To celebrate the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, Martin Daws muses on the surprising similarities between Thomas’ poetry and Hip Hop.
This article was originally published on Young Poets Network, the Poetry Society’s resource for writers aged 25 and under.
I’m on a subway train travelling north through The Bronx at the invitation of The Bronx Writer’s Centre, on my way to a group home for young men awaiting trial. At the group home I’ll share some of my poems and we’ll share some food. The plan is to engage the young men in constructive cultural activity, and hopefully model some positive roles as an adult male. In my hand is an anthology of Dylan Thomas poems. I’m reading them as research for poems I’m writing to celebrate the centenary of Thomas’ birth. This is the first time I’ve been to The Bronx and I don’t know what to expect. What little I know about the place has come from Hip Hop tracks I grew up with back in the 80’s. Albums like Criminal Minded by Boogie Down Productions and Critical Beatdown by Ultra Magnetic MCs were seminal influences on my world view. They taught me about the hard edge to life in New York’s most notorious borough. It was such a long way from the industrial suburb in Surrey where I grew up filling my bedroom with pirate radio Boom Bap.
In the anthology of poems I’m reading ‘Lament’ and listening to his reading of it on my phone. Thomas’ voice bouncing slow, low and full in my earphones, he almost sounds like a rap acappella 45 played at 33rpm. The verses are all symmetrically 12 lines long, or 12 bars in the parlance of rap. And he’s rhyming too.
When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women)
That could easily be flipped into something more contemporary around the axis of the bit/spit rhyme:
When I was a wild young boy and a bit
And the black spit of the ghetto fold,
(Sighed the greybeard G, dying of women)
Now that really could be the first 3 lines of a poetic type of rap about an old black man sitting on his stoop in the hood. Spitting into the gutter as he regales anyone who will listen about his wild-timed youth. Damn, at the start of the second stanza Thomas even talks about
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of bitches)
and there is no evidence in the rest of the poem to suggest that he’s talking about female Welsh Collies! So Thomas not only shares a vocality of performance writing with contemporary rappers, but also a taste for using pejorative terms for women. Dylan Thomas is getting closer to Hip Hop than I thought might be the case, and not always in a positive way.
The subway train breaks out from underground into the broad Bronx-lit afternoon and I’m graffiti spotting, wondering if Dylan Thomas ever came up here to The Bronx. That would have been in the 50’s when uptown New York was alive with jazz. Did Dylan Thomas feel for Langston Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance the way I feel for Boogie Down Productions? I never heard him make mention of it in any of the books I’ve read. Thomas was more of a Greenwich Village type poet. A bow tie flounced Upper West Side poet. A bohemian inspired proto-beat poet. His was a New York world of smart publisher girlfriends and bored professors’ wives. Where’s the Hip Hop in that? Where’s the connection between this Anglo-Welsh bard and African American Oral Tradition?
Points of correlation exist between the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Hip Hop lyrics in the orality of their conception – the way they’re at their best when spoken and heard rather than read on the page. Constructed musically around rhythmic rhyme patterns, often eschewing conventional end rhymes for enjambment and scattered internal rhyme, these are pieces written for vocal effect. They are also predominantly masculine texts, abounding with puffed-up portrayals of manliness and overt heterosexuality. Adolescent even, in their insecure relation to women who are sexualised, or deified, or both. The whole of stanza 2 of ‘Lament’ is an unrepentant carouser’s charter.
When I was a gusty man and a half
And the black beast of the beetles’ pews
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of bitches),
Not a boy and a bit in the wick-
Dipping moon and drunk as a new dropped calf,
I whistled all night in the twisted flues,
Midwives grew in the midnight ditches,
And the sizzling sheets of the town cried, Quick!-
Whenever I dove in a breast high shoal,
Wherever I ramped in the clover quilts,
Whatsoever I did in the coal-
Black night, I left my quivering prints.
This is highly sexually-charged stuff! The line whistling…in the twisted flues leaves little to the imagination. Thomas has his hero bed hopping and breast diving, leaving his impassioned hand prints everywhere while midwives scramble to keep up with him. In the context of 1951 morality I guess this is transgressive with a knowing wink.
