Magazine article The Spectator

The Original Dylan

Magazine article The Spectator

The Original Dylan

Article excerpt

The suggestion was made the other day that Dylan Thomas may have been dyslexic. Apparently, the experts deduced this from the style of his poetry. It seems an odd assertion.

Dyslexic children find difficulty, and therefore no pleasure, in reading. Dylan, according to his parents, taught himself to read when he was three, and thereafter read, in his own words, 'indiscriminatingly and all the time, with my eyes hanging out on stalks'. Doesn't sound like a dyslexic child to me, though doubtless the experts know better. Also in the news recently was the announcement of a Dylan Thomas Prize, worth £50,000 to the winner. Considering that having failed to file a tax return for years before the Inland Revenue caught up with him and sank its claws in so deeply that from 1948 to his death in November 1953 'he was never, for a single day', according to his biographer Constantine Fitzgibbon, 'free of financial terror', the value of this prize seems like a bad joke.

It's difficult now, when the name Dylan has more people thinking first of the American songster than the Welsh poet, to convey to the young just how famous Dylan Thomas was half a century ago, and why. His poetry wasn't easily accessible like Betjeman's; it was rhetorical, high-flown, romantic, and sometimes it didn't, as poets like Larkin and Kingsley Amis (both a few years younger), irritably complained, make sense. Certainly, sense is not always easy to extract from it, though it always made a splendid sound, which is more than can be said for Larkin's and Amis's verse. The high sales of his Collected Poems (10,000 in the first year, 20,000 in the second, after his death) probably owed as much to the legend of the wild, dissolute, doomed poet as to the work, though the same observation can't be applied to the hugely successful play Under Milk Wood.

The stories of his American tours, of his drunkenness and wild behaviour, fed the legend, and then his death, following his boast, 'I've had 18 straight whiskies -- I think that's the record', confirmed it. It was a sort of suicide, people said; he destroyed himself because he was written out. In short, for the early Fifties, Dylan played the part that rock stars were to do later; he was our generation's Jim Morrison or Pete Doherty.

The American poet James Dickey put the case against him in a Paris Review interview:

'Thomas didn't write one poem in the last six years of his life . …

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