LAUGHARNE, Wales: This year’s centenary of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ birth has sparked a creative explosion and is also a chance to reassess a writer whose bohemian reputation as a drunk and a womanizer has sometimes eclipsed his work. The yearlong commemoration has already inspired a new television version of Thomas’ radio play “Under Milk Wood,” starring veteran pop star 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 (born Oct. 27, 1914) died at age 39.
Organizers of the festival, which took two years to plan, hope it will bring Thomas’ 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’ complicated love life and alcohol-fuelled death and toward some of the most-quoted verse in the English language.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” for instance, from Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
“I’m a bit sick of the public image of him as a person and a poet and of the mythic qualities that have crystallized about him and obscured his work,” Welsh poet Owen Sheers told an audience at Wales’ Hay Festival 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 the Swansea-born poet didn’t enjoy a bit of tipple.
Literature Wales has organized 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.
Overlooking the “sloeblack, slow, black, coalblack, fishingboatbobbing” Taf estuary, some 360 km west of London, Laugharne is a locus for Dylan Thomas pilgrims and is where he wrote many of his best-loved poems.
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’ 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’ poetry.
Throughout the year, visitors to the “Pop-Up Writing Shed” are being invited to invent new words, as Thomas did, for inclusion in @dylandictionary – a new Dictionary for Dylan.
Several suggestions were submitted at the Hay Festival, including “honky ponky,” meaning sexual congress 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.”
Welsh actor Richard Burton starred in the play’s first broadcast in 1954, and revived the role for Andrew Sinclair’s screen version, with co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole.
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 onstage and where Thomas died during a fourth U.S. tour, is a focus of an international program of events led by the British Council in five countries as part of the centenary.
One New York highlight is a participation performance of Thomas’ “And death shall have no dominion,” set to music by British composer Pete Wyer. Synchronized by a smartphone app, performers will walk across the city and converge on Rockefeller Park for the finale.
Sheers says one reason for Thomas’ 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’ poetry, it is rarely studied in British universities, Sheers said, and 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 added. “Whatever you might think of Dylan Thomas as a poet, he was a seismic event in English-language poetry.”