REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue r18

Discovering Dylan Thomas

by John Goodby

As a continuation of John Goodby’s argument for assessing Dylan Thomas’ work through the lens of the ‘process poetic’, this book is ‘more than just a gathering of material which could not be fitted into the Collected Poems’, as Goodby argues in his introduction. Rather, Discovering Dylan Thomas A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems is a scholarly compendium offering not only detailed critical histories for many of Thomas’ poems but also fresh readings of drafts contained in the newly unearthed ‘fifth notebook’. As such, the ‘discovering’ of the title is not simply a convenient alliterative verb: this book really does feel like an act of discovery, and not simply as a result of the new material available.

The introduction – in which Goodby develops his proposition that Thomas’ poetry has ‘subversive mimicry and adaptation’ at its heart – is a superlative example of rigorous, gripping academic writing, and it splendidly carries forward certain key ideas proposed in Under the Spelling Wall (2013). Goodby argues Thomas’s penchant for ‘hybridity and game-playing… problematise[s]… simplistic notions of originality, sincerity and self-expression.’ He elaborates on this by demonstrating the true extent to which the young Thomas copied, mimicked, and even shamelessly plagiarised the work of others. In fact, Thomas’ method of smuggling influences into his early poems means ‘the boundaries between self-revision and imitation, invention and appropriation’ are often blurred, Goodby argues, while the poet’s tendency to adaptation and absorption suggests he wilfully chose to submit to language as a force unto, and for, itself.

‘Mastery over language is renounced as an illusion,’ Goodby states, ‘even as virtuosic creativity within language is flaunted.’ This is a blisteringly good observation, and is developed with such power and precision that the force of the argument delivers a series of knock-out blows. Goodby suggests ‘Thomas’ poems often incorporate an understanding that language use itself is shaped by echo, false parallelism, phrasal slippage, palimpsestic overlay,’ and goes on to say: ‘Thomas makes it a conscious principle to allow for a residue of unexplained, unresolved material in his [poems]. This gives them a textual unconscious.’

This seems to me not only a remarkable way of understanding Thomas’ work but also a terrifically strong advancement of the case that Thomas ‘problematises the division of British poetry into “mainstream” and “alternative” strands.’ Indeed, Goodby suggests that Thomas – being the inheritor of William Blake, James Joyce and DH Lawrence – might be usefully read and considered under a kind of composite sign: one capable of accommodating aspects of Modernism and Tradition. This suggests ‘a radical rethinking of standard narratives of mid-century poetry is required’, and Goodby’s reading of the poems certainly adds ample weight to this proposal.

Likewise, Goodby argues for Thomas as an influence on successive poets to be given greater attention and this, too, presents an exciting and significant branch for the re-evaluation of Thomas’s legacy. For instance, in the lines ‘Now stirs a ruined moon about my bed; / And worlds hang on trees’ we hear prior echoes of Shakespeare and after echoes of Plath. Influence travels in two directions at once, with the precursor poet as well as the successor poet ‘sounding’ through the lines. I was similarly struck by the extent to which WS Graham, Ted Hughes and Denise Riley can be felt among Thomas’ sonic phrases and syntaxes.

The arguments proposed in the introduction are compellingly developed in the annotations, versions and drafts section. In the annotations for example, Goodby quotes from a range sources (including Thomas’ personal correspondence and a range of critical studies of Thomas’ work), and presents the evidence for his readings carefully and methodically. The annotations also advance a persuasive argument for Thomas as a politically engaged and socially aware writer; indeed, Thomas emerges as a useful thinker in relation to so-called ‘identity’ politics.

The casual reader ought to be warned that the annotations, versions and drafts run to nearly two-hundred pages (and take up over two-thirds of the book). Consequently, one must be prepared for a lengthy, detailed and scholarly schlep; however, as an intellectual resource, this volume – in particular the extensive annotations on individual poems – represents a significant achievement in terms of both the scope and depth of research.

The prose is characteristically witty and incisive, and the learning is presented with a lightness of touch which surely belies the sustained efforts of its production. But it is Goodby’s commitment to a reassessment of Thomas’ work, method and ‘process poetic’ which carries the reader through this volume. Indeed, one cannot help reading the poems in the light of the author’s persuasive arguments for Thomas’ repositioning and recontextualisation as a writer of jouissance, hybridity, proliferation and excess.

Amy McCauley recently completed her PhD at Aberystwyth University and is now based in Manchester.


previous review: Deaths of the Poets
next review: Two Reviews: My Body Welsh & Wear and Tear


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