Phil Bowen: Generosity and power in poetry

From a talk by the playwright at the Dylan Thomas 50th Anniversary Festival in Swansea
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The Independent Online

During his lecture tours of America in the early fifties, Dylan Thomas played in front of tens of thousands of people. I say "played" because he didn't simply read or even declaim poetry, he pitched it so that the sheer force resonated with many previously immune to an art form considered effete.

Not just his own poetry, either. He read Auden, MacNeice, Hardy, Yeats, Lawrence, Walter de la Mare and many others, showing a generosity to his peers not normally associated with poets. Nor is the word often applied to Thomas himself, yet he was generous with his art. Never a vain man, despite other failings, he valued his gift, was expansive, and delivered.

Fifty years after his death, that same force still reaches a massive cross-section of the public. Yet people still don't get it. Jonathan Bate, a professor of literature at Warwick University, still trundles down the usual slow long-hops about the "Welsh windbag" concerned with sound at the expense of meaning.

But this sixth Dylan Thomas Festival, opened by Roger McGough and Brian Patten, sold out weeks ago. Forty years after The Mersey Sound broke all records, their work and appearances are in more demand than ever. Yet in 1967 they were described as "small-town mantovanis... a fetchingly bittersweet cabaret turn, subordinating craft to effect". McGough, Patten and Henri were only a group in the minds of people who felt it a convenient way of dismissing them. Yet the one writer - possibly the only one - that all three cite as an influence is Dylan Thomas.

The principle of poetry is not an élitist one. You're either good or you're not.