Archive for the ‘Dylan Thomas’ Category

bookshelf with books

With January exams fast approaching, ‘tis the season to be jolly of revision. But rather than bombard you with more close-reading, let’s step back and regard the WJEC syllabus as a whole. It’s still crucial that you hammer out revision notes and re-read works. But asking yourself why certain texts have been chosen might free up your thinking. It will allow you to put the texts you study in a wider context and hopefully enable you to write truly sophisticated responses to exam questions. This is the plan, anyway.

The question of ‘classic literature’ recurs again and again. My old university tutor has a podcast on the subject, which you can listen to here. Why do some texts make it onto a syllabus and others not? How do the WJEC make their decisions? I spoke to Hugh Lester, an assistant director from the WJEC, who told me about the process.

The WJEC don’t have a completely free choice. As Hugh says, they are ‘regulated’, and must pick from a pre-determined Welsh, Irish and English literary heritage. Invigilators higher up than the WJEC have already grouped ‘relevant’ poets together, before passing this ready-made group down to examiners, who choose what they want on their syllabus. Teachers then go on to pick from this syllabus. Each group is making a subjective choice. Some texts make it into the ‘heritage’ – texts we can retrospectively classify as representative of our history – but others are excluded from it.




The WJEC only review the syllabus every five years. This is slow work. It’s easy to see how a literary canon can become crystallised over time. The WJEC syllabus is only one of a vast number of processes working to establish a tradition and in doing so, potentially closing up the opportunities to meet genuinely contemporary poetry. Exam boards represent ‘English Literature’ to students taking their exams in a specific, necessarily circumscribed way.

So the texts you study are not self-evidently the bastions of ye olde English literature. Is it ridiculous to censure an exam board for making a syllabus? Surely a syllabus is by definition a finite selection of an infinitely diverse range of works? As debate intensifies around exam-taking in Britain, and more people call for a radical overhaul of learning, such censure is perhaps not entirely out of the question. Certain people are unhappy with ‘old-fashioned’ methods of learning syllabuses by rote. Others fear this kind of learning will become even more entrenched under the governance of Michael Gove. 


But this isn’t reassuring to those of you currently sitting exams. I would recommend approaching a syllabus like this: certain texts are chosen because they contain something The Powers That Be consider relevant to you, as a

young person

♦ or a black person,

♦ as a girl or a boy,

♦ or as somebody from WALES – a place, like Scotland and Ireland, often perceived as marginal to England.

Race, gender, sexuality and nationality are not abstract concepts; you’ve definitely got one of something that probably means something to you somewhere along the way! The texts you study are malleable pieces of literature, capable of being interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Understanding why they’ve been chosen will point you in the direction of the answers that give you points! But just as importantly, if you respond sensitively to texts, you might find something in them nobody else even thought of. ‘Classics’ might be safeguarded by authoritative literary guard-dogs, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make them your own.




Let us zoom in on one aspect the WJEC likes to see in its chosen textsWelshness

For a Welsh exam board, (although not one studied exclusively by Welsh pupils), Welsh poets are important to include. But what makes a poem Welsh or indicative of Welsh national identity? This is the tough question. National identity is important for Welsh poets, but it would be limiting to see it as the only concern of Welsh poets. National identity remains a particularly poignant theme for Irish, Scottish and Welsh poetry; for poets who may feel like their unique personhood is subordinated by a general, all-encompassing ‘Britishness’. It’s inescapably implicated as these poets get themselves published, become identifiable in the public domain, and are consequently shuffled somewhere in among a British ‘canon’.


danDan Williams, a poet living in Aberystwyth, disagrees with me. Everyone else is more than welcome to disagree with me too. Below he talks about how the WJEC syllabus provided a framework for his own poetry, and just how Welsh he considers his poetry.  He mentions Carol Ann Duffy and Keats; see my posts on these poets here and here.


I also spoke to Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales. Her poems are on the WJEC GCSE syllabus. She told me that any reference to ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writing has been banished in literary discussion:

“Welsh, being an English word, is enough.”

She says she is, unambiguously, a Welsh poet. Her Welsh subject matter, the Welsh landscape and her total immersion in Wales, are enough to qualify her as a ‘Welsh’ poet.

These are important discussions to keep in mind. Reflecting on texts as part of a syllabus, heritage or canon – as part of artificial categories – will hopefully offer up a different perspective through which to view the poetry chosen for you. It is no bad thing to have a whole range of perspectives to hand, so that the way you approach a text does not stagnate but remains plural, fluid and always developing.


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I have been meaning to throw events at you for a while.

I have said it here and here, but I cannot recommend going to see adaptations of works you’re studying enough. Do it! Get your school to pay! (If that’s how it works.)

For all Shakespeare events going on in Cardiff, this blog is indispensable. It’s also full of interesting articles that are worth reading if you have time.


