Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth in Wales of my (more or less) favorite poet, Dylan Thomas — who, despite a limited education (grammar school), a brief lifespan (39) and a severe drinking problem (it may have killed him), produced some of the most dazzling, most original, most memorable, most by-god brilliant poetry in the history of literature. Furthermore, he even made a modest living at it — an almost unimaginable brass ring for poets. He achieved, as someone once observed, rock star status before rock stars even existed. (No wonder the American folk singer Robert Zimmerman rechristened himself Bob Dylan.) He was even a sensation in America, despite what he called “the barrier of a common language”.
Of course, his popularity was arguably due more to his performances of poetry than to his poetry itself. With his colorful personality, wry sense of humor, commanding stage presence and mesmerizing delivery in a rich, booming Welsh baritone, he presented public readings that were surely irresistible. But it was his poetry that made it all possible. And it’s amazing that the general public should provide him such a fan base, given that his poetic style was dense, oblique and often inscrutable.
Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house,
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow’s scream.
Lines like these can leave even the most experienced poetry readers scratching their heads. But even when you don’t recognize the references or follow the superficial “meaning” of Dylan’s lines, you generally get their gist; or, as he puts it in another poem, “The heart is sensual, though five eyes [i.e., senses] break.” Even when his lines seem to defy interpretation, they have a way of sticking with you, of burrowing into your mind and gradually unfolding themselves until they produce what he called “an earthquake of the heart.”
Some of his poems, however, are rather more accessible; and a few of his lines have become commonly quoted: “And death shall have no dominion”; “I see the boys of summer in their ruin”; and most famously, “Do not go gentle into that good night”. The latter is the first line of a relatively simple, but powerful and exquisitely crafted villanelle he composed when he thought his father was dying. Later, after his father did die, he began writing an elegy that remained unfinished at his own death. It was painstakingly completed by his friend and fellow poet Vernon Watkins based on 60 — yes, SIXTY — pages of notes and drafts Dylan left.
My own favorite among many great Dylan Thomas lines is “Bury the dead, for fear that they walk to the grave in labor” — from his birthday poem Twenty-Four Years. When I was that age myself, I set the poem to music, being something of a composer (or so I liked to fancy myself). Nobody has ever performed my musical Dylan tribute, but I remain quite pleased with it.
I discovered the magic of Dylan Thomas when I was 17, a college freshman more interested in exploring the treasures of the campus library than in exploring my own textbooks. Having been cast in my first theatrical production, I was sitting one day in the auditorium preparing to watch some of my fellow performers rehearse a scene when the director sauntered by, spotted the book next to me, and picked it up with furrowed brow.
“Why are you reading Dylan Thomas?” he asked in the kind of tone in which a parent might ask a child, “Why are you cleaning your room when nobody has asked you to, and there are so many cartoons on TV?”
“Because I want to”. I responded, as if no other response were necessary or even possible.
Feigning a look of astonishment (or maybe he wasn’t feigning) he said, “Don’t shock me like that.”
“Well, I like Dylan Thomas.”, I informed him, emphasizing the “like” to make it clear that I wasn’t merely tolerating the poetry or experimenting with it as a kid of my generation might experiment with pot.
“Yes”, he said. “he was quite a boy.” He was clearly pleased that I was tackling such challenging reading matter without being goaded into it by some professor.
And indeed I was. The Collected Poems of that “boy” became my constant companion for many years. I also enjoyed reading his other varied works, including a play (Under Milk Wood), a screenplay (The Doctor and the Devils), fiction (Adventures in the Skin Trade), reminiscences of his childhood in Wales (A Child’s Christmas in Wales) and other essays. But above all, the poems. They were one of my few constant sources of comfort, inspiration and hope during dark times. That fiery young wizard of words who coaxed the English language into performing feats you wouldn’t think it capable of was a potent reminder of what heights the human spirit can attain. I finally decided that instead of keeping a copy of his book around, I’d just commit the whole thing to memory. I haven’t succeeded yet, but I’m making progress.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that the author of such sublime and exuberant verses had difficulty getting along in the world. “Boy” really was, perhaps, an appropriate epithet. I once met the British poet Stephen Spender, who’d been a friend of his, and I couldn’t help asking him what Thomas was really like. With a bit of a sigh, he just said, “Dylan was a legend. And he behaved like one”. From contextual clues I translated that as, “He could be a pain in the ass; but you couldn’t help but love him.”
His widow, Caitlin, penned a memoir of their tempestuous time together under the title Leftover Life to Kill. And there unquestionably was plenty of it. One of the great tragedies of his early demise probably hastened by self-destructive behavior is that it deprived the rest of us of the additional body of literary masterpieces he might have produced in subsequent years.
The Boy has been with us for a century now. And he left us entirely too soon.
(If you’re not familiar with the work of Dylan Thomas, perhaps a good place to start would be Fern Hill, one of his most popular, and most accessible, poems. You can read it here. Or you can hear the poet himself read it here. Fellow Welshman Richard Burton reads Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night here.)