Today is Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday.
Now God knows I would have loved to have invited him round for a cup of tea and a cupcake – for Dylan I would have even cracked out the cake tin and checked the flour for mites and made him one myself, and not even my daughters get that on their birthday.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly for a poet in love with the bottle, Dylan was dead long before I was born.
He never saw 40, let alone 100.
Thomas’s poetry has never been less than loved, by the public at least, in his lifetime and after. His centenary has been the subject of many events, centred around his semi-mythical writing shed. (Like many writers, he did a lot of things in his writing shed, very few of them actual writing. Thank God there was no internet in those days, or he would never have got anything done.)
In intellectual circles, though, Thomas can be treated a little sniffily. The Wikipedia entry for Thomas describes his work as ‘accessible’, which is code for ‘a bit TOO popular, often read at funerals’.
Well, whatever. I adore him. I can recite big chunks of his poetry, and often will, unprompted. It’s hard to get me to stop.
I first saw Under Milk Wood as a little girl, when my sister performed in the play at school (‘call me Dolores like they do in the stories’).
Before I saw Under Milk Wood, I was a reader. But after, I fell in love with words. Drunk on assonance, seduced by the lavish imagery. And the alliteration! Oh the alliteration.
If you have never listening to the beginning of Under Milk Wood read by Richard Burton then I envy you. I have heard it, read it, countless times and it can still make me shiver, go all goosebumply.
Back then I couldn’t have told you why Dylan’s words got so tangled round my heart. It wasn’t his rock and roll roistering reputation. I knew nothing of that back then. He was just a name on a page; he looked pretty respectable.
Now though, I can tell you why his poetry was so potent. It is that combination of sweet and sprightly melancholy, lyrical but imbued with sadness. I can tell you this because it has given me a taste for energetic sadness; for poetic, word-heavy morbidity that runs through my record collection – from The Bluetones to Johnny Flynn – and my dvd shelf.
Cheery sadness – so long Dylan and thanks for all the paradoxes.
There was something else though. Thomas wrote about ordinary people in the most passionate and compassionate of ways.
In Under Milk Wood we see his sense of the sacredness of humanity. The high point of this is the description of Bessie Big Head, the lowest and the least of the people of Milk Wood.
Look up Bessie Bighead in the White Book of Llaregyb and
you will find the few haggard rags and the one poor
glittering thread of her history laid out in pages there
with as much love and care as the lock of hair of a first
lost love. Conceived in Milk Wood, born in a barn, wrapped
in paper, left on a doorstep, bigheaded and bass-voiced
she grew in the dark until long-dead Gomer Owen kissed her
when she wasn’t looking because he was dared.
That is the beautiful tenderness at the heart of Thomas’ writing – that life is precious and must be treasured – the one poor glittering thread of her history laid out in pages there with as much love and care as the lock of hair of a first lost love.
But in the end he didn’t take any love and care with his own life, it seems. Dylan had a lot to say about death, did Dylan (hence his popularity at funerals). Like much of his writing and his life, it is contradictory, ambivalent. But mostly he thinks death can bugger off. And death caught up with him all the same, as it does with all of us.
His wife Caitlin outlasted him for many decades. She died in 1994 and on the front of the paper the next day they printed her death notice under this:
‘Listen. Time passes.’
And so it does.
Dylan Thomas portrait: