Under Milk Wood

June 20th, 2014 15 Comments



Many years ago (never mind precisely how many; suffice it to say it was back in the days when the 33&1/3 LP was king) I was browsing through a record store (Yes, children, there used to be stores, just like bookstores—remember those?—where one could browse through vinyl records and… What? You don’t know what a vinyl record is?) and I stumbled across a Caedmon recording of Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. The fact that there is a recording at all is something of a miracle: it was recorded at the last moment, as an afterthought, when an unknown someone, who deserves a front-row seat in Heaven, placed a single microphone on the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York during the first reading of the play, the only reading ever that included Dylan Thomas.

I was—and still am—a big Dylan Thomas freak. Miserably unhappy at my first boarding school (in Switzerland) I turned to poetry as an escape. Literally. Or, more accurately, as part of an escape: I would take a book of poems and walk away from the classes, away from the shabby building, the sadistic students jockeying brutally for dominance, teachers who thought their students were despicable and who expressed that thought regularly by slapping faces and boxing ears and kicking backsides, from the food that put at least one student into the hospital, from the ridiculously and artificially structured and meaningless discipline, from all of it, up into the vineyards that lined the hills above the school, and looking out at Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, in English) I would read poetry out loud to myself and for the edification of the grapes. Those vineyards that year probably produced the worst wine ever to come out of Switzerland, and that’s saying something. I called this keeping my sanity; the school called it running away, and I was eventually thrown out for it. But one of the poems I had recently discovered, and that I read out loud to sour the grapes, was Fern Hill:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…

Oh, yes; I can still do much of it from memory. But in that record store so many years ago (I was in college at the time, Beloit College, or perhaps on suspension) I was thrilled to see the LP, with Dylan Thomas’ fleshy, pug-nosed face on it, looking as if he were trying unsuccessfully to hide pain with a veneer of arrogance. I had never even heard of Under Milk Wood, but I snapped it up. And I was transfixed, transported, mesmerized by those lyrical, lilting, rambunctious, randy, rollicking words; by Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary voice—vintage-port-in-a-seaside-pub made audible—by the performances, all of them (only Sada Thompson might be still remembered today, for her work on the TV series Family), by the sly humor and pathos of it, and most of all by the naked love expressed in those words.

It is described as a play for voices, but it is by any standards an odd play. Structured loosely—and much more briefly—along the lines of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which Thomas almost certainly had never heard of, it is a portrait of small Welsh fishing village seen through the dreams of its inhabitants, and through the words of the dead and the dead past brought to life by those dreams. It takes place in a single day in the village of Llareggub (and if you read that name backwards, you will get a hint of Thomas’ sometimes schoolboy humor) as the inhabitants gradually wake and go about their business, until night, “bible-black,” gradually closes down once more around the town.

It is, as all the best of Dylan Thomas is, rich, evocative, incomparable in its playful use of language, moving, funny, bawdy, and—like all good art—it lingers with you long after you’re done.

I hadn’t read it in forty years, but something Darleen said prompted a memory and I pulled my copy down the other night. I had planned to just dip into it, a passage here, a fondly remembered speech there; at one-thirty, the whole thing savored slowly, I staggered happily off to bed.

Many people don’t read plays. I think this is, in part, an unconscious realization of the truth of Stanislavski’s famous epigram: “People don’t go to the theater to see what the playwright has written. People go to the theater to see what the playwright has not written.” I suspect most people do want a director and actors to flesh out the bones strewn upon the page, that most people don’t have an imagination that is geared to that particular process. This is not, and is not intended to be, a pejorative statement; it just takes a certain way of reading, one that actors must, of necessity, develop. And even then, a good director can transcend anything even the best imagination can come up with. I had read Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times in an ecstasy of passionate adolescent delight when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s movie and realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was there.

But Under Milk Wood is, as Thomas described it, a play for words (it was intended originally for radio broadcast only) and so it qualifies as a very short epic poem. Or perhaps as just a long narrative poem. Or perhaps just as a damn good poem of any category or description. And as such, it can be very effectively read all by itself. Like any poem, it should be read out loud, and like all of Dylan Thomas’ work it should be read out loud with great relish and uninhibited enthusiasm. Don’t worry about “understanding” it; poetry isn’t intended to be understood in an intellectual way any more than a painting is intended to be understood. It is intended to evoke an emotional response, and if there are occasional words you don’t know (a “courter” is either an archaic variation of courtier, or one who courts, but I had to look it up) don’t worry about it. Get the overall emotional ebb and flow of the piece, let the words wash over you like music, and worry about understanding later.

