Dylan Thomas centenary to "right wrongs" about bohemian bard

Tue Jun 17, 2014 8:00am EDT

* Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales, 100 years ago

* Centenary festival aims to inspire new artists, children

* Poet also to be celebrated in New York where he died

By Nigel Stephenson

LAUGHARNE, Wales, June 17 (Reuters) - This year's centenary of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's birth has sparked a creative explosion and for some is also a chance to reassess a writer whose bohemian reputation as a drunk and a womaniser has sometimes eclipsed his work.

The year-long commemoration has already inspired a new, television version of Thomas's radio play "Under Milk Wood", starring veteran singer Tom Jones, and an opera based on the same work. A whole new dictionary of Thomas-style invented words suggested by the public is also in the pipeline.

The Dylan Thomas 100 festival includes events across Wales - some of them in the estuary-side village of Laugharne where he and his wife Caitlin lived for 15 years - as well as in London and New York, where the poet died in 1953, aged just 39.

Organisers of the festival, which took two years to plan, hope it will bring Thomas's poetry to new readers, inspire a fresh generation of artists and bring him the recognition in academic circles that some say he has been unfairly denied.

They also hope to shift public attention away from Thomas's complicated love life and alcohol-fuelled death and towards some of the most-quoted verse in the English language.

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light," is one of his.

"I'm a bit sick of the public image of him as a person and a poet and of the mythic qualities that have crystallised about him and obscured his work," fellow Welsh poet Owen Sheers told an audience at the Hay Festival in Wales last month.

Lleucu Siencyn, chief executive of Literature Wales, agrees the centenary is a chance to "right some wrongs" and to show that viewing Thomas as a "ne'er do well" misses the point.

Not that Thomas, who was born in the coastal city of Swansea in south Wales on October 27, 1914, didn't enjoy a tipple.

Literature Wales has organised a series of literary tours of places of significance in his life and work. One such is Brown's Hotel in Laugharne, where his wife often had to come looking for him and which this year has served a beer bearing his name.

Laugharne, overlooking the "sloeblack, slow, black, coalblack, fishingboatbobbing" Taf estuary, some 220 miles (360 km) west of London, is a locus for Dylan Thomas pilgrims and is where he wrote many of his best-loved poems.

"SEISMIC" POETRY

He and Caitlin lived with their young family in three houses in the town - most notably a damp boathouse beneath a castle.

Up on the cliff is Thomas's writing shed overlooking the estuary and Sir John's Hill. A replica of the shed, on wheels, is touring Welsh schools this year to challenge children to produce their own creative works in response to Thomas's poetry.

Throughout the year, visitors to the "Pop-Up Writing Shed" are being invited to invent new words, as Thomas did, for inclusion in a new Dictionary for Dylan. @dylandictionary

Suggestions submitted at the Hay Festival included "honky ponky", meaning sexual activity between geese.

Laugharne is also widely seen as the inspiration of the imaginary town of Llareggub (read the name backwards for a taste of the poet's mischievous wit) - the setting for "Under Milk Wood", first broadcast in 1954 with Welsh actor Richard Burton.

The cast of the 2014 television version is a who's who of internationally acclaimed Welsh talent, including actor Matthew Rhys and singer Katherine Jenkins as well as Tom Jones.

New York, where "Under Milk Wood" was first read on stage and where Thomas died during a fourth tour of the United States, is a focus of an international programme of events led by the British Council in five countries as part of the centenary.

One New York highlight is a mass participation performance of Thomas's "And death shall have no dominion", set to music by British composer Pete Wyer. Performers, synchronised by a smartphone app, will walk across the city and converge on Rockefeller Park for the finale.

Sheers says one reason for Thomas's U.S. success was his mastery of poetry as performance. "Howl" author Allen Ginsberg, one of the leading Beat poets, met Thomas in New York in 1952.

Despite the popular appeal of Thomas's poetry, it is rarely studied in British universities and, said Sheers, is studied in U.S. colleges less than it used to be.

"He influenced a lot of interesting poets and he deserves to be studied like anyone else," Sheers said. "Whatever you might think of Dylan Thomas as a poet, he was a seismic event in English-language poetry." (Editing by Michael Roddy and Gareth Jones)

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