Welsh academics line up for battle of the poets

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The Independent Online
A WAR of words has erupted over the merits of the Welsh poets Dylan Thomas and the Rev R S Thomas, writes Tony Heath.

The row over who is the greatest Welsh versifier stems from an article in the current issue of New Welsh Review, a journal subsidised by the Arts Council of Wales, which some writers say is elitist and sectarian.

The author of the piece, Katie Gramich, a lecturer at Trinity College, Carmarthen, says the image of Dylan Thomas as a mercurial, drunken windbag reflects badly on the Welsh. "He is a great Welsh poet, but isn't he also our burden, our cliched bard?" She singles out for special criticism the acclaimed Under Milk Wood as being written by an adolescent dirty old man.

She rates the reclusive North Wales clergyman R S Thomas ahead of the South Wales bohemian because of the former's ability to tackle big issues.

Now, academics are lining up to do battle in a contest apparently driven by a nationalistic and cultural agenda. Today in Swansea, Dylan Thomas's "ugly lovely town", less than 10 per cent of the population speak Welsh. By contrast, in the Lleyn Peninsula, where much of R S Thomas's work was written, 80 per cent of those he ministered to spoke the ancient tongue.

Dr James Davies, of the University of Wales, Swansea, comes down heavily on Dylan's side: "He had a far greater command of poetic technique than R S, and had a much wider range of themes."

From the University of Wales in Bangor, Tony Brown declares that R S Thomas was set apart because of a greater maturity.

But at street level, Jeff Towns, who runs Dylan's Bookshop in Swansea, expressed a down-to-earth opinion. "Welsh academics put R S Thomas first because of the linguistic thing. Sales of Dylan's works knocked R S Thomas's into a cocked hat. There is an underlying political dimension - R S Thomas is a fervent nationalist."