An article by John Goodby in the latest issue of Poetry Wales challenges the programme of events organised around the Dylan Thomas Centenary by the British Council, Literature Wales and other bodies. Most of the celebratory events have, according to Goodby, prioritised the drama of Thomas’s life and personality, and his influence on art-forms such as rap and Beat poetry, above serious engagement with his own poetry, with the innovation he brought to his writing and with his intellectual preoccupations and compulsions. His legacy has, in other words, been “dumbed down”. This, Goodby suggests, is due to a “fear of seeming too literary” on the part of the organisers, and a trend for the “corporatisation and marketing of literature”.
I have experienced only a few of the Centenary events myself, and can’t comment on whether or not the criticism in Poetry Wales is fair overall. (Thomas’s notebooks, exhibited temporarily at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, are probably the most stimulating aspect of the programme I’ve seen, and by their nature connect very well the poet-as-person and the poetry he produced.) This sort of response is worrying, however, and is perhaps relevant to the argument I made in a previous blog post: that heavily-marketed literature promotions sometimes result in reading being presented as a sort of worthy duty. On the one hand there is a push towards reading and book-buying as a social responsibility; conversely, well-meaning attempts at inclusivity can be stymied by a fear that literature might be perceived as something difficult and élitist. The notion that engagement with serious literature can be natural, normal, enjoyable in its own right gets easily overlooked.
But there are, of course, examples of public programmes which have managed to “promote” literature, and the work of particular literary figures, without either nagging or sugaring the work itself. I was recently in Hull, where I spent a couple of days following the Larkin Trail around the city centre. Billed as an introduction to “a poet’s landscape”, the trail runs in Larkin’s footsteps, visiting his favourite pubs and theatres, the streets he most commonly walked down, the pier where he used to board the ferry to take trips across the Humber Estuary to Lincolnshire. Other sections of the trail extend out of the centre to the university where he worked, to houses where he lived and the cemetery where he is buried. This is not just celebrity-stalking, though: the idea behind the trail is, essentially, that Larkin’s environment was intrinsic to his poetry, and that it is possible to gain a better understanding of one by appreciating the other. At different spots on the trail – marked around the city by a series of plaques – the accompanying guide discusses the poems each site inspired, as well as giving a sense of the historical and social context in which the poems were written. The city centre part of the trail ends at the Hull History Centre, an archive and library with a section dedicated to Larkin’s works, and works about him.
Not all of the spots on the Larkin trail are glamorous (the ground floor of Marks and Spencer, the Paragon Interchange…), but neither was Larkin. This was my second visit to Hull; the first time I missed his statue in the railway station completely, and might have missed it again this time if I hadn’t been looking for it. Set on the floor rather than on a plinth and only slightly larger than life, mid-step with briefcase in hand, Larkin here is one among many passengers hurrying towards the platforms. The plaque under his feet reads “Poet and librarian”. Writing, reading, working, walking: all in balance; all ordinary, habitual elements of a life. The trail proves that it is possible to draw on public interest in a person without resorting to the exploitation of a personality, and shows how a writer’s intellectual landscape can be explored through interaction with his or her actual surroundings. No fear and no bombast, but a genuine appreciation of poetry, and an integration of literature into both the cultural and physical fabric of the city.