Sunday 26 October 2014

All the people of the lulled and dumbfound state...

So, Dylan Thomas was big in Germany. 

Who knew? Former BBC Berlin correspondent - and Dylan Thomas fan - Steve Evans, that's who, and his Cold War Poet tonight on Radio 4 was fascinating.

John Humphrys won't like the tense I'm using here, but to begin at the beginning:

1954. Dylan Thomas is dead. The BBC has already posthumously broadcast his wonderful radio play Under Milk Wood. Seeking to spread British culture to the parts of post-war Germany under British control (the north-west), they commission an Austrian Jewish exile, Erich Fried, to translate Under Milk Wood into German. He translates it within a week, as requested. It becomes Unter dem Milchwald. A top-class German cast is employed to perform it and North West German Radio broadcasts it in the very same year as its British broadcast. It's a big hit. Two more broadcasts on the station follow that same year. The other German radio stations follows suit.

There's a thirst for literature in West Germany - post-war, post-the-Nazis. Paper is hard to come by. Radio rules. 1,300 radio dramas are broadcast around that time (1954-5), including hitherto hard-to-come-by British, French and American literature.

The rough but lyrical poetry of Dylan Thomas even gets through to unfree East Germany, where a vibrant underground poetry scene flourishes, against the efforts of the Stasi, wherever it can, whenever it can. His innovative, unplain poetry - bursting the state's anti-formalist taboos -  actually seems closer to life than the closed, political, official poetry of the dour communist state. 

Some of Dylan's deeply personal, unpolitical poems even make it into official poetry collections - partly, it seems, because he came from Wales and the GDR censors, therefore, assume he's working class and a poet for the people. And it may have helped that Erich Fried, who has kept on translating Thomas into German, is a socialist who makes several visits to the communist East. 

Well, that's enough historical present tense writing for the time being...or is it?
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night
in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat
there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock,
the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds.
And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are
sleeping now.


  1. One poem I don't think they mentioned was Fern Hill. It's difficult enough to get to grips with in English (even in the superb reading by Richard Burton) so I wondered whether Fried, and those who came after him, simply gave up the struggle.

    As to the poem, I often wondered whether Dingle Starry, who's mentioned in the third line, was in any way acquainted with Dingle Foot, Michael Foot's elder brother.

  2. Ah, validated at last, by the workers, wherever they are.


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