Dylan’s Dialect – Rhythms and Voice

I haven’t posted for several days. Mainly because I wanted to avoid the trap of someone who spent their time principally writing about writing, rather than actually forging ahead with my own creative projects, which are the anchor and the reason for this exploration of voice in the first place.

Recently, as part of the Festival of Chichester, I went to a talk by a very knowledgeable lady entitled Writing Your First Novel. Though she had a wealth of knowledge and had brought with her several published authors whose own experiences she has drawn on with depth and diversity, there was no evidence of her own completed first novel at that talk; indeed, no reference to it. It wasn’t until I was sharing that experience with a class that they made me aware of the aching gap this left, the sadness and shame of it. So often, I find, the teacher really is the student. More than anything, they made me aware that I didn’t want to become this person. I don’t want to just be able to philosophise and produce manuals on the mechanics of the craft – I want to lead be example, to be a master at the craft myself. And so I have spent recent days making progress with both my novel-in-progress and my poetry – which I am coming ever closer to convincing myself to share in this forum.

In my previous entry I was considering the fact that despite a rich culture and history of writing in Welsh culture, a certain amount of this was done through the medium of English and wondered about how this affected not only the ways in which they used their voice for expression, but the things they were able to conceptualise in order to express them in the first place. One of those writers that sprang to mind was Dylan Thomas and it was probably these recent thoughts of him that led me to an adventure in Laugharne today, to consider these ideas further.

I can’t help but feel a tiny bit of affinity with Dylan Thomas, being a Welsh writer through the medium of English myself and was made instantly aware of something else we had in common – an apparent love of being near water. I, myself live only a stones throw from the ocean and I was delighted by the views and idea of his little writing shed.

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I have no need of such a thing since, theoretically at least, once inside my own four walls, I have no distractions from writing but I have definitely been inspired to do some furniture shifting in order to make the most of the sea views that could act as such a force of inspiration.

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This started to get me thinking about how, so often when I shut everything off and sit and listen to the ocean (one of my greatest pleasures) I’m often hypnotised by the rhythm and so in this way, it can act as a multi-sensory inspiration for my writing. I’m certain that if I went back to review particularly the poetry I have written on these nights, I would find a distinct ebb and flow, or perhaps a regular smattering of crashing crescendos, depending on the conditions. Now that I’ve considered such a thing, I’m interested in trying that consciously – perhaps as a stream of consciousness exercise.

It was still with these ideas of rhythm in mind that I arrived at his boathouse, a little further along the pretty waterside walk.

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Inside the boathouse there are several of Thomas’s letters on display. At once this raised a further question – the idea of the distinction between a public and private voice. It certainly seems hugely relevant in today’s society, when even your most private outpourings, if sent via digital communication, could be shared with the world at large with one simple screen shot. It makes trust vital but also, perhaps, has changed all of our processes as writers. I wonder how conscious we all are when using media, of how others might judge us. Has it raised our awareness of audience or desensitised us to it, preferring instead to communicate in our normal way, regardless of who may eventually witness that communication? The fact that Facebook now has an ‘edit’ facility, so that users can go back and review the content, or perhaps the spelling and grammar, of their posts, suggests that there is at least a degree to which we have become conscious in our everyday lives as writers of every kind, of how we might be perceived through our choice of words. Controversially perhaps, as a teacher of English, I can only applaud this development. However, I wonder how ready Dylan Thomas would have been, long before the days of Facebook or screenshots, to have his private communications (written in a time when he would have had no need to even consider that they would ever be anything else) shared with the public at large?

There’s a certainly a literary quality to his letters and not just the more famous and much-published love letters to Caitlin. Even in letters detailing how he had received notice that his cheques in Laugharne had all been refused and on returning to Laugharne, being notified that his cheques in London had also been refused, there is an unmistakeable sense of crafting behind them – a lyrical delight in the words and phrasing. I’m certainly not suggesting that he wrote them in anticipation that they would one day reach a more public audience, rather that as a writer – a wordsmith – you are never truly ‘off-duty’ – that you always have that imagined response very readily at the front of your mind. That you cannot help but put the words to work for entertainment and effect, to create nothing less than delight or devastation in whatever reader they might be intended for.