But get your hands on a copy and read it. Get to know blind Captain Cat, and affectionate, erotic, kindly Polly Garter, the feckless and would-be-murderous Mr. Pugh, Rosie Probert, Gossamer Beynon, Sinbad Sailors, get to know all of them. Get to know a Wales that may never have been, but that will never cease to exist.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I remember records. My parents belonged to a record club. This is were they paid to get a record a month. We had a lot of records. I think we had every Broadway musical that had been written at the time. We also had a large number of books. I will say that books probably helped save my sanity. If I had not had those to escape into I would have killed myself. I didn’t go to a boarding school, but I went to both a public school and a Catholic school. At each of these schools I was bullied mercilessly. The nuns at the Catholic school used a yardstick to hit the children. I went to a Parochial High school for half a year. The reason I didn’t go for the whole year is that they asked me to leave. By the way I was the one being tormented and bullied and I was the one that ended up being sent to the Principal’s office for over reacting. I was also abused at home by my father. So I would go to my room and read books.

    One of the things that we did do at home was recite poetry. This was my father’s idea. We had a book of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After dinner I would get up and read one of the poems in the book out loud. I do remember at least parts of those poems. “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” “Hiawatha”, and many others. In high school english we memorized some poems like the “Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by a Snowy woods in the Evening.” There were plays that we read such as “Romeo and Juliet.” I have to say I don’t think I have ever read any of Dylan Thomas’ work. I probably will read it now.

    I think one of the most difficult books if not impossible to read is James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I saw this on the Internet. ” A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, a man who never reads lives only one.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    About school Cafeteria food. In high school there was something that the students called mystery meat. It was suppose to be some kind of beef with gravy. I never could figure out what kind of meat that was. We also had pizza which was so greasy that when I held it up the grease ran off it. At the University level I got sick several times from the cafeteria food. No matter what I eat I ended up throwing it up. Not a pleasant thing to happen at all. To top that off my roommate and I would order a pizza with everything on it including anchovies. In winter time we would put the leftover pizza still in the box between the window panes to keep it cold. Come to think of it is was a wonder that we survived that year in college.

    On a more serious note I remember the “discipline” inflicted on us during grade school. In Parochial school the nuns carried a yard stick. One time a nun got so angry at a boy that she took a piece of molding from the floor and hit him with it. I not even kidding about that. Also, there was no way in heaven or earth that anyone wanted to go to the principal’s office because the principal was a Priest and he had a paddle that he would use on the children’s backsides. In the public schools the “discipline” seemed to be to humiliate the students who could not keep up. I was called a baby who did baby work because I could not keep up with the lessons. If you chewed gum and the teacher saw you she had you spit the gum out and she would stick on your nose for the remainder of the class. The least horrible punishment was to stay after class and write one hundred times on the blackboard “I will not chew gum in class” or whatever else your offence was. At in high school the worse thing that they could do to you was make you stay after school in detention.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Ah hain’t never read no Dylan Thomas(that I’m aware of), but I shore like reading J. P.(even if it is just a blog post!)……….L.B.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I thought that I did not remember Dylan Thomas then I remembered this poem.

    Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on that sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

  6. Anonymous says:


    I had one of those “I wonder if I can find this on Youtube?” moments. So I went to Youtube typed in Dylan Thomas and it came up. There are also other Dylan Thomas’ works in the same area of this video.

    Dylan Thomas reciting “Fern Hill”

  7. Anonymous says:


    This is Frank McCourt reading from his own memoir “Angela’s Ashes” The story is called “The Library” and it is the funnest thing that I have heard in a while.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Poets quotes about poetry.

