There’s a curious passage towards the end of the first episode of The Dragon Has Two Tongues, an oddly-structured 1985 documentary that tells the history of Wales through the bickering of historian Gwyn Alf Williams and liberal broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. Having spent the entire episode hitherto articulating their own (usually opposing) visions of a Welsh historiography, the two finally meet face-to-face (at a prehistoric hillside monument in Berkshire, England, of all places) to state their respective cases as to how the history – and consequently the future – of the people of Wales can be conceptualised.
To mark the 100-year anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, Wales – or, more accurately, the BBC – has been gripped with an attempt to align the poet’s life and work with the country of his birth. There is nothing untoward about this initiative in itself – anniversary-governed programming plays a huge role in the BBC’s arts output – but the tying of Thomas to Wales and its national and cultural identity doesn’t quite work here, and belies a quiet desperation to inject a dose of nationalism into a subject that doesn’t quite warrant it.
The act of assemblage, of composition through unifying disparate elements of pre-existing texts, takes many forms in contemporary British poetry, and is utilised to various ends. However, despite the multifarious ways in which this aesthetic manifests itself, there are two overriding functions that assemblage performs: firstly it challenges pre-conceived notions of poetic form and extends the ways in which a text can generate meaning, and secondly it uses this formal and linguistic experimentation to exhibit a certain postmodern malaise in contemporary culture, which displays as self-evident the difficulty of meaningful self-expression in late-capitalist culture. Most importantly, the use of assemblage ventures a viable means for artistic expression in an era in which, as Kalle Lasn writes, ‘culture is no longer created by the people’ and ‘the spectacles that surround the production of culture…are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch – and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy.’