The 9th November 2016 marked the 63rd anniversary of the death, in New York, of the poet Dylan Thomas. I managed to leave school, after two academically disastrous years in the Sixth form of King Ecgbert’s School in Sheffield , with one O’Level. This was in English Literature, and it was largely thanks to Dylan Thomas, whom I studied in my retake that I actually passed. The poems Fern Hill and Poem in October took my teenage breath away. The power of the layered words, and their sometimes elusive meanings, was nowhere near as attractive as the emotions they evoked. Lines such as ‘the night above the dingle starry’, or the ‘velvet, snouting dingles’; I had no idea what a dingle was but that was no matter, this was poetry as discovery and transportation. I was taken by the scruff of my heart to the ‘mussel pooled and heron priested shore’ of Laugharne on the Gower Coast.
When, at the age of fifteen I was stuck in Ferryside, Carmarthenshire at my Aunt’s house with my Mother and her partner (a man she had met after my Father died), stuck there because he fell ill, I realised that we were a short coastal jaunt from Dylan’s home. So to cure me of the interminable boredom, Aunt and Mother agreed to take me to his Under Milkwood, his Llaregubb, his sea shaken house and most memorable, his writing shed. Above the Boathouse that he and his fiery and feisty wife rented was a little shed with views out over the bay. This has been preserved as it was when he left, unknowingly for the last time, to travel to the USA. His jacket is over the arm of the chair and his pen and pages still strewn across the desk. I remember the pang of joy I felt as a teenager gazing in at the door of this the detritus of the poetic life. For a moment I toyed with the idea of a writer’s calling and then it passed, only to return in my fifties.
The poem below is the product of a visit when I was around fifty years old and had finally heeded the call of the unwritten and come late to pen to paper shovelling as I call it in the poem. One of the most striking things about both visits was a trip to the graveyard in the Parish Church where both Dylan and Caitlin are buried, under a very simple white cross. In all the usual heaviness of granite and stone this one little wooden cross shines out. I took a photo of it with an old little instamatic camera when I was teenager and have taken others since. The simplicity of the memorial makes him stand out as did the complexity of his verse. I am returning this weekend to Laugharne, as a kind of pilgrimage, and also to scout out the possibility of running a trip there in the late spring of next year; for those interested in poetry and writing. Here is the poem in his honour.
Visits to Laugharne at Fifteen and Fifty
I came to Wales in a young pup body,
chiming like the first peels of a valley
chapel Sunday-best bell, to the lyric,
school learned lines of drunken Dylan,
an unfathered son twisting
down the ring rhyming valleys
to Carmarthen Bay, becalmed in
an Auntie’s snug Ferryside terrace.
I asked to be sailed to Dylan’s town
to remedy the stretched out, teenage,
bored boy, late rising days and
unsleeping, book reading nights.
Arriving to the thunderous drum
of the Pendine guns, ominous
like an impending front-line
advancing on my stripling youth.
In Laugharne was his writing shed,
as he left it, the chair hung coat,
screwed up lines wrinkling
dustily on a shabby rugged floor.
I hungered to gather those flung
away leaves, to unfurl, to touch
the dry bud of meaning, to harvest
his sowing, be my ego’s own poet.
But the fleeting dab shine was
snatched away in a wing beat by the
heron’s priestly stab, my meagre
lines cast at fast receding tides.
Now in my dog-eared years, signed
up late for pen to paper shoveling,
I return to the scruffy bard’s Boathouse,
his unchanging empty bottled shed,
and his scroungy debt ridden paunch,
sponging from any he could tap,
yet singing in the cockle cobbled streets
the tom-tit tunes he milked from the wood.
I hunch at his parlour table drinking
municipal tea, the mock radio booming
out his reading voice, the sonourous Swansea
prophet soaring over the visitor’s shortbread.
Fifteen and Fifty
They say a glimmer in the teens can
glisten at fifty, so here in his house I
turn the cog and whir of running verse,
winding again the spent spring of youth.
Then later on standing high at the end of
his birthday’s walk staring back down
age’s track, all seasoned by Dylan’s
visceral candour, and his October blood.
So sharp and sheer I even see the shine in
his white cross grave, that has shone at me
since my lamb like days from an instamatic photo
I took as a boy when death meant nothing.
Caitlin is with him now, their drinking done,
words all spent, yet Dylan calls me again
in graveyard rain to sound each sputtering
slip or sprain, each kiss and whisper.
Not in the high flying, swallow-tailed
flights but in mole blind, hill making,
soft pawed earth does the splendor shine
blithering through from broken falls.
In a beaten down cheap mini market town,
I have seen hints in the lines on benches
and signs, how words wake the wounds
and wonderful seams concealed in mines
way below ground, in the heart’s soil
that only the grave haunted brave with
lamp lit candle lines are able to burrow,
their seam gleaning grubbing the glinting flints.
He was buried steadily before his death
by the weight of his drunken, unfaithful sins,
all that was left were his words and this white
wooden cross—solitary in a grandeur of granite.
But believe me his faith in the summer
of singing is richer by far than the cautious
yew ridden church that stoops over his grave,
with her half grasp of the beast bellied Christ.
A faith I have found in the pilgrim tracks of
each heart’s foraging, to be sung at fifteen and
fifty, that our wounds are our glories and shall
be rung with his great poet’s bell at dawn and dusk.