My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.
(Extract from “Poem in October” by Dylan Thomas)
After years of careful planning, with multitudes of meetings and committees, the big day is almost upon us. The Dylan Thomas 100 centenary year reaches its peak on Monday October 27, the birthday itself.
I imagine Dylan himself would have found the intensity of this meticulous planning amusing, even absurd. His famous “Poem in October” is about a solitary walk – “Myself to set foot / That second / In the still sleeping town and set forth” – observing on the wonders of nature – “A springful of larks in a rolling / Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling / Blackbirds and the sun of October / Summery / On the hill’s shoulder”. It ends with a meditation on childhood, the ever-present passing of time – “And the true / Joy of the long dead child sang burning / In the sun.”
But, as Dylan himself is long gone, the celebrations this weekend – and throughout the year – have been for us, his fans, old and new. One of the main aims of the centenary is to remind us all what an incredibly talented writer Dylan was – and to re-establish him in our minds as one of the greatest figures in twentieth century Wales, and one of the greatest English-language poets of his generation anywhere in the world.
But first, let’s tackle the anti-Dylanites. There have been a smattering of negative and sarcastic comments, mostly on social media. Interestingly, most of these are not necessarily about Dylan himself, or his work, but about the coverage and activity during this centenary year. The complaints are about the celebrations, not the man nor his poetry. Fair enough. Nobody likes to have somebody else’s obsessions rammed down their throat. I’ll remember this during the next significant sporting event…
The point is this: if you don’t like it, switch off. Don’t read it, don’t see it and don’t engage. But have the good grace to allow us who do like poetry, to have our moment in the sun. This is the first time we’ve ever had a full year to commemorate a writer, with the biggest single injection of funding from our government to celebrate literature. Not golf, not war – but writing.
But I guess if you’re one of those complainers, you would have stopped reading my column before you passed the word “birthday” in the quote above. A shame, because you would have missed out on reading an extract from one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. And hasn’t this year been about the poetry after all? Everything that’s taken place during the centenary year – from cool music festivals, to sheds on tour – have all pointed to the poetry.
For Literature Wales, introducing the magic of Dylan’s words to a new generation has been our greatest challenge, and our number one priority. The sad fact is that too many children and young people in Wales are unfamiliar with Dylan Thomas, and a year ago had not even heard of him. This isn’t because we have a particularly un-literary youth in Wales, it’s simply because they haven’t had the chance to read or hear any of his work. In many ways, we had to begin at the beginning.
That’s why we came up with Developing Dylan 100. In partnership with the Welsh Government’s Department of Education and Skills, it’s a series of projects aimed at getting children and young people inspired, engaged and excited by Dylan’s work.
The range of projects has included: creative writing workshops that have inspired 8,000 young people so far; an international competition for Dylan Thomas-inspired creative writing; an online collaborative 100-line poem; cross art-form workshops that engage young people by blending Dylan’s words with an expressive mix of music, visual art and performance, and an enthralling live show that’s toured the UK and the world, retracing the poet’s art and life through spoken-word poetry, jazz and hip-hop
So how can you celebrate Dylan’s birthday weekend? If you’re around Swansea, it’s worth checking out the Dylathon at the Swansea Grand. This is a non-stop, 36-hour reading of Dylan Thomas’ work featuring high-profile names such as Jo Brand, Sir Ian McKellen, Charlotte Church and the First Minister Carwyn Jones, amongst many others. Also in Swansea is the excellent music and literary festival Do Not Go Gentle, which started yesterday.
In London, the first Fitzrovia Festival takes place, under the guidance of Griff Rhys Jones, and there will be a gala performance at the Southbank Centre. In New York, Michael Sheen has curated a sell-out public radio performance of Under Milk Wood, at the very stage it was first performed by Dylan himself – the famous 92nd Street Y theatre.
Many organisations, big and small, have come together for what has been a fantastic year of celebrations. My hope is that, come February 2015, we will not have forgotten poetry. That somewhere in our minds, when we settle down to our second pint, watching Wales struggle against England in the Six Nations Championship, a line will pop into our heads from nowhere: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”