Discover Dylan Thomas: Placing Literature

This week I came across a really interesting website about Placing Literature and it got me thinking. I wondered if place could have an influence on our understanding of literature. Can a visual and sensory experience help you connect with a poem or piece of prose?

Look, I’ll come clean…I already believe it can. I saw it myself, during Dylan’s centenary year. Whilst standing precariously on a wall in the middle of my grandfather’s childhood playground, I read his poem, ‘The Hunchback in the Park’. A few people stood still and shut their eyes. It was simply extraordinary to observe, how, while listening to his words, they absorbed the sounds and smells of the landscape all around them and immersed themselves in the poem.

Although, it was far more surreal when it happened to me…As I followed the Birthday Walk trail through Laugharne and heard my grandfather reading Poem in October, I had a strange sensation that he was walking beside me. Weird, I know, just go with it. We walked together along the path past “apples, pear and red currants” and looked down at the “mussel pooled and the heron priested shore and the castle brown as owls.” It truly brought the poem alive for me and gave me a powerful connection with my grandfather that, just reading the poem alone, had not created.

laughcastle

Another time when I had a similar reaction, one that I can only describe like a pleasant kick in the stomach – it took my breath away so much – was during a promenade performance of Return Journey. I was with my grandfather again, experiencing those emotions, trying to make sense of things as he realised his hometown had been utterly obliterated. It was gone. His Swansea was dead.

adrian

A curious, and unexpected, effect of visiting the places associated with my family is that it has given me a much fuller insight into who they really were, and has helped me understand why they behaved in a certain way …far more than any biography has ever done. In early September 2009, I was at the top of the steps leading down to Dylan’s Boathouse. I was plagued with terrible sciatica. I had a pram and bundles of baby paraphernalia and my three-week old son Charlie, was screaming the house down. It was at that precise moment, that I had a very strong link with my grandmother, realising the very real difficulties she must have had when living (with very little money) in an isolated part of West Wales, and, with my grandfather’s frequent trips away, how frustrated and lonely she must have been.

Boathouse Laugharne laughwsi

And then, just a few minutes later, I was sitting on the chaise longue in the living room and feeding my son, imagining that my grandmother had probably done the same. As I sat there, I looked through the window at the beautiful views of the estuary, and felt remarkably calm (well as calm as you can after only three hours sleep the night before). It was a welcome feeling as we were about to scatter my mum’s ashes into the sea below. I then completely understood why my mum wanted to return here, and also, why it was a place that Dylan felt at home in, somewhere that he could write freely.

Bench in the Boathouse garden with a quotation from Dylan's daughter Aeronwy

Plaque to Dylan's daughter Aeronwy in the garden at the Boathouse

 

One thing I have learnt from visiting the quirky towns that my grandfather made his home, is that he needed a regular routine, and the sea and nature near him, to be able to focus entirely on his writing.   However, it’s clear that his trips to the busy cities did give him the chance to mix with other writers, musicians and artists to share ideas. When I’ve been in the Wheatsheaf in London’s Fitzrovia, I’ve just loved picturing the sorts of ‘characters’ Dylan may have met, and only wish I had heard a few sneaky snippets of their conversations. I also speculate what would have happened had Augustus John not introduced my grandparents on that April evening in 1936. Would I even exist? The thought gives me tingles, as did my visit to the White Horse Tavern in New York. I so desperately wanting to go back sixty years and prevent the tragic events that led to my grandfather’s death.

I admit my experiences could well be different to others as I have a very obvious personal relationship with the subject. Still, I actively encourage people to visit the places that inspired poems or where literature masterpieces were written. Look, listen, touch and smell your surroundings and I’m convinced that you will feel the same way.

Hannah Ellis – 12th September 2016.

Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant.  You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com

By | 2018-03-04T17:44:42+00:00 September 12th, 2016|Uncategorized|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Tony September 14, 2016 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    You ask, “I wondered if place could have an influence on our understanding of literature. Can a visual and sensory experience help you connect with a poem or piece of prose?”

