A poet's celebration in Wales


Dylan Thomas: The writer and his hometown long kept their distance. Fifty years after his death, a festival honors his life.

October 30, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SWANSEA, Wales - To begin at the beginning: Dylan Thomas was born here in 1914, and his writing, a refined form of raw, was met with worldwide acclaim soon after. He lived hard and died young, common elements in the creation of legend, the pictures his words drew not hurting.

Here, though, in this coastal town of his inspiration, of silent gray crags that plunge into crashing white foam and of days that end with blue-orange sunsets swallowed by the sea, Thomas was buried as a son long unclaimed by the Welsh, and so he remained in the decades to follow.

But time passes - listen - time passes, as Thomas once wrote in a typical nod to the obvious on his way to the profound. And with that passage of time, he stressed in his most important work, comes the constant of change, the evolution of the familiar.

This week, the poet proved a prophet. Fifty years after his death, the attitude of his hometown showed itself changed as rhyme and reason came together in a festival to celebrate Thomas' life with concerts and readings, portraits unveiled and films premiered.

"There was a time not long ago that people would come to Swansea and they could leave without ever knowing Dylan was born here," says David Woolley, the festival's organizer. "There obviously was something that drew people to him when he was alive, and what we see is that people are still drawn to him today."

Thomas, for many people, particularly younger people in the United States, made liking poetry cool. His themes were made for the young trying to make sense of growing old. They were of life and death, sex and love, landscapes and souls, childhood and the journey to the grave, of the branched tunnel of madness and his never-ending self-doubt.

His face is on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album because John Lennon was a fan. In four tours of the United States, his readings rarely failed to attract a full house. He wrote for film and radio, and his most enduring work, Under Milk Wood, was written primarily for the stage, its opening line, "To begin at the beginning," becoming a signature of sorts.

"I became familiar with his work through my research, and what I found was a depth that I have difficulty describing," says George Martin, the legendary Beatles producer who later organized and produced a recorded version of Under Milk Wood, which was rereleased Monday, Thomas' birthday.

Even now, 50 years after he died - in New York, on Nov. 9, 1953 - there is disagreement over whether Thomas drank himself to death, whether a doctor over-medicated him when he fell ill or whether he was done in by a combination of both. What is undisputed is that Thomas liked a drink as much as he loved words - "I cared for the colors the words cast over my eyes," he wrote a year before his death - and many people in Swansea believe his bent elbow is what kept the town's claim to him at arms-length.

He often bragged about his drinking, though evidence is he exaggerated his bar exploits, and until recently pubs in the area - which he loved like the cliffs - were about the only place Thomas was memorialized.

"It's a bit of a contradiction given how the Welsh love their beer that they'd shun him for loving his, but the Welsh are filled with contradictions, and everything about Dylan was a contradiction, so maybe it's fitting," says Woolley, the festival organizer.

Thomas loved his heritage but loathed the Welsh language, a dying tongue that many here are determined to keep alive. He was deeply in love with his wife, Caitlin, but was known almost as much for his womanizing as for his alcohol consumption. In one of his most memorable poems, he implored his dying father, "Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." But Dylan Thomas died at 39.

And many people here resented his description of Swansea as an "ugly, lovely" town, which he eventually left to settle up the road in Laugharne, where he wrote from his beloved Boat House. In truth, Swansea is an ugly, lovely town, blessed with spectacular landscape but cursed with horrid architecture hastily built with no obvious planning in the years after the city was nearly leveled by German bombs.

The town has also been battling an identity problem, forever losing out to tourists spending more time and money in Cardiff because there was just not much to do in Swansea.

But among the support for arts in the United Kingdom are competitions to award such designations as the Center of Culture or, as Swansea was named in 1995, City of Literature.

The awards are granted more for a town's desire to become something rather than actually being there, and with some local investment, winning the award brings financial support from the national government. That is how the Dylan Thomas Centre - and later the Dylan Thomas Festival - were born.

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