Essay: Dylan Thomas – Three Encounters

by Andre Bagoo (with apologies to Margaret Atwood)

In 2014, shortly after I turned thirty, I wrote an essay about Dylan Thomas. The essay followed a journey I made with my aunt, Ann Marie, to find the poet’s grave in Laugharne, the town in Wales where he is buried. The essay of about 2,000 words was written in the form of diary entries.

But there were gaps.

Some days were omitted, a stylistic device used, perhaps, to build mystery. I didn’t mention my aunt. I didn’t mention flying from Trinidad to London via St Lucia, as the local airline did in those days, then taking a train from London to Wales, then taking another train or taxi to Laugharne. I must have been very dedicated to Thomas which, as I recall, I was. But why? I’m wondering this as I reread my essay now. As so often when folks attempt to tackle Dylan Thomas – or any writer whose work everyone knows yet no one knows – my real subject was not the author of the poems but the author of the essay, me. “When someone starts telling me about the truth,” observes the psychiatrist in The Invasion, the 2007 remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, “what I hear is what they are telling me about themselves.” Amen.

I start off on a bemused note: “We are in the strangest town in Wales.” Fair enough. But why I find the town strange is not clear. As I had learned from my days of writing newspaper stories, I try to suck the reader in. I hold back on any explanation until the next section of the essay in which I describe a scene in a pub. On the wall of this pub is a poster that advertises Laugharne as “the strangest town in Wales”. A bartender just so happens to explain what is strange about the town. He says, “You’ll understand what’s strange easily. People here are really, really nice.” Memory plays tricks. I might have made up the poster. Might. But I definitely made up the expository dialogue. Not made up, though, was what comes next.

There is a bizarre story involving a white couple who had come to the pub to have a pint. This couple stares at us brazenly. The woman remarks, “You’re both so beautiful.” Though I mention this dialogue in the essay, the race of the couple is not specified, nor is the awkwardness of suddenly realising that Wales is still a place where, except for places like Butetown, Cardiff, black and brown bodies are exotic birds, rarely spotted among the flora and fauna of the marshland. Something of my unease, however, finds its way into the narrative, transformed by a focus on odd details, such as when the elderly husband tells us they are from a competing pub down the road, and discreetly slips us a card, then says of his offensive yet charismatic wife, “She could get away with murder.” Nowhere do I say the pub was a fitting place to write about because Thomas drank himself to death and would sometimes drink at that very pub when he was in town. I do take care to note that the bartender is the youngest person within miles, though I don’t mention his fit body, his charming smile, his intriguing tattoos and piercings. Still, as with my reaction to the racism, an indication of my thirst creeps in: the section ends on a phallic note: “That night in bed, I think of the town’s famous clock tower, standing black and white against the sky, just two blocks away.” It’s the clock tower from Under Milk Wood and it’s the closest I get to getting laid in the essay.

Eventually, Thomas’s grave appears. One paragraph is devoted to its yellow, red, and purple flowers; its simple white cross with the words, “In Memory of Dylan Thomas”; its telling detail involving Thomas’s wife Caitlin, buried in the same plot. There’s a complete lack of poetry to the place – a kind of silence I was very drawn to.

The rest of the essay is devoted to making a single point. It argues that a writer’s life is relevant to understanding the writing. “If we admit the landscape is in the poem, is the life not there too?” I say. “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.”

It all drinks, blissfully, at the fountain of Thomas but does not betray the real reason for my devotion. It’s only now as I reread it that it’s clear to me I was obsessed with finding Thomas’s grave because of my own grief over the death of someone close to me, namely the nurturing newspaper editor who had taught me a lot about writing; my desire to hero-worship someone else; and my search for some kind of god when the shocking reality of death had upended the comfortable agnosticism of my life as a lapsed Catholic. Despite the argument of the essay, I held back details in search of something universal. But it was those seemingly tiny, biographical details, the details that rubbed and boiled up beneath the surface of the page, visible like a body trapped under the frozen surface of a lake, those details were the telling points of universal significance. Here I was turning poetry into my new god, and Dylan Thomas into my new high priest, but with nothing to show for it on the surface of the writing.

However, in the essay I do provide an interesting reading of Thomas’s ‘Poem in October’. I argue that it is meant to be an immersive experience, transformed when read in situ at the Dylan Thomas Walk which overlooks Laugharne. The walk provides a spectacular view of the Tâf estuary, which opens like a fan at low tide, and of Thomas’s famous boathouse where he sometimes wrote. From there you can see the Gower, north Devon, Caldey Island, and Tenby. “The marsh environment comes to mirror the processes not only of war, but of economy and society generally”, I wrote. “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.”

Though I allude to World War II, I don’t go into Thomas’s views on war. Nor the fact that he was declared too frail, but flirted with being a conscientious objector. I also dodged the obvious point that most people cannot be required to go through all this trouble just to read one poem. I ignored the reality that all poems must eventually take on a life of their own, independent of the conditions that generated them. I paid little heed to the idea that poems are not reductive puzzles meant to be solved, for which there is one meaning or solution or interpretation, superior to all others, and that the mystery of the poem, the areas where we are unsure, is what makes poetry poetry. As Thomas himself said, “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.”

The fact that the Dylan Thomas Walk replicates an experience that bears a great resemblance to the Stations of the Cross was not something I felt necessary to devote attention to. Though I fancied myself a Dylan Thomas groupie, I had yet to discover the conflicts that divided his family. His mother was a devout Christian, his father an atheist. Maybe his preference for his mother explains why there is an evangelical sound to his poems, even when the content is irreverent. Being made to venture along the walk turns his poetry into a spiritual exercise: a kind of proselytising that is inappropriate given the lack of didacticism in his verse. At the same time, it is paradoxically fitting because his poems can feel like sermons. He co-opts the tactics of the hot gospeller.