In considering this, I returned to a familiar idea – the idea of a person possessing a written voice either as distinct from, or as an extension of, their spoken voice. Certainly, Dylan Thomas is widely documented as being a wonderfully verbose and vociferous orator, as well as a gifted writer. The fact that much of his writing was intended for radio also suggests the close relationship he perceived and perpetuated between the spoken and the written word. And in relation to the original question that led me on this fascinating journey, this is hugely interesting because it’s immediately apparent to the enquiring eye that although he doesn’t write in the Welsh language, he most certainly does write in the Welsh vernacular – in the sing-song lyrical lullaby of the homeland he so often criticised. There are plenty who would disagree with me here, who would claim that any trace of cynghanedd (harmony) or cerdd dafod (tongue-craft) evident in his work is accidental at best. And this leads me back to ideas of authentic voice because I believe that even underneath this inherent need to craft, to crush and cwtch the reader as appropriate, there is something that cannot be crafted – something that permeates the ancestry of the ages, the soil you tread, the air that you breathe, something that is as much a part of your heritage as your family name. Whether this is more specific to location or language is interesting in considering writers like Dylan Thomas because it is clear (to me at least) that he does use many of the features of the literary and vernacular language of Wales, even though it is expressed through the medium of Welsh.

Even the grammatical quirks of the Welsh vernacular are evident. You need look no further than the opening line of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ There are various theories as to why an adverb doesn’t appear hear – the most charming of which, I feel, is that since it touched on the topic of how to approach death in old age, he was unable to share the work with his dying father – a Grammar school English Master – who would have soon pointed out the irregular choice and Thomas would have corrected it on his advice. Since Thomas himself died only a year after his father, we have no real bank of evidence to either confirm or deny this theory which casts his father as his ever-faithful editor.

However, what I will say is this: it just sounds the way a Welsh person would say it. It’s one of the grammatical quirks that I spoke of earlier, that in the Welsh vernacular of the English language, the adjectival form is so often substituted for the adverb. That this just seems a more natural rhythm for the Welsh tongue, even if that Welsh tongue does speak English and that this is something quite distinct. As a student of English myself, I was often handed back drafts of essays with ‘syntax’ scrawled all over them in red, to my increasing frustration. Even then I had some consciousness that this different rhythm, this vernacular was peculiar to my Welshness, as in one fit of frustration, I scribbled ‘I’m Welsh!’ as a response to each red ‘syntax’ – an exercise which in practice, probably took me at least as long as any minor edits required would have. It just seemed astonishing to me that this man, this Professor of English, didn’t speak MY English and I was extremely reluctant to have to change it.

And perhaps this is one thing further that I can claim in my mission to adopt Dylan Thomas as a kindred spirit. Because I don’t think (I or) he ever did. And in that sense, he truly was a champion of maintaining an authentic voice, as the most Welsh of all English poets.

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Place and Voice

DSCF7346The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis purports that a person’s conceptualisation of the world is influenced by the nuances of the thinker’s mother language and this is, of course, in large parts dictated by place. This has had a special interest to me as someone who is Welsh by birth and heritage, spent a large part of my childhood in Germany and has made my life’s work becoming an expert in and teaching the English language.

