Poetry still raging, raging against the dying of the light

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
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It’s a century since the birth of Dylan Thomas and this weekend Sheffield is celebrating his life with a series of workshops, readings and talks. Chris Bond reports.

IF you’re ever in New York it’s worth paying even just a fleeting visit to the White Horse Tavern.

This well-known Manhattan boozer was once a gathering place for writers, artists and would-be Bohemians and today it’s a popular haunt on the cultural tourist trail.

Its past patrons include the likes of Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac. But there is one name associated with it more closely than any other and whose portrait and poems still adorn the bar room walls – Dylan Thomas.

For it was here, in November 1953, where the Welsh poet and playwright famously supped his last (he allegedly boasted that he drank 18 straight whiskies). He later collapsed at the Chelsea Hotel and died in hospital a few days later, at the age of just 39.

Thomas is one of those literary figures who is almost as famous for his personal life, in his case his prodigious drinking, as much as his writing. But while it’s perhaps understandable – the notion of the self-destructive genius is, after all, a seductive myth – it’s also an injustice.

This is the man, don’t forget, who penned such acclaimed poems such as And death shall have no dominion, and Do not go gentle into that good night, as well as the much-loved play Under Milk Wood.

He is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century and throughout this week events have been held not only in his Welsh homeland, but also London, New York, Sydney and Sheffield.

Tomorrow, Sheffield Hallam University, as part of the Off The Shelf Festival of Words, is hosting a series of events including a creative writing workshop, a poetry reading and a conference celebrating his life and work.

Chris Wiggington, a professor and deputy dean at the university, is among those involved in the conference. “His significance stretched far beyond South Wales and England. He was an important figure in the United States and he had connections with the European avant garde, he was a writer of global significance.”

Thomas has long been a popular literary figure because of what he achieved in such a relatively short space of time and his centenary year has brought both the man and his work back under the spotlight.

His legacy stretches far beyond the written page. As well as being championed by the likes of fellow Welshmen Richard Burton and Michael Sheen, his work has appeared in numerous films, such as George Clooney’s Solaris, and even the irreverent animated sitcom Family Guy. “If you look at The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album he’s on the album cover next to Marlon Brando, and during the 60s and 70s he became a hugely significant figure in popular culture. John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, of course, they were all fans of his.”

Prof Wiggington believes Thomas’s work stands the test of time. “He’s most famous for Under Milk Wood which people like because for them it represents a nostalgic look back at the past. But it’s also important because it’s one of the earliest radio plays,” he says.

“He is remembered today for his later pastoral work but for me his earlier experimental poems in the 1930s and his war poetry are among his best. He mixed the Gothic with modernism and surrealism and I think people are beginning to look at his earlier work with a fresh perspective.”

He believes, too, that Thomas is just as relevant today. “He challenges the perception that what people want is easily disposable, saccharine art and he showed that you could be experimental and still be popular. He bridges the gap between high art and popular culture.”

For more information about the Dylan Thomas Day events in Sheffield visit www.offtheshelf.org.uk