Art à la carte

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.