October 2014

Arts & Letters

Majesty and burning

By Kevin Rabalais
A century of Dylan Thomas

It sounded like a hoax. In June, more than half a century after the poet died following yet another marathon binge, the Guardian reported the discovery of a drinking song “dashed off in pencil by Dylan Thomas while seated at a London bar” in 1951. The impromptu “song”, found in the centenary year of the writer’s birth, coincides with reissues of Thomas’ poetry, stories, broadcasts and letters. New biographies and reminiscences have also appeared, as well as critical studies and, this month, an annotated Complete Poems of Dylan Thomas. To this body of work, we can now add the drinking song.

We remember Thomas as the author of poems such as ‘And death shall have no dominion’ and ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, as well as the influential, mischievous play Under Milk Wood. His beloved ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ inhabits the modern psyche alongside Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Thomas has also become a symbol of excess and self-destruction: he burned through life, scorching his existence into the collective imagination. Generations have witnessed his pouting cherub face, perched above Marlon Brando’s shoulder, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His life has been depicted on Broadway (Dylan, starring Alec Guinness) and on the big screen (The Edge of Love). He has inspired music or lyrics by Stravinsky, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan.

For many, mention of Thomas’ name evokes a capsule biography – alcoholic poet – that commences with his death. In November 1953, while on his fourth reading and lecture tour of the United States, a country he held in his thrall, Thomas stumbled from the White Horse Tavern in Manhattan. Later that night, he boasted of downing 18 straight whiskeys. He then fell into an alcoholic coma and died four days later. He was 39. A few weeks earlier, he had heard the 14 curtain calls that followed a reading of Under Milk Wood – more than one for each of its ten years of work, the pinnacle of a writing life.

The brevity of that vigorous life, coupled with the absurd and untimely death, have fused Thomas’ work to his biography. Much like James Dean and the Porsche Spyder or John Lennon and the Dakota building, he’s forever linked to that night at the White Horse Tavern. The locale has become synonymous with the legendary boozer who once claimed to be a rabid dog, crawling around on all fours before he bit a lamppost, breaking a front tooth. Juxtapose that incident with the work itself, volumes of poems and stories and broadcasts of intricate wordplay and rhythms that chronicle the desolation, vigour and dreams of quiet lives. As he writes in Under Milk Wood, “Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.”

Thomas left behind a body of work that distils from ordinary moments all that we hide from ourselves and others. “I do not want to express only what other people have felt,” Thomas said. “I want to rip something away and show what they have never seen.” Words on a page were never enough for this. Thomas wanted to provoke a physical effect in the reader. More than a craft, poetry served him almost from the beginning as a religion. He held faith in language’s ability to generate “a weather in the flesh and bone”, as he wrote in his first collection, 18 Poems. This led him, at age 19, to declare his literary intentions to Pamela Hansford Johnson, his first serious girlfriend, who acknowledged that Thomas loved her but couldn’t resist “Comrade Bottle”. Referencing John Donne, Thomas wrote:

Through my small, bonebound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, and sensed all. All I write is inseparable from the island. As much as possible, therefore, I employ the scenery of the island to describe the scenery of my thoughts, the earthquakes of the body to describe the earthquakes of the heart.

Born in Swansea on 27 October 1914, three months after the outbreak of World War One, Thomas was not yet a teenager when he began publishing poems in his school magazine. The memories and experience of war throbbed at the centre of his autobiography and his work. Here, he describes it in 18 Poems, published two months after he turned 20:

I dreamed my genesis and died again, shrapnel
Rammed in the marching heart, hole
In the stitched wound and clotted wind, muzzled
Death on the mouth that ate the gas.

Later, living in Wales during World War Two, his nightmares featured bombers flying towards Bristol. Again, he responded through poetry, notably ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, with its arresting and often-quoted final line: “After the first death, there is no other.”

Words held him spellbound, even in childhood. “I did not care what the words said, overmuch, nor what happened to Jack & Jill and the Mother Goose rest of them,” Thomas wrote.

I cared for the shapes of sound that their names, and the words describing their actions made in my ears; I cared for the colours the words cast on my eyes … I fell in love – that is the only expression I can think of – at once, and am still at the mercy of words.

