Conversation: Paul Muldoon on Dylan Thomas

BY Tom LeGro  May 24, 2010 at 1:35 PM EDT

'Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems'New Directions has just published “Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems.” It’s a republication of the original 1953 edition, as selected by the poet himself, and the introduction is by Paul Muldoon, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor at Princeton University.

He joined me on the phone last week to talk about the collection:

(A transcript is after the jump.)

JEFFREY BROWN: New Directions has just put out “Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems.” It’s a republication of the original edition as selected by the poet himself and the introduction is by Paul Muldoon, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, professor at Princeton, who joins me on the phone now. Welcome to you.

PAUL MULDOON: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, I want to read the very first line of your introduction: “Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives.” Explain.

Paul MuldoonPAUL MULDOON: Well, I think that’s based largely on the fact, and it is a fact, that in this country one will hear Dylan Thomas recited at an extraordinarily large number of funerals. We realize at key moments in our lives, including our leaving this life, that poetry is significant to us. And it strikes me, it has been very telling that ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion,’ a poem by Dylan Thomas, is a poem that is more often than not the poem of choice when a member of the family dies. That or ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.’

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you explain, is it the voice that he puts out, or the subject that he tackles, or the music of the poetry, or all three?

PAUL MULDOON: Well, I think that it’s a combination of all those and somehow the affirmative sense, I suppose, that this indeed is a passing from one state into another, which is a notion that is shared by many cultures, including largely our own and that transcends religious doctrines and perhaps even transcends what we conventionally think of as religious belief at all. I mean, it’s such a very basic notion that we go from one relationship to the earth to another. And I think his lust for life, if we may use that phrase that’s a bit cliched but somehow appropriate to his own circumstances. I mean, he was a man, of course, who lived life to an excess or perhaps several excesses. He makes some of our contemporary rock stars look like amateurs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, became a mythical figure, right? You say, the poet as shaman-bard.

PAUL MULDOON: Well, that’s right and of course he came up through that very particular Welsh tradition where the bard was and indeed is honored for her or his place in society. And on some level I think that’s one of the reasons why he continues to be honored by society, that he actually believed that poetry might speak to our predicament.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about your own relationship to him. When did you come to him and his poetry? What kind of impact has it had?

PAUL MULDOON: Well, very early on. I think he’s one of those poets who one reads very early on, of course. And perhaps one of his most famous poems, ‘Fern Hill.’

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as a child growing up actually in an apple orchard-dominated landscape in County Armagh in Northern Ireland, I felt very close to the fun and games of that poem and I think many did. And of course one his pieces of writing, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” was broadcast virtually every year on radio and television around the holiday season. So we really had entered, and of course “Under Milk Wood,” his radio play, which was sometimes staged I believe, too. These had a currency in Ireland, of course, and in the U.K., that they perhaps don’t quite have here. The poems, I think, will always have a currency here, and I think will enjoy a new lease of life with this new edition of the collected poems.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of influence then has he had on poets of your generation? And has that been, I mean, I think as you say here, people come in and out fashion. You have a line here, “The fashionable looking down one’s nose at his tendency towards high spirits.” Now, you’re talking about the biography of the man, but I suppose about the writing as well. What kind of influence has he had?

PAUL MULDOON: Well, you know, I do think that the joy that he has in language, which is sometimes thought to be, for some strange reason, thought to be inappropriate in a writer. One can’t really imagine why that would be inappropriate. It’s something I think that has retained its power for writers who have come after him. There is a delight in language in what language is capable of if a writer allows herself or himself to be used by language. And indeed that goes to back to that idea we touched on earlier of the bard. The bard has almost a mouthpiece, a channeling, a medium for something beyond herself or himself, as being a person through whom the inner life of a society may be revealed. And I think that aspect of his work is one that has survived. You know, there are aspects of the work that are sometimes a little bit difficult to deal with. He runs the risk, I think, in his muscularity of seeming muscle-bound. There is a tortuousness to some of the syntax that’s a little bit difficult to deal with, but on balance I think he’s a poet who has managed to be equal not only to his moment but the moment after his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Paul Muldoon on Dylan Thomas. Thanks for talking to us.

PAUL MULDOON: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much.