a snapshot as meaningful or as meaningless as life itself, grieved for or celebrated.
But if for Thomas poetry’s enjoyment is conditional upon a kind of cultivated mystery to the text, how useful is it to scour over the biographical details of Thomas’ undoubtedly tumultuous life? While Laugharne was central to his persona, is Laugharne central to the poetry? The whole point of poetry, according to Thomas, was its experience. Would he advocate that school of thought which states the reader need not get distracted or bogged down by the details of the poet’s personal life?
The Dylan Thomas Walk is approximately two miles in length and takes you uphill around the shoulder of St John’s Hill, which overlooks Laugharne. Along the walk, we see views of the marshy Tâf estuary, which fans open like a sponge at low-tide; of Thomas’ boathouse; the Gower; north Devon; Caldey Island and Tenby. If you’re keen you can download an app specially made for the walk (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/dylan-thomas-100-birthday/id571021072?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D4).
This “walk” was opened in 1856 by the Laugharne Corporation to enable cocklers to access by foot the valuable cockle beds on the upper and lower estuary marshes, when the dangerous high tides below would prevent access along the old cart road. Today, the path has been turned into a walk commemorating Thomas’s poem, ‘Poem in October’, which is ostensibly an occasional poem written by Thomas to mark what was his 30th birthday on October 24, 1944.
The Dylan Thomas Walk_Last verse of the poet’s “Poem in October”_photo by Andre Bagoo
Reading ‘Poem in October’ today it remains as vital and alive as it must have been in 1944. Thomas was writing during World War II and perhaps this context alone gives the poem a certain charge. His retreat to the Laugharne landscape allows a perspective and distance. The marsh environment comes to mirror the processes not only of war, but of economy and society generally. But reading the poem on the page is nothing like reading the poem along the specially-designed walk which now exists. At several spots, stations have been made bearing sections of the poem relating to the landscape, as well as old, faded maps and drawings of the view. Only by taking the Dylan Thomas Walk can you fully appreciate what he meant when he wrote:
My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke….
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
Away but the weather turned around.
If we admit the landscape is in the poem, is the life not there too? Is the poem – even when stony, mysterious, obscure – not an artifact of a life, however shrouded in mystery? And if the life is there, can learning about the poet enrich our appreciation of what he sets out? For me, ‘Poem in October’ is a richer experience having been to Laugharne. Reading a poem is like reading a poet and, in turn, everything that has touched him. In this way, the reader and poet converge and something universal sparks between them. This is not to say this is compulsory to the enjoyment of a poem, or to advocate the limited readings so often lazily slapped onto poems when people find out about the lives of the poet, but rather to acknowledge that sometimes more information can reveal and deepen mystery simultaneously. Sometimes, the more you know, the less you know. And the more we know of a poet, the more possibilities are inherent in the text the poet leaves behind, even if the poem, like the poet, remains unknowable.
. . . . .