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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 November, 2003, 17:23 GMT
Archbishop's sermon on Dylan's poetry
By Nick Dermody
BBC Wales News Online

The Archbishop Williams, Dr Rowan Williams
Praise be: Dr Williams described himself as 'No. 57b' on the list of Swansea poets
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has paid tribute to the work of Wales' best known bard, Dylan Thomas.

Dr Williams, a published poet himself, said he had been inspired by Thomas since he was introduced to his work while he was in the sixth form.

He gave a clear and confident reading of a number of his own works as well as some by Thomas, Thomas' close friend, Vernon Watkins, and the late local librarian and irreverent republican poet, Harri Webb.

The Friday evening event at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, was part of the city's festival to mark the half-century anniversary of Thomas' drink-fuelled death in New York 50 years ago this month.

Dr Williams, who grew up in a Welsh-speaking family in the Swansea Valley, devoted the reading to Swansea poets but described himself as "No. 57b" the list.

Nevertheless, he received more than polite applause for his poetry from the sell-out audience at the venue dedicated to raising Thomas' profile in Wales and the world.

Silence is often squeezed because you have to say something sometimes
Dr Rowan Williams

He said that one of the compensations of his job, leading the world's 70m Anglicans, is being able to travel and to have "the kind of edge and stimulus that travel brings for the imagination to start work again".

That imagination, using what Thomas famously called his "craft or sullen art", took the audience to some of his more recent experiences as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as through more personal ones, such being too late to attend the death of a close friend.

The Archbishop Williams,  Dr Rowan Williams
Voicing verse: Dr Williams said Dylan Thomas was 'somebody I wanted to go on hearing'

His works ranged from the 70s, Advent Calendar, and 80s, Oystermouth Cemetery, to the three he wrote while visiting Uganda in his archbishop role.

In Uganda, he revealed, he visited Luzira Prison in Kampala, where he was asked to speak to the 300 or so prisoners on the jail's death row, many of them having been there years. It led to his work, From Luzira.

Ironically, one of his best lines came in the short comments and introductions he gave between each reading.

When speaking about the Holy Land, he said: "Words get squeezed into unexpected shapes because of the reality they are in. Silence is often squeezed because you have to say something sometimes."

But the evening did not dwell on religious or even Christian themes. Yet, when talking about Thomas and his poetic works, Dr Williams found he could not escape the subject of spirituality.

He said: "I have no idea what he 'believed', but he believed - as I do - that language is haunted by the sacred."

Rowan Williams at his enthronement
Man of words: Dr Williams is a published poet who admires the work of fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas

He added that, while in the sixth form, he decided that Thomas was "somebody I wanted to go on hearing".

And he admitted that even he did not always understand Thomas' poetry.

Altarwise by Owl-Light was, he said, an example of some of the bard's best work but also some of his worst.

He said: "I can only yield to it rather than make sense of it."

He highlighted Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night as perhaps his favourite Thomas work.

"Partly because of its formal quality, it has a quality of aphorism and timelessness which brings it back again and again," he said.

The Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea runs until November 9.




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