Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rediscovering Dylan Thomas

The Manchester Literature Festival is in full swing, but I'm away for most of it. Yesterday I looked at what was on and determined to go to something, decided on Peter Blake at the Martin Harris Centre, talking about his visual interpretation of Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood". Its the 100th anniversary of Thomas's birth this year - he died so young, aged 39, in 1953, that its hardly imaginable that its only now. Peter Blake has been working on illustrating "Under Milk Wood" for nearly thirty years - a somewhat obsessional commitment from an artist who is himself in his 80s now. The in conversation took us through the history of "Under Milk Wood" and how even the earliest version of the text (bizarrely in an American woman's magazine) had accompanying illustrations. Thomas's "play for voices" was originally commissioned for radio, and despite a 1972 movie (and another in the works) it is a sound piece which remains so mesmerising, whether the classic Richard Burton version, or the more recent George Martin produced version. Yet unlike so many of today's contemporary "film" poems, the language is as rich as anything he wrote.

Thomas is one of those poets who is so familiar, and yet at the same time, that familiarity makes you sometimes not see him properly. A genuinely popular poet, then, and today, Blake made the point that "Under Milk Wood" was popular with his generation at art school. Listening to it again today, its a fascinating work, allusive, funny, rude, and charming all at once. It does seem sui generis, a tone poem for the senses. It comes out of modernist practice I think, (remember "The Wasteland" was originally called "He Does the Police in Different Voices" and Eliot had also written a number of pieces for "voice"), yet seems to anticipate both the pop art surrealism of the Goons and the elegiac English erotica of Dennis Potter. It was no surprise to find that it was Lennon who had Dylan Thomas on his list of famous faces for the Sgt. Pepper cover that Blake designed.

What was fascinating about hearing Blake talk about the book - as well as the slow process of its completion - is how Thomas's surreal imagination, and elegantly witty poetry was such a challenge to the artist. If some books are "unfilmable" this was a text that in some ways was "un-depictable" yet this appealed to Blake's maven-like sensibility. He divided the pictures into dreams, places and characters. The characters were pencil drawings, often taken from photographic archetypes (of Elizabeth Taylor for Myfanwy or anonymous pictures for the policeman or Nogood Boyo), whilst in the dreams and scenes he was able to create creative montages, sometimes literal interpretations of Thomas's work, other times more speculative.

For "Under Milk Wood" seems to be one of those pieces of work (and Thomas is one of those writers) which constantly finds new audiences. Watching the BBC drama "Dylan in New York" he is constantly referred to by his American backers as "the greatest living poet" and his posthumous reputation in the public imagination is both for his poetry and the life: the womaniser, the drinker, the poet figure of myth. Yet it is the work, then as now, which stands out. If there are moments in "Under Milk Wood" when "Ulysses" comes to mind, they are the only obvious reference points, its such a uniquely conceived piece of work, both in form and content. The whole piece feels like a dream - and we were shown a promotional video for the forthcoming new film adaption which seemed one part Terry Gilliam, one part Peter Greenaway. Yet at the heart of "Under Milk Wood" - a piece Thomas had been thinking of and part writing for years - is a beautifully observed nostalgia for a time and a place, and the richness of the human experience depicted within it, is what makes it such a well loved piece.

Thomas, I think, has never been exactly out of fashion - at least not with poets and readers - but the dry anecdotal poetry of the seventies, eighties and nineties meant that he didn't seem a particular influence. The prevailing greyness of English language poetry since "The Movement" was almost designed to be anti-Thomas, yet his reputation has outlived all of them, bar Larkin. Perhaps he is one of those artists who is so much of a one-off, that his work would always be very different than the prevailing trends. If we sometimes see him as a post-war poet, he published widely in the late thirties and forties as well. Most poets I know find something to like somewhere in Thomas, and he'll be one of the few 20th century poets that non-specialists will instantly recognise.

The Blake conversation was a fascinating insight into an artist responding to another artist. Is there a word for this kind of reverse ekphrasis? The anniversary this year has seen a number of Thomas related activities including an exhibition of Blake's "Under Milk Wood". Though he has finished both the exhibition and the book he admitted that he is till tinkering with some of the pictures, an obsession coming to an end, but not yet totally done with.

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