    I’m sure it can, and our ‘experience’ doesn’t necessarily have to be the same (physical place or sensory experience) that inspired the poet/writer/artist originally… simply because we can’t help oursleves constantly make connections, some obscure and bizarre and perhaps particular to ourselves, others that nearly everyone would understand and identlify with.

    As to visiting the places that inspire poems – or simply where a poet was when an idea arose… well, a friend of mine will soon launch an ambitious online collection with poems linked to a map, showing the location, rural or urban, local or overseas, which nurtured the feelings or experiences that inspired each poems. Meanwhile… thank you for your new blog!

    • admin September 23, 2016 at 8:30 am - Reply

      Hi Tony, Please keep us informed about your friend’s online collection. It sounds wonderful. Best wishes, Hannah

  2. Rita Tait September 19, 2016 at 11:19 am - Reply

    I enjoyed your writing very much Hannah; a special resonance of course given your blood line. Several things surface in my head and readers might be interested. Many years ago we moved to Caerleon and were befriended by a local newly retired GP, a Welsh speaker and very cultured. He told us that in the early 1950s he was working in pathology at a London teaching hospital. The talk amongst the consultants was all about how Dylan Thomas had NOT died as a result of excessive alcohol but had been killed by morphine injections given by his doctor. Hearing this in the mid 1980s was a huge shock but of course it has since come into the public domain and been the subject of a book of its own.
    My family on both sides kept many pubs in the past and it occurs to me that in chapel heavy West Wales at that time
    (1940s) a woman, for example, known to enjoy anything other than a sweet sherry at Christmas, would come in for huge criticism. One who was a fearless individual as Caitlin was would soon sew the seed – corn for a reputation of epic proportions. ‘And my dear the husband is with her in the pub – what can they be thinking of ..? the poor children!’ Very soon a legend is born. Dylan would not have needed to be a heavy drinker for his reputation as a hell raising poet/genius to have spread like wildfire. It would have been a part of the package and he probably enjoyed the image. Rock musicians still benefit from this type of image ( I only know a bit as my son is a Press Officer for rock bands and the on – stage persona is rarely carried into family life, financial dealings etc.)
    It was my son, I think, who once commented that Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas our two Welsh literary giants,represent opposite sides of the same coin, that is the Welsh facets of heavy drinking/ artistic genius and that of the narrow inhibited religious convert. They are symbolic of us Welsh and we mustn’t forget this. Please write more soon.

    • admin September 23, 2016 at 8:35 am - Reply

      Hi Rita, I read ‘Fatal Neglect’ by David Thomas and it was certainly an eye-opener. At this point it’s difficult to really know who the ‘real’ Dylan was but my aim is to put out all the facts and for people to make their own judgement. He’s left us with his beautiful writing and that’s a wonderful legacy to have. Thank you and best wishes, Hannah

  3. Tony September 23, 2016 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    Hannah – and fellow readers, you asked me to let you know about my friend’s collection of poems closely linked to places. His name is Matt Bryden, and I’ll paste in below a press release he drafted. This project is shown on his website at: http://www.mattbryden.co.uk/Matt_Bryden/PoetryMap/. I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

    This is the press release:

    Somerset teacher and poet Matt Bryden, in co-operation with American web-designer Jon Munson II, has published a pioneering online collection of poems.

    Poetry Map is split into 4 ‘paths,’ each with an interactive, on-screen Google-based map showing the location of each poem’s setting or composition. These four sequences – Witness, A Discipline, Czech Film and Singles – range from a stationary carriage of the Amtrak to the arrowhead-rich soil of Blast Hill, Kintyre. Readers can navigate the paths, each grouped around a theme, by clicking below each poem. A Random option allows poems to be read out of sequence, jumping continent and context.

    In addition, handwritten drafts, on-site audio recordings and even a transliteration into phonemic script (used for teaching pronunciation) provide further ‘information’ for the poems, accessible via ‘magic tickets.’
    Poetry Map is an online-only experience, and hopes to combine technology with the process of engaging with poetry.
    Matt’s map can be seen at http://www.mattbryden.co.uk/Matt_Bryden/PoetryMap/

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