Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Press agentry bobs to the surface
This Internet machine is popular and there's a lot of interesting stuff on it.
But not everything is online.
For instance, last Friday, when I realized that the centennial of Dylan Thomas' birth was coming up Monday, and that he had done readings in Chicago, I thought it might be fun to find out what one of those readings had been like.
Easier said than done.
"Dylan Thomas in Chicago" on Google turned up pretty much nothing. Checking books like Thomas in America on Google Books merely confirmed that he had been here, and coughed up a quote of him referring to it "bitterly snowing" in Chicago in a letter to his parents. Not much to hang your hat on.
Phone calls to the Arts Club and the Newberry Library came up empty. The Poetry Foundation president offered some thoughtful, big picture stuff, but nothing about the events themselves, which took place before his birth. The Northwestern University archive shared a Daily Northwestern story in advance of Thomas' reading in Evanston. But no reporting on what happened there.
For a moment, I flashed on Terry and Judith and Virginia and Connie and all the Sun-Times librarians of the past. Once upon a time I'd enlist them to help me. All long gone.
So I tracked down the key to the basement stacks—for an awful moment I thought it had been lost in our big move. But it was finally located, in a box of junk. Down into the basement of our building, past the offices of Comcast SportsNet, where I always crane my neck and look through the windows and have the same 12-year-old's thought: "I wonder if Stacey King is in there?" The Bulls broadcaster, nearly a poet himself, brimming with all sorts of rhymes and colorful Red Barber locutions. "Heart hustle and muscle!"
Down the long fluorescent hall. Past the sad little office holding the last of the Andy Frain empire. To the unmarked door containing the newspaper's dusty, decaying, neglected and haphazard morgue, as they called it, our collection of clip files—drawer after drawer of thick beige envelopes, jammed with yellowed newspaper stories, assembled for decades by our team of patient, slightly crazy librarians. They are called "clip files" because they were clipped from newspapers; the librarians would spend their days ripping apart newspapers, circling key words in china marker.Now we have no librarians. The assumption—assuming that anyone cares or gives this issue thought, which is a stretch—is that online contains multitudes, and good enough is a feast.
Wandering among the jumble of randomly placed metal cabinets. Locate the "Ts." Where two envelopes with Dylan Thomas were right where they were supposed to be, and in them exactly one story about Dylan Thomas reading at the Arts Club.
Take that, Internet.
Van Allen Bradley's brief story had a lot of verve in it, particularly his phrase about expecting Thomas to look like an "unmade bed." I loved that.
There was one mistake in it, though I believe it is a telling mistake.
"Something's wrong with the math you posted," Al Yellon wrote on Facebook after my column on Thomas ran Monday. "The Daily News article you cite seems to say that he was 35 years old in 1952 -- which would mean he was born in 1917, but obviously that isn't right."
Well, not so obviously. I hadn't noticed anything wrong or thought to check it. Busy being my own librarian. In my rush, I missed that someone sliced three years off the age of Thomas, who obviously was born in 1914—that was the whole point of bringing him up, 100 years, not 97, since his birth. The story had him as 35 years old, not 38.
Which made me smile, because I realized what had happened.
Yes, Van Allen Bradley might have made a mistake. Hit the wrong key on his manual typewriter.
But dimes get you dollars, this error, this artifact, is the 62-year-old echo of a sleight of hand or a bit of press agentry. Just as the bad boy of modern poetry's reputation made the Chicago Daily News critic expect someone more disheveled, so I bet Thomas fibbed, or his handlers decided to shave a few years off his age, the better to draw in the customers at $2 a pop. I can't be certain. But things don't change all that much. Youth sells, then and now, even in poetry. Maybe especially in poetry. Everybody wants to be Lord Byron, who died at 36. And it's comforting to remember that even the greats—maybe especially the greats—had all the worries and challenges that we regular schlebs have, if not more so.
The lie exposed—an apt, brief definition of poetry. That's why I never fudge my age—I was born June 10, 1960. Because the truth will out. I know guys who do, and it adds to the unspeakable sorrow of being a B-list quasi-celebrity in a Midwest town. And as Dylan Thomas himself said: "Youth calls to age across the tired years." I have no idea what that means but, like so much in Dylan Thomas, it sure sounds swell.