    Irish poets, learn your trade, sing whatever is well made, scorn the sort now growing up all out of shape from toe to top.
    W.B. Yeats

    You searched through all my poets, From Sappho through to Auden, I saw the book fall from your hands, As you slowly died of boredom.
    Nick Cave

    kudos to the educators, athletes, dancers, judges, janitors, politicians, artists, actors, writers, singers, poets, and social activist, to all who dare to look at like with humor, determination and respect.
    Maya Angelou

    Poets are all who love, who feel great truths, And tell them; and the truth of truths is love.
    Philip James Bailey

    From whichever side I start, I think I am in an old place where others have been before me.
    Dejan Stojanovic

    There are countless circles of hell believers never penetrate the ninth circle.
    Dejan Stojanovic

    Creators of history always play with our impotence and our ignorance.
    Dejan Stojanovic

    How does one say something new and not retell?
    Dejan Stojanovic

    I can’t look at things in the simple, large way that great poets do.
    Isaac Rosenberg

    Contemporary poets got so obscure that poetry kind of fell out of favor,.
    Paul Ruffin

  9. Anonymous says:

    Oh la la !!! J’ai connu aussi les magasins qui vendaient les disques vinyles !!!! Lorsque j’étais encore chez mes parents (il y a très longtemps) mon principal loisir était de faire ces magasins avec mes copines et de rêver à ceux que j’allais pouvoir acheter. Mais pour cela, il fallait attendre d’avoir un peu d’argent……. Mon premier vinyle a été « A whiter shade of pale”……..
    Que de souvenirs !!!!
    Lorsque je partais en vacances, toujours avec mes parents, nous allions en Espagne et nous faisions une halte dans la Principauté d’Andorre où les prix des vinyles étaient très avantageux. J’ai pu acheter 2 disques dont l’un d’eux était la version anglaise de « hair ». J’avais hâte de rentrer chez moi afin de les écouter. Mais après 4 semaines de voyage en caravane sous le soleil d’Espagne, mes disques ont eu un coup de chaleur et se sont retrouvés gondolés. Impossible de les écouter. Toutes mes économies parties pour rien…. J’étais désespérée !!! Vive le lecteur MP3 avec sa playlist !!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Parker,

    I felt compelled to respond to your post this morning for a few reasons. One, my oldest daughter who is not yet 20 is a huge fan of old movies, musicals, classical literature and plays. I will be searching for your recommendation for her birthday which sadly coincides with the start of her fall term each year. Then while on vacation a few weeks ago in the small town of Andrews, North Carolina, my youngest at the ripe old age of 18 spent a happy rainy afternoon searching through bins of old records. She came away with a Duran Duran album and has announced that she is starting an old record collection. Now the hunt is on for a record player. And finally, as an educator I was horrified to read about your experience at school. I can imagine the scars that such an experience would have on a young boy. When I was young and very frustrated with my public school education I would dream of a bucolic utopia called boarding school. At least that was how it was portrayed in the books I read. However, years later and much wiser I realize that the success of education lies truly in the hands of each individual educator. I have this quote by Hiam Ginott posted in my classroom for my families, “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” This gem could be applied not just in the classroom but in the home and in society as well.

    I found your blog after reading “An Accidental Cowboy”. My family was dealing with PTSD and I was reading everything I could get my hands on. But, I have stayed because I enjoy reading your entries. Many blessings.


  11. Anonymous says:

    I know what you mean about reading plays or books. This can work both ways. I have read books and then seen the movie or miniseries based on the books. I read the book “Hawaii and then I saw the mini series years ago. I was disappointed in it. What I imagined is not what I saw on the screen. The only movies that exceeded the books is the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in High school and I was bored because it seemed so dry. Then I saw the movie with Leonardo Dicaprio . It takes liberties with the play setting in the present, but it made the play come alive.

    More tales out of high school. For some reason you’re writing about your memories triggered mine. There was one incident that I remember in particular. This was in the Parochial High school. A teenage boy and girl were necking in the hallway in between classes. I watched as one of the nuns came up to that boy and grab him by his ear taking him and the girl in question to the principal’s office. The reason that this is memorable is that this teenage boy was much taller and bigger than that nun. I don’t know but the sight of a short little nun taking a bigger boy by the ear and holding on to his ear all the way to the Principal’s office just left a huge impression on me.

