Early this morning, I went back in time to a 1955 Argo (UK) LP (now on CD) that I first encountered 53 years ago in my first year of university in 1967 at the formative age of 18, which forever marked me and set me on the road to becoming a writer, a poet, an English teacher, and confirmed lover of language and literature. It was an album of the great Welsh actor Richard Burton passionately and sensitively reading 15 poems by Wales’ greatest poet Dylan Thomas.
Now, as then, I was still moved by Burton’s memorable, powerful voice, and by Thomas’s cascading individual words, phrases, and lines. Every word matters and has a melodious punch; this is probably the height of aural poetry in the history of English poetry. Burton’s voice savours each word and he sometimes rolls across the lines he recites them like musical compositions. This is easily the best album Burton ever recorded; an homage and labour to his favorite poet and drinking companion. (He was buried with a copy of Thomas’s Collected Poems.)
The standouts, as then, remain for me: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (one of several reflections on the passing of Time here), “A Winter’s Tale” ( a wondrous erotic love poem to end all love poems), “The hand that signed the paper” (a concise last word about dictators and tyrants), “Fern Hill” (Thomas’s classic poem about childhood and Time), “The Hunchback in the Park” (the ultimate outsider poem), “I see the boys of summer” (an erotic tribute to young maledom), “Do not go gentle into that good night” (the punny elegy to his dying father), and “And death shall have no dominion” (his Donne-ian final word on Death).
This time listening, many of the other selections stood out and spoke to me, as if I was hearing them for the first time, especially “The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait” (an old fishermen homage), “Deaths and Entrances” (with its emphasis on birth), and “Poem in October” (as he took stock at 30 of his brief, tragic life).
In “A Winter’s Tale” and “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait”, I think we are hearing a poetry and love of language that equals some of the best of Shakespeare. I am glad I got to go back to this album and a key moment in my life as I was setting directions and purpose to life-long commitments that have never since vanished even unto this day. I will always be grateful I stumbled across this album in a record bin of a small ‘hip’ record store (a place, incidentally where I also encountered a rare Allen Ginsberg LP recorded with his father live in England which introduced me to Beat poetry).
There is also, left to discover for newcomers, the effective readings by Thomas himself on CD now: the poetry readings,
(the two remarkably prescient ladies who started Caedmon Records and subsequently preserved the work of Thomas and many works and voices of other famous U.S. and U.K. writers)
(a must-own for serious Thomas fans: 11 LPs converted to CDs containing:)
(also in a very good film adaptation on DVD),
and Under Milk Wood (also recorded and filmed by Burton).
Then there is the poetry of Thomas himself and the delight of reading his poems on the printed page in Collected Poems.
Some other recommended Dylan books:
Dylan was a lover of language and careful craft which can be seen here in one of his many word lists he used when composing:
And, lest we forget, he influenced many other artists and poets including the following Nobel Prize-winning guy who chose to rechristen himself at the beginning of his career after the Welsh poet.
As an extra here, I’ve included my own homage to Richard Burton which I wrote in the 1980s.
“Stars go out when actors die.”
More Henry than we ever knew,
your haunted blue eyes
from a father’s coal-pit,
calling for forgiveness or fame
with an omnipotent voice.
Smile curled on cynic’s lips:
the failed cherubim.
Ever-hungry for spirits and song,
you took New York by storm
inverting mirrors to Hamlet’s soul
and made us weep to hear
your too too sullied flesh
melt and thaw unresolved
in a whorl of late night
carousing with buds and Liz.
Flushed with fever and wit,
you abdicated the playhouse throne
and found success
as hollow as Hollywood.
Pockmarked and stiff,
you sleep-walked through
a plethora of dire scripts,
mocking your right to rule
with a vigorous impotence.
Having at last to live
with your self–
a gaunt shadow of greatness
and unkind reflection.
Too late, you must have grieved,
like brother Dylan, the sun lost
in its dark inexorable flight.