Hannah Ellis, teacher, writer and granddaughter of poet Dylan Thomas, talks to us about her grandfather’s life and legacy, and how you can get involved in International Dylan Thomas Day 2017.
I never particularly enjoyed school. By the time I was sixteen and taking my GCSEs, I was desperate to leave and to escape years of educational imprisonment – as I saw it – and the tight chains of authority. I just wanted out. I was fed up with getting changed for P.E. in sweaty changing rooms, working out complicated algebraic sums (for what purpose I’m still not clear), and, to be honest, trying hard each and every day just to fit in. I’m not sure I ever really achieved that.
I suspect that these were pretty normal feelings that I was experiencing even though it didn’t feel like it at the time. My grandfather, the poet Dylan Thomas, left school in July 1930, many years before me; yet I imagine he had a similarly euphoric mood as he banged the iron gates behind him. His experience of school had been pretty dismal. His biographers talk about a disobedient boy larking around and bunking off, and that his school years as a whole were a rather unproductive time. He left with no qualifications (except in English, where he gained 98% in the Central Welsh Board Examination), and to all intents and purposes, he was a failure and a big disappointment to his parents.
But I see it all quite differently. There were reasons for this unsatisfactory end to his school life. He was bored, disengaged and constrained by the structure and rigor of the education system – still probably teaching in the Victorian style of rote learning. The point is, that, apart from regular contributions to the school magazine, there was little outlet for his creativity.
In fact, leaving school was the catalyst that he needed to achieve his goal, the thing that had been driving him forward from an early age – to be a poet. Dylan was like a caged bird taking flight, and the next four years proved to be a time of immense artistic output. He would sit for hours in his tiny bedroom, furiously scribbling ideas into untidy notebooks covered in coffee stains and ink blots but, despite their appearance, they were jam-packed with some of the most remarkable poetry written in the twentieth century.
By the age of twenty, my grandfather had already completed first drafts of over two thirds of his later published poetry. Actually, two of my favourite poems of his, ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives the Flower’ and ‘The Hunchback in the Park’, began their life in those notebooks.
His adolescent years were probably his most productive stage as a poet, because he had the freedom to write without any tedious adult responsibilities. There was only one other comparable period: the summer of 1944 until autumn 1945, when he once again found the peace and tranquillity to focus on his craft. As the Second World War was coming to an end, and the threat of an imminent invasion was less likely, he found the head space to complete ten incredibly powerful poems, many dealing with what he had observed and experienced during the London Blitz.
This is also when he began work on Under Milk Wood. This, for me, is the piece that demonstrates my grandfather’s passionate relationship with language. He considered words to be rare butterflies that he collected and added to his very own rhyming dictionary, something he frequently dipped into. Words were solid objects to him – he could see inside them and taste, touch, smell and absorb their powers fully. He explored their shapes and fitted them into individual sentences and stanzas, and, being a meticulous craftsman, he was not happy until a poem was perfect. One line could take days, weeks, sometimes even years, before he was completely satisfied.
In my opinion, he has achieved perfection in the opening prologue of Under Milk Wood. Although he uses many different language techniques, they all blend beautifully together and allow the listener (it was written for radio) to secretly observe the silent cobbled streets of a small town on a spring, moonless night.
Having said all that, I would like to encourage you to take part in a writing competition where you can adapt that particular passage to make your own poem. In Dylan-esque style, we want you to cut up the words and then play and experiment with them to see what you can create. It is all about having fun and taking risks without fear of making a mistake, as there is no right or wrong way of doing it. As my grandfather said to the actors involved in the first small cast read-through of Under Milk Wood, “Love the words, love the words.”
International Dylan Thomas Day (Dylan Day) is celebrated on May 14th. On that date, I will showcase a number of poems from the Love the Words competition on the official Dylan Thomas website.
Dylan Day is a wonderful opportunity to establish a lasting legacy for my grandfather’s poetry, but I also hope it will be a ‘date in the diary’ when people can put aside a moment or two to find creative ways to bring words alive. Whether that is by watching a specific Dylan Day show, putting on your own event (big or small), reading or writing some poetry, or simply sharing a favourite line or two on social media – however you want to be involved, or whatever you do, it all adds to the occasion and will ensure it is as big a celebration as possible.
Find out more about Dylan Thomas and his poetry
- You can find out more about International Dylan Thomas Day and the #LoveTheWords competition here, and more about Dylan Thomas himself here.
- Visit Dylan’s birthplace where he wrote his notebook poems.
- View digital copies of Dylan Thomas’s notebooks. The originals are stored at The University of Buffalo, The State University of New York.
- Follow this link to Dylan Thomas reading ‘A Force That Through The Green Fuse’.
- A BBC animation of Michael Sheen reading ‘A Hunchback in the Park’.
Hannah Ellis is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting her website.