Currently I am visiting family in Pembrokeshire, my birthplace, and yesterday, while taking the opportunity to go venturing about the beautiful countryside and coast, these thoughts were prominent in my mind. Although Welsh by birth and heritage, I only have a very basic grasp on the Welsh language. My family had lost the tongue, generations ago, convinced that it would be more of a hindrance than a help in the increasing need to interact and transact with a purely English speaking culture beyond the border. All this was long before legislation such as the Welsh Language Act of 1993 or the Government of Wales Act 1998 legislated for the treatment of English and Welsh to be equal within the public sector. Long, long before. At the age of two, my family moved to Germany and it wasn’t until I returned to Wales that I was schooled in the most basic knowledge of the language as part of my Secondary school timetable. It was somewhat frustrating to me that I had reached such an age and become almost fluent in the German language and new almost nothing of this, what should rightly be my ‘own’ language but was not. Perhaps due to this frustration, or in some misplaced act of rebellion, I gave up the opportunity to learn the language further, once the compulsory period of learning ended, three years into my Secondary education. To fulfil the requirement to study two languages, I instead opted for French and German.

It wasn’t until I got much older that I wondered how this has shaped me as an individual – shaped not only my identity as a virtually non-Welsh speaker, but also my conceptualisation of the culture and country that are my ‘own’. In another perverse act, as an undergraduate reading for a joint honours degree in English Language, at a prestigious English university, I chose for my dissertation topic Welsh Cinema. Within this dissertation there was considerable consideration given to the cultural relevance and revelations of Welsh language cinema, which, ironically, I had had to watch with subtitles. I have a brother who has some hearing difficulties and so watches television with subtitles on, as standard – something I have always found hugely distracting. The reason for this is not because I’m distracted by the visual aspect of it – the constantly changing strip across the bottom of the screen. No. I’m distracted by the frequent inaccuracies in the transcripts of the shows. Even mono-linguistic subtitling deceives the viewer – mis-scribes words, summarises complex ideas for brevity. With this experience in mind, I began to wonder how true my experience of Welsh language cinema was likely to be, as experienced through the medium of English subtitles.

On looking into it further, I was assured that it wasn’t likely to be very true at all. Alongside the issues of mono-linguistic subtitling, there was the additional issue of there not being any literal translation for certain Welsh words. The most famously cited example of this is the fact that there are a vast number of additional names for colours than there exists in the English language. This saddened me on a deeper level than I can explain. Suddenly I was confronted with the fact that my linguistic poverty meant not only that I would be disadvantaged in accessing specifically ‘Welsh’ things such as certain Welsh texts, the National Eisteddfod (an annual celebration of Welsh culture conducted entirely in the medium of Welsh and crowns an annual ‘bard’ – poetry being an ancient and integral part of Welsh culture) but also from accessing universal concepts like the fine distinctions between colours and hues. Because how can you experience something consciously if you don’t have the language with which to process it?

Was this the true tragedy of Babylon? That not only would the nations never truly understand each other across the linguistic divide but that they would never truly understand the world they lived in?

It was this realisation that has led me to question many things – not only how many concepts in the universal reality are locked away from me behind a linguistic door but how my voice might alter in a different language. I don’t mean the obvious things like it would sound different because of the different words and sounds it would use that don’t belong in the English language (for example the Welsh ‘ll’ for which there is no use in English.) I mean in terms of the things it would be able to conceptualise and express. Would I be more or less aware of certain things prioritised by the new language I spoke? Would I develop harsher or gentler tones with a new range of subtlety at my disposal? Welsh-speakers are almost all bilingual and will make various choices about which language to speak in based not only on place (with some choosing English for Southern and more urban regions and Welsh for Northern and more rural areas) but also according to what it is that they are talking about – a linguistic practice known as code-switching. This leads me to believe that the answer to both of those questions, and more, would be yes.

It also leads to the natural conclusion that as part of the process of discovering my own voice, I must improve my ‘own’ language. I have to unlock those secrets, to hear this part of myself.

As a writer, I am in good company. Wales has a history of successful writers who write in the medium of English – not least of all Dylan Thomas. I could go on to list and list and list here but it wouldn’t serve the purpose. My interest today is not in what they could or did write but in what they couldn’t or didn’t write and how their voices and worlds might have been different if they had.