While I was aware of the notion of psychogeography, I had yet to apply it to the strange and wild landscape at Laugharne. I did not seek to examine in what ways the rhythms of the environment, with its quick tides and unique birds, plants and trees, might have affected other poets from the area in the way it affected Thomas. It fascinates me now, though it did not fascinate me then, to think of a collective consciousness at work, writing Laugharne into a shared construct.

I could have added a whole section to my essay indicating how, had I really wanted to encounter Thomas, all I had to do was read Caribbean poets of a certain generation instead of trekking thousands of miles to visit his grave. I could have sketched the powerful influence of his style on postcolonial poets. His use of pun, portmanteau words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm, twistings and convolutions – all turn up like flotsam in the sea of West Indian poetry. I could have pointed to Derek Walcott’s ‘A City’s Death By Fire’, whose title alone echoes Thomas’s ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’. I could have taken note of V.S. Naipaul’s citing of this Walcott poem in his claim that early Walcott was stuck in an “imitative quagmire”. I could have discovered how Neville Dawes transferred the hawk of ‘St John’s Hill’ to the ancestral space of Sturge Town, Jamaica in poems such as ‘Fugue’ and ‘Acceptance’. I could have considered how Samuel Selvon, when he came to write his stunning 1971 poem ‘Discovering Tropic’, borrowed and rephrased Thomas’s most famous opening line: “To begin at the beginning”. I could have pointed to several Caribbean writers being, at one point or another, compared to Thomas with his rich, deep tones; how Thomas and Caribbean writers gravitated to radio work at the BBC. But I missed that chance.

Nor did I make anything of the parallels between Wales and the Caribbean, how both are societies with relatively small populations, how they were at various points annexed by Britain, how a revival of Welsh nationalism appeared to coincide with the Caribbean Independence movement of the 1960s, and how the lure of Thomas’s lines, therefore, may have been freighted with subliminal political associations. Thomas’s poem ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ may well have inspired many of the black and brown soldiers from the colonies who fought in World War II as British Empire troops.

One aspect of Dylan Thomas’s poetry that demands attention is the raging debate between sound and sense. Pope famously argued, “The sound must seem an Echo of the sense”. Yet, in Thomas’s later work, Derek Stanford finds “a felicity to diction […] covering a monotony of perception”. Elder Olson detects a “copiousness of language, his eloquence, booming at us, working on us too obviously, even exciting us unnecessarily”. Robert Graves declares, “Dylan Thomas was drunk with melody, and what the words were he cared not.” At the same time, William T. Moynihan hears a devotion to “auditory effects”, not sentimental rhetoric. And Louise Baughan Murdy, who wrote an entire book on the matter, calls for “an expansive poetry in which sound supports sense and contributes to the total meaning”. All of this assumes that a poem should on some level make sense, even as we are yet to agree what “sense” is.

I could have suggested that Thomas’s use of sound renders his poems scores, sculptures, like the diamonds and anvils of his poem ‘Vision and Prayer’ that seem to pay homage to George Herbert’s pattern poems. And as it relates to sound being dismissed as inferior to sense, I could have seen another parallel here with West Indian writers whose work is often expected to have exotic sounds and flavours, though not much else. I could have mentioned the dismissal of Caliban as a noisy, primitive brute, despite him having the best lines in The Tempest. I could have noted how Thomas defined poetry as “memorable words-in-cadence which move and excite me”. And I could have suggested how both sides of the spectrum of sense and nonsense constitute poetry, whether we are dealing with a sophisticated process poem generated by a computer algorithm or a nonsense verse by Edward Lear.

Though I chose to address my relationship with Dylan Thomas in prose – in a move that seemed to make a point about the poetic potential of this kind of writing – there was no questioning of prose as my chosen medium. Nor did I examine how Thomas’s own prose relates to his poetry. Both are united by an attention to sound. The synergy between the two – a synergy Thomas exploited in some of his more successful short stories like ‘After the Fair’ and ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ – is not covered. How the latter story evokes a social milieu that bears much resemblance to aspects of Trinidadian society is not picked up. Nor are the similarities between the Welsh accent and the Trinidadian accent which, you should know, was recently voted the eleventh sexiest accent in the world, way above the Welsh but trailing the Scottish and Irish.

Why was Thomas so important to me?

Like a difficult poem, I had amassed detail after detail, fact after fact, and yet the essence of things remained a mystery. I had aimed to show how biographical details of a poet could enhance our understanding of their work, yet, like a good reporter, I seemed hell-bent on not becoming the story. The journey with my auntie, a maternal figure in my life; the mourning for my editor who died abruptly while on the job; the hagiography of Thomas, turning him into an idolised father – I seemed in search of parents. This, even as my own parents were alive and well. What did it mean? Did it have something to do with the context of my own life as a gay person from the Caribbean, a queer person, seen and unseen, perpetually coming out to people? Perpetually seeking, yet not seeking, approval? From parental figures? Others? A surprising place to end up, I guess, after travelling to Wales.

I closed my essay with a complicating paradox. “The more we know of a poet,” I argued, “the more possibilities are inherent in the text the poet leaves behind, even if the poem, like the poet, remains unknowable.” Here, at least, I was on to something, even if it meant acknowledging there are things I would never know about Thomas and, by implication, myself.

The front cover of The Poetry Review winter 2020 issue is a painting by Anna Jensen. It features images taken from poems in the issue: a petrol pump, a fire and a bison, as well as two dogs pulling a sled and a big blue tent.Andre Bagoo’s essay collection The Undiscovered Country is published by Peepal Tree. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:4, winter 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.