Richard Burton on the set of Under Milk Wood

In just under two weeks, Chapter Arts Centre is screening the first ever adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton. The film’s director, Andrew Sinclair, will be there to answer questions. This is such a good opportunity – definitely try and go! Here’s the facebook page with more information.


Llandaff Musical Society are taking on Charles Dickens’s Christmas story Pickwick, based on his Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. For any students studying Dickens, consume as much as you can! Overload yourself with Dickens! Get totally Dickensed. Information is here.


BLOOD BROTHERS! IN FEBRUARY! IN CARDIFF! Lots of schools study this for GCSE so plan ahead and get it booked. For more information click here.


Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong isn’t on the WJEC syllabus but I read it this summer and I did a post on it so I’m selfishly including it here. I’m really interested to see how this works on stage. The BBC reworked it for TV only last year so there are plenty of adaptations out there for you to compare and contrast. It also links well with the World War I poetry some schools look at for GCSE. Book your tickets here.


Can you believe it! Another WJEC text on stage at the New Theatre! Unbelievable scenes! Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been turned into a ballet. Admittedly, this won’t be useful if you wanted to digest Fitzgerald’s words, but it’s always exciting when a text gets translated into a medium you did not expect. And if you’re really desperate for some words, Baz Luhrmann has only gone and done a Hollywood film for you. It could not be easier to get out and experience the texts you come across in the classroom.

Happy watching! x

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Dylan before he became really quite fat

Dylan Thomas’s Selected Poems are on the A Level WJEC syllabus. What is so tricky about Thomas is that he is not happy with letting his reader casually breeze through his poem. He is always throwing in abnormal phrases and really messing around with conventional ‘poetic’ expressions in order to catch the reader unaware and force them to really consider what’s on the page. Which is probably why the WJEC chose him! Sneaky.

This applies to every time you read a poem, but especially with Thomas: read it through and then quickly record your instinctive reaction to the poem. It doesn’t have to  be anything technical or serious – the point is that you don’t over-think it. If I were reading Fern Hill I would quickly write down ‘sadness’ ‘nostalgia’ ‘childhood’ ‘memory’. Your first, genuine emotional reaction to a poem is the BEST WAY (aggressive caps) and the MOST SURE WAY (unnecessary caps) of leading you towards a thoughtful, confident appreciation of a poem.

This is Thomas’s boat house in Laugharne which I visited this summer. The town is his model for Llareggub in ‘Under Milk Wood’.

2 things to remember about Thomas:

1) Looking closely at the language is the only way to understand the poem. Thomas uses strange combinations of words to recreate the contradictions and often surreal nature of everyday emotional experience. His favourite ’emotional experiences’ tend to be confronting death, understanding memory, and recounting his childhood in Wales.

2) Thomas is known to have always written with a thesaurus by his side. He prefers an unusual, out of the ordinary word, to one that is so over-used it no longer creates any effect. He is also said to have written his poem, and then gone over it, tearing apart any phrases that were clichéd or too normal. He does not make it easy for you!

Opening stanza of 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 honoured 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.”

1) “Now as I was young”. Why does that sound weird? Past and present tense together. What effect does it have? For me (although remember, you may have another perfectly legitimate response) it brings his childhood memory right up into the present second – now made present by the act of active remembering. It fits in with the whole theme of the poem: incredibly potent nostalgia.

2) “Lilting house”. Houses don’t tend to lilt. Or move. The imagery (a handy word whenever you want to pick out a picture in the poem you like) adds a sense of gentle movement to the memory, creating the kind of hazy, indefinite, surreal quality that is attached to early memories.

3) “Dingle” just means valley. Or just anywhere with trees, really. But it does so much more in this poem than the word ‘valley’ or ‘anywhere you want with trees’ would. I would guess that 80% of Thomas’s readers would not know what ‘dingle’ meant. And he plans this! The unusual word, simply by virtue of being weird, really adds an element of the exotic to the passage. (‘Exotic’ is a brilliant word to use in an essay when you have used ‘weird’ or ‘strange’ or ‘oh my god what?’ too many times.) Now, for us and for Thomas, we can feel the distance and strangeness of his memory at the very moment that we register ‘distance’ from the word ‘dingle’. This is what I mean when I say that language is doing all the work. 

4) Finally, “once below a time”. What familiar story-telling phrase does this remind you of? Once upon a time! Instead of using this conventional opener, something so clichéd that it would deaden a poem like this, Thomas flips it around by changing one word. And amazingly, it actually helps to convey his meaning far more vividly than ‘once upon a time’ would. Once ‘below’ a time is a far more accurate of describing the way humans understand memory – as something locked away from and ‘below’ the present ‘time’. Yet again, Thomas is actually letting you completely understand his poem just as he seems to alienate you with his, at first, weird combinations of words.

I really am just making this up. And you are meant to do so. It is stuff like this the examiners actually want. Mad!

Happy inventing!

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