    P.S. My father went to an all boys Parochial High school where Jesuit Priest were the teachers.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    yes, I’m one of those fossils, too, who can remember LPs 🙂
    My daugnter almost two years ago watched an episode of “Pinocchio” on TV and I mentioned that I already had enjoyed this cartoon series when I was a child. She said: “Mama. Are you pulling my leg? This is already colored!” ….
    But she’s familiar with a record player. My father still keeps my old one which I received as a present for my 6th birthday. And no, it doesn’t have a crank on the side….
    Your post generated the picture of a very sad and lonely little boy far away from home in my head. But I guess your parents just wanted to provide the best education for you money could buy at that time. And in the long run you might wouldn’t be the person with all that skills you are now. As far as I know they’ve put you in a list of boarding schools. Education and individual dealing with the personality of each child have still also been a contradiction during my time. But it seems to me as if your escape in poetry and usage of words, natural talent, expressing yourself and your profession as an actor and now writer are some kind of natural consequence which may had it’s origin at that time.

    I can almost imagine you sneaking along the bookshelf in the middle of the night looking for an old treasure to resurrect. You’ve made me curious for that poem and I listened to it several times (on youtube, of course). I must say that it wasn’t easy for me to find, let’s say the rhythm of it. Please don’t mind if I say that one or two beer might would help….
    But then it transferred me into a certain mood I cannot describe exactly and in which I found myself remaining for I don’t know how long.
    I must confess that I actually I didn’t realize the pun with the place name but two or three consonants in a welsh word are not unusual at all.
    It’s an interesting question why people don’t read plays and me who uses to have an explanation for everything just can’t say why, either…. 🙁
    That still bothers me…
    During my school time my German teacher came up with the idea of reading Schiller… That’s just what I needed, I thought. Our homework was to read the first pages of “Kabale und Liebe”. I was so much overwhelmed by the mere beauty of that language that I’ve never been in touch before. And believe me it wasn’t just because I had my own period of “Sturm und Drang” then….
    Instead of reading the first ten or twenty pages I spent the entire afternoon in my bed reading the whole play. This caused a lifelong fascination and a love for Schiller’s esthetics that even my teacher wasn’t able to spoil…. 😉
    Some may say this is antiquated but I don’t care.
    So I went to my bookshelf and reminisced in the force of this extravagant language again….and found someting rather matching:

    “Wie wohl ist einem bei Menschen, denen die Freiheit des andern heilig ist.”

    Thank you very much for your impulse!!!

    Best wishes

    PS: I wonder if you’ve ever considered to write a play yourself….

  13. Anonymous says:

    Okay, maybe I was a bit hasty saying I hadn’t read no Dylan Thomas–I HAD read that one posted above, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”(great poem, though I don’t really agree with it–I’m more about quietly yet grimly fighting and yet also trying to learn acceptance of the inevitable–RAGING too much just spoils what time one has left, in my view!)–just hadn’t committed the author’s name to my memory….And I still have all MY old records–just can’t chuck them, in hopes turntables may be brought back from extinction, and even though I replaced many of my favorites with cassette tapes(also now close to extinction), and now CD’s. I gotta admit, I LOVE those little CD’s! Plays everything through without having to switch sides! So small and conveinant! Remember the 8-tracks? Damn them! I was glad when THEY went extinct–I STILL, if only in my mind, hear that damn pause and “KUHCHUNK!!!” in the middle of favorite symphonies I listened to so many times on my old, abused 8-track player, even though it has been decades since I last heard one of those annoying program changes!….And I can’t imagine boarding school–at least with public school(and I was a favorite bully target, being something of a runt most of my early school years) I got to ESCAPE home and out into the woods every day. I occasionally came across some of those school bullies in the woods, but no worries there, mate–my obsessively protective dog that always accompanied me(whom I considered my 3rd parent) would clear them out of the way quickly enough! My human parents DID sometimes threaten me with MILITARY SCHOOL to try and scare me into good behavior, and I took the threat serious enough to keep a secret backpack stashed with survival items(including supplies for my dog), as I was in no way, shape , or form going to peaceably submit to such incarceration(after all the horrors I’d heard about such places)–and was ready to flee to the woods at the first serious attempt to send me to such a school! Luckily, it was just a bluff from my parents–they never were serious about it–but it DID make me behave(for a brief period just after the threat) apparently. ANY kind of boarding school–sheesh! You have my sympathy, J. P. Enough to drive anyone to poetry!……….L.B.

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