In her introduction to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, the writer’s daughter, Aeronwy Thomas, recalls putting her ear to her father’s writing-shed door and hearing him “intoning and muttering as he wrote … Words spoken, written or read aloud were what he based his life on, even his relationship with his own family.” Andrew Lycett, author of Dylan Thomas: A new life, describes how, as a child, Thomas would ask his sister, Nancy, to provide him with a subject. The kitchen sink, she might say, and Thomas would get to work. He once rejected a friend’s request to read his work because, he said, it needed to be heard: “that is the only way to get the music out of poetry”.

On cardboard slips stored inside a brown paper folder, he kept lists of rhyming words that served as his dictionary, or what he called his “Doomsday Book”. “God moves in a long ‘o’,” he said, equating language with religion. A New Year’s resolution for 1934 included the line “I want to imagine a new colour, so much whiter than white that white is black.” An ear for rhythm and syllabic patterns served him well as a broadcaster for the BBC during the postwar years. That was one of the many guises – story writer, screenwriter, writer of comic prose and lecturer – that biographers have alluded to in titles such as Dylan: The nine lives of Dylan Thomas by Jonathan Fryer and this year’s The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas by Hilly Janes, daughter of the painter Alfred Janes, a member of Thomas’ inner circle.

Thomas’ marriage provided one of the most notorious of these many lives. When he met Caitlin Macnamara, she had dreams of dancing at the Folies Bergère and could vie with Thomas at the pub. Caitlin has become the definition of turbulent muse. Ann-Marie Priest writes of the two of them in Great Writers, Great Loves:

In fact, the phenomenon of the “party couple” is an important part of their contribution to our contemporary conceptions of love … He and Caitlin can even be seen as a kind of 1940s version of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love – that kind of talent, that degree of disaster.

Thomas’ letters to Caitlin, along with those to Johnson and other women, have been reissued in The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas. Even there, his philosophy of writing and feelings for lovers attain a poetic intensity, as when he writes to Caitlin

I don’t want you for a day (though I’d sell my toes to see you now my dear, only for a minute, to kiss you once, and make a funny face at you): a day is the length of a gnat’s life: I want you for the lifetime of a big, mad animal, like an elephant.

On hearing of her husband’s hospitalisation, Caitlin flew to New York to be with him. Frantic, she pulled a crucifix from the wall. Hospital staff had her committed to a mental clinic. She emerged to learn that Thomas was dead.

As part of the ongoing celebration of the writer’s life and work, Hannah Ellis, Thomas’ granddaughter, has edited Dylan Thomas: A centenary celebration. Among its more than three dozen commissioned essays is ‘Dylan Downunder’ by Clive Woosnam, the president of the Dylan Thomas Society of Australia. Woosnam chronicles the history and founding of the society, established in 1995 and the first of its kind outside of Britain. His essay gives ample attention to Will Christie’s Under Mulga Wood, an outback version of Under Milk Wood. Thomas’ “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea” becomes, in Christie’s rendering, a place that is “tarblack as far back as the blind eye can’t see and dark as a blackfella’s navel”.

You can now download an app that tracks Thomas’ footsteps through Wales. Another will guide you through his New York haunts. Hannah Ellis has initiated an educational project, “Developing Dylan”, that offers writing workshops in schools. It also provides multimedia resources about her grandfather’s work. One traces Thomas’ time in New York through jazz, beat poetry, spoken word and hip-hop. Along with the work itself, these celebrations remind us that Thomas combined the written and spoken word to bridge the gap between academic and lay readers.

“Poets live and walk with their poems; a man with visions needs no other company,” Thomas wrote in his story ‘One Warm Saturday’. At the centenary of his birth, legions still want to accompany the man who staked his claim for immortality in a poem: “I advance for as long as forever is.” The premature death of a visionary tempts us to reconsider every private and public excess, every scrap of cast-aside paper, even an offhand ditty scribbled in the pub. In this way, Thomas survives through his death. Such a death distracts from the work – and ensures that it lives in our memory.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

The young Dylan Thomas.
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