Art à la carte

Share
Related Topics

They had a competition not so very long ago on, I think, BBC Radio 2, to discover the best song of modern times, and it was won by John Lennon's "Imagine". There was also another opinion poll not so very long ago, conducted solely among music critics and pop pundits, to discover what was the worst song of modern times. It was won, by some distance, by John Lennon's "Imagine".

It's enough to make you blink. It quite often happens that something iconic falls from grace, but it isn't quite so common that the same iconic thing can be seen as the best ever and the worst ever, as both beyond criticism and beyond the pale. In the case of a song like "Imagine", it may be that it was highly overvalued to begin with, and the critics stepped in to send the clapometer swinging violently too far the other way, but even so...

The same thing may well be about to happen to another modern icon - to the drunken cherub, the magic-weaving Welshman, the layabout of Laugharne, Dylan Thomas. A new life has just come out, written by Andrew Lycett. It was reviewed in The Sunday Telegraph by Jonathan Bate, the well-known Shakespeare scholar. And Bate said that he came to this life hoping that his view of Dylan Thomas as a dreary Welsh windbag would be upgraded. He came away from it disappointed. "To some of us," he says, "it is mind-boggling that a poet so bad should have been praised so highly." Not an overrated poet, you notice. Not patchy, or variable. Simply bad.

Now, many people consider Dylan Thomas to be one of the great lyricists of modern times. So how can (rather like Lennon's "Imagine") the same writer be very great and very bad?

Well, thinks Bate, it may be because after the dry austerity of TS Eliot, top dog in the 1930s, the poetry-reading public thirsted for garrulity and colour and a bit of magic, and they certainly got it in Dylan Thomas's swirling cloak of many metaphors. "Eliot himself was reacting against the Victorians, such as Algernon Charles Swinburne, of whom Dylan was the 20th-century equivalent: all sound and fury signifying nothing."

I have a sneaking sympathy for Bate's standpoint. I had to study Under Milk Wood at school, and I thought then and think now that it was a comic dramatic gem. I think that some of Thomas's shorter prose pieces are very effective. But whenever I venture into his poetry, I am baffled. The shapes and sounds are indeed very pretty, like autumn leaves floating on a pond, but when the abstract patterns clear and the ripples go still, you can see there is nothing underneath. Thomas is like a conjuror, moving his words so fast that he conceals the absence of any reality.

The only time I dared to say this, it was not in the wisest of places. I was taking part in a literary event in Swansea, and I put forward the playful but serious idea that Dylan Thomas's real talent was for comedy, not for poetry, and that Under Milk Wood would last long after his lyrics had lost their shine. The crowd turned, if not ugly, at least bad-looking. There was a grim hissing and a hostile sound of dissent throughout the hall, which took me quite by surprise in its sincerity. After all, if I got up anywhere in England at a literary do, and said that Larkin's poetry was neither here nor there, but his jazz criticism was here to stay, or that Betjeman's architectural writing was what really mattered, people might scratch their heads or even laugh, but they wouldn't get upset.

I guess it's because Dylan Thomas is such a commanding figure in the post-war Welsh literary trophy cupboard. Take him away, and who else is there of stature? Ask people to name a famous modern Welsh writer apart from Thomas, and who would they go for? Attack Thomas and what do you expect? A tribal response, that's what. So please, if you don't like what I have said about Dylan Thomas, feel free to drop a line to Jonathan Bate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
So far Ebola has caused 2,600 fatalities and infected more than 5,300 people  

To stop Ebola killing thousands more, we need doctors who are willing to put their lives on the line

Peter Popham
Palestinian students are seen through a damaged sitting in a classroom at a goverment school in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City on September 14, 2014  

After the horrors of Operation Protective Edge, Palestine's children are finally returning to school

Yara Hawari
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week