Tag Archives: Dylan Thomas

Llareggub, Welsh Noh, and me.

I’m currently deep in Dylan Thomas territory – the hype, history, and cultural tourism created about the man. I’ve been invited to write an essay on Dylan Thomas by that literary mountain of a man, Jon Gower, who is editing a collection. There is much noise being made about legacy in this centenary of Thomas’s birth, and especially so when living where I do, close to where he spent the late war years, 1944-45.

Some weeks ago the nature poet Chris Kinsey and I took ourselves off for a wander around Newquay, Cei Bach, and St Ina’s Church at Llanina Point in Ceredigion. It’s my local walk, but we were doing it as a literary pilgrimage, following the blue plastic plaques and local hearsay about where Dylan Thomas walked, talked, wrote, and (most importantly for the commercial impact) drank.

I have to confess, I hate ‘The Dylan Thomas Trail.’  These strangely marbled plaques bearing the face of a young Dylan Thomas decorate the odd tree or wall, leaving me mystified as to the locality’s significance. There’s no nearby information and the ‘map’ which the literary curious are supposed to follow to decipher the import of each place wasn’t available and the tourist information office was closed.

The information boards around Newquay aren’t much better. They’re fine for the day trippers to glance at when licking an ice cream on a sunny August bank holiday, but they can’t hold their own against the posters advertising the wild porpoises and bottle nosed dolphins who visit these parts. I also find the ‘facts’ about Thomas so bland as to render any detail invisible. Sure, the local tourist board may not want to go into his drunken exploits and womanising (although that seems to be what everyone wants to discuss), but his literary legacy and strong connection between creativity and place could be drawn a little clearer. Newquay is reputed to be the inspiration for Llareggub (say it backwards), the marine town in ‘Under Milk Wood’, although the Thomases walked, bickered, and drank a longer trail, up to Tal Sarn and Llanon, further up the coast.

So we took ourselves out across the beach at low tide in a wind blowing itself up into a gale, shivering in the February drizzle. Poor Chris was incubating a stupendous cold and wading about in the fresh springs that flow across the beach and into Cardigan Bay mustn’t have helped. We walked up to St Ina’s Church, one of my favourite spots in Spring, when the graveyard and surrounding wood overlooking the sea is filled with bluebells, nodding my approval as always at the revision of one of Thomas’s most famous lines on a headstone by the gate: ‘Go gentle into that good night.’ Chris also shared my enthusiasm for the rewrite, saying on a personal level we wouldn’t want a loved one raging into death.

Writing the essay for Jon has refreshed my relationship to where I live, and reanimated my thoughts about language. characterisation, and playwriting. My focus has been on ‘Under Milk Wood’ and it has been a pleasure and education to revisit this text, especially when in the shelter of one of the nooks in Newquay harbour, ostensibly in the shadow of Captain Cat’s house.

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Today’s blog has a distinctly Welsh flavour, for my essay on The Llanarth Group’s  cultural exchange with Ami Theatre in Japan last November has been published in the most recent edition of New Welsh Review. An extract of the account of touring ‘Told by the Wind’ to Babylon Theatre in Tokyo, and an exploration of what NWR editor Gwen Davies has coined ‘Welsh Noh’ can be found at:

http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=706

I’m off to give a last polish to my essay on Dylan Thomas, then head out to Cei Bach to walk along the golden sand and look across to Llareggub/Newquay in this  sudden welcome Spring sunlight.

Revision notes (6): As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.

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It was Mark Twain who, in 1894 in Pudd’nhead Wilson, dealt so succinctly with the adjective: ‘When in doubt, strike it out.’ Even earlier, in Boswell’s 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, a similar sentiment can be found: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’

It took me several years to come to my current understanding of these aphorisms. As a student I was bewildered, thinking these writers were advising me to sabotage my work by slashing out what I deemed ‘the best bits’. Giddy on Joyce and the rich, pungent gush of Irish words, I wanted MORE in my writing, not less. To cut what I imagined was a fine passage felt like mutilation, a blood sacrifice to some demanding, ancient deity called Great Old Dead White Male Writers. Was it a rites of passage, some initiation I needed to go through before I truly understood what it was to write?

No. I was simply very young and very earnest and as green as the distant hills. Experience has shown me the clue is in: ‘a passage which you think is particularly fine…’  Johnson was quoting advice given to him by his college tutor when a young man, filled with his early fascination for language and intoxication with words.

Less is more and taste is all. Overwrought poetry and prose topples under the weight of its adornments. Like an over-dressed Christmas tree, you can’t see the pine for the baubles and it’s likely to keel over headfirst.

When revising work, we need discipline and distance so we don’t become self-indulgent. Nothing extraneous should be in our work. We can’t keep the beautifully put phrase that no longer fits the content, nor allow the favourite, fine piece of writing stay without fear of it upstaging the rest of the work. So many times when I’ve been reading work I’ve tripped on a well-turned phrase that somehow jars. When I point it out (which will invariably happen) the writer smiles ruefully, muttering ‘I know, I know… I should cut it, but I just love that line…’

Which brings me rather neatly to Mamet and his infamous ‘Kill all your darlings’. He is not, I believe, inviting us to get rid of all our brilliant ideas, or the plots, characters, and dialogue we are engaged with and incubating, bringing to completion. He is demanding we press delete on the parts that make us act indulgently, ignoring the faults of spoilt, precocious lines which disrupt the otherwise beautifully composed page with their noisy, attention-seeking LOOK AT ME! AREN’T I FINE! effect.

Alternatively, I interpret this as cutting the now defunct sections, perhaps the original seeds of the work, carried since the initiation of the script/book/story/poem, which we can’t, just can’t imagine NOT taking the rest of the journey…

We can and we should. Editing and revising work is not a process entirely free of pain.

Here’s some other quotations about editing which I’ve found to be sound advice and salve to that ache:

 Omit needless words…A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

William Strunk  The Elements of Style (1918)  [I highly recommend this book]

If there is anything said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and as engagingly said in one, then it’s amateur work.

Robert Louis Stevenson, letter to William Archer, 1888

I often covered more than a hundred sheets of paper with drafts, revisions, rewritings, ravings, doodlings, and intensely concentrated work to produce a single verse.

Dylan Thomas  in a letter 1940’s

Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.

F Scott Fitzgerald.  1959

And finally:

You know you’re writing well when you’re throwing good stuff in the basket. 

 Ernest Hemingway

Good luck and enjoy.

© Kaite O’Reilly 26/11/11