Sunday, 9 February 2014

'The Best Second-Rate Dylan Thomas'

In 1969, when I was about 19 years old, American poet XJ Kennedy visited my university to give a poetry reading, and to offer tutorials to selected students who were involved in the creative writing programme.

Our poems were submitted 'blind', and we then had personal sessions with Kennedy, who by that time had taken the opportunity to read and make notes, prior to the meetings. I remember one or two of my fellow writers returned from their sessions depressed that Kennedy's evaluation of their work was at odds with their own expectations.

At that time, and probably for about three years prior, my poetry was set out in the style of Dylan Thomas, a high-energy port of call for many young writers in that era. It followed that my submission to Kennedy was a sample set of such writings. On reflection, his comments were supportive, and I hung on every one as justification for the hours and hours of writing and revision.

He ended our session, saying that, had my poems been presented to him as 'lost poems' of Dylan Thomas, he would have believed them to be so, such was the fidelity of the poems to the original in terms of style and vision. Momentarily, I was flattered. He then added, "Of course, you have to ask yourself, do you want to be the best second-rate Dylan Thomas, or yourself." The validity of his comment hit me four-square. If I continued as I had, I would indeed always be the 'best second-rate Dylan Thomas', as the only first-rate one was Thomas himself. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The realisation of the task ahead, to 'be myself' as a writer, the detail, focus, and sheer stamina required, became the goal from that moment. 

The writing associated with this process is explored more fully in the Neophyte essay here, but it was XJ Kennedy's quietly observant manner that provided the impetus.

He is 85 this year, and still writing.

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