It is here that I wonder if I’m doing Thomas a mis-justice. Is it possible he’s satirising his subject? Am I assigning a direct authorial voice to an ironic portrait? Hip Hop doesn’t really do irony, the encoded ethos of ‘represent’ and ‘keep it real’ have promoted first person social realism – however fantastic the narrative. Perhaps, I’ve got this poem caught up in a cross fire between Bronx Hip Hop and Middle Class Anglo-Welsh Irony, but the man in the poem has a strong relation to the bohemian, lascivious image of the poet that Thomas himself promoted. He always seems to be a singing a song of springtime in the autumn.
As ‘Lament’ proceeds, hungover, through the man’s life, Thomas sadly articulates the resignation of his “old ram rod” as he chooses a wife.
At last the soul from its foul mousehole
Slunk pouting out when the limp time came;
And I gave my soul a blind, slashed eye,
Gristle and rind, and a roarers’ life,
And I shoved it into the coal black sky
To find a woman’s soul for a wife.
And in the next verse
For, oh, my soul found a sunday wife
In the coal black sky and she bore angels!
Sigmund Freud would have a field day with the assignment of “limp time” to matrimony with a “sunday wife” and her attendance of angels. This is straight up Madonna-Whore Complex material. To quote a different type of rap tune, “this boy needs therapy”! When I started thinking about Hip Hop with Dylan Thomas I could have guessed at some common strains of orality, of how his voice came from the geographical margins of English literature and could be related to how Hip Hop carries counter-cultural voices in opposition to assumptions of white centrality. I didn’t expect to be picking over common threads of objectified representation of women. Shame, Dylan. Shame, Snoop.
Between the subway station and the group home I need to walk three blocks. I’m a little nervous about walking the street here. People in Manhattan I asked about coming up here said… you know, it’s kinda rough. I’ve had enough experience of tight inner city communities to know the way things can be territorial, but then again I also know that it’s the small minority of times that trouble occurs that then gets all the attention, and that most of the time it’s just business as usual. I remember the premise “act like a fool you get treated like a fool” and assure myself that surely I’ve outgrown my clown’s outfit now.
Thomas’ voice blusters on through ‘Lament’. A melancholy reminiscence of youthful transgressive freedom from the night before, or the decade before, or the life before, but always before, when somehow, things were better. It’s bad boy business, but romanticised, pastoral, a rural eulogy to a misspent youth and a caricatured shrinking into diminished manhood. Like the “old ram rod” was only ever at his best as a lusty young stud. I walk up the street. My feet on the hallowed sidewalks of the legendary Boogie Down Bronx. The Home of Hip Hop. People are going about their business as usual. Everyday existence. Some people outside a liquor store. Relation. Urbanity. Vocalisation. Humanity.
At the group home I share poetry and conversation with seven young men who live there. They are all under 16. They’ve been working out. There is muscle here. And they’re telling me stories of gang initiations and showing me the scars of their near misses and dices with death and they talk like men, trying to impress me with their mortal gravity, but their faces are still young. They look like boys still, really. Heartbreakingly beautiful adolescent young men strung out along the margins of an anti-social society.
This is real. This is poetry. This is Hip Hop.
Martin Daws is Young People’s Laureate for Wales, working across the country to engage and inspire young people to empower themselves through their creativity. A double Farrago Slam Champ, and runner-up in both the Glastonbury Festival Slam and the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry, Martin got a coveted five star review on debut at the Edinburgh Festival (2008) and is the author of the acclaimed book/CD Skin Tight the Sidewalk. Organisations Martin has successfully worked with include Literature Wales, National Opera Wales, The British Council, Apples and Snakes, and Urban Word NYC.
Young Poets Network is an online resource from the Poetry Society for young poets up to 25. You’ll find features about poets and poetry, writing challenges, new writing from young poets and a list of competitions, magazines and writing groups which particularly welcome young poets. Young Poets Network is for everyone interested in poets and poetry – whether you’ve just started out, or you’ve been reading and writing for ages.
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Dylan Thomas’ writing shed image – by Heather Cowper