Monday, October 27, 2014

Dylan Thomas at 100: "just one of the boys"

     The odd thing about this column is that I don't particularly like Dylan Thomas. I have many favorite poets and he isn't one of them. But with the centennial upon us, I realized he had gone through Chicago on his readings, and wondered, provincially, what that was like. Thomas fits into a list I think of as "People You Never Think Of As Being in Chicago."
Lincoln's nomination, Chicago
Winston Churchill, for instance. Or Col. George Armstrong Custer. Golda Meir lived here. For some reason I include Abraham Lincoln, because even though we know that he was HERE—heck, he got his first nomination at the Wigwam, which was located at Lake and Wacker Drive—we associate him with Springfield or Washington, and you just don't think about Lincoln trodding these streets. At least I don't. We do know Oscar Wilde was here, because of his famous crack about the Water Tower looking like a "a castellated monstrosity with pepperboxes stuck all over it," which sounds about right. Rudyard Kipling was here, too, and said, less famously:
I have struck a city--a real city--and they call it Chicago. The other places do not count. San Francisco was a pleasure-resort as well as a city, and Salt Lake was a phenomenon. This place is the first American city I have encountered. It holds rather more than a million of people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again.
Anyway, raise a glass to Dylan Thomas, born 100 years ago today.

     Dylan Thomas surprised Van Allen Bradley.
     Based on the Welsh writer’s reputation, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News had expected the 35-year-old poet to resemble “an unmade bed.”
Dylan Thomas
     Instead Thomas, who appeared at Chicago’s Arts Club, then at 109 E. Ontario, for a reading April 23, 1952, was dapper, “handsome in his dark suit and blue polka-dot tie,” though he insulted “the bunch of eccentrics” who ponied up $2 apiece to hear him.
     Thomas, whose 100th birthday is Monday, made some memorable appearances in Chicago on his way to becoming among the best-known poets of the 20th century.
     “Dylan Thomas loved Chicago,” Jo Furber, literature officer of the Swansea Council in his birthplace, told WalesOnline.
      And Chicago, like America and the world, loved him back. To many readers, Dylan Thomas is the embodiment of poetry.
     “For a lot of people, he was synonymous with poetry,” said Robert Polito, president of Chicago’s Poetry Foundation. “If you’re an American of a certain age, it’s very likely either   Robert Frost or Dylan Thomas was the first great poet you encountered as a kid."
     Frost had his woods, both snowy and yellow. Why Thomas?
    "I think Thomas' vatic qualities," Polito said, referring to his peering into the future. "The intensity of the writing, and the flamboyance of the personality, plus the whole myth of him."
     Thomas' ethnicity also is very important.
     "Growing up in Wales, everyone, every school-age kid, has taken a field trip," said David Parry, founder of the Chicago Tafia Welsh Society. "Wales is only a country of 3 million people; every time someone from Wales is on the international stage, it just stands out a little more."
      Parry, who organized a celebration of Thomas' works Sunday at Woodlawn Tap (including hauling out the cherished bar books that Thomas signed during his visits there), said it is his life as much if not more than his writing that makes him so beloved.
     "The poems and the man himself, I think," Parry said. "He was the embodiment of a Welshman: a carousing, boozing womanizing sort of reprobate. There's something about those characters in Wales. He was famous but still one of the boys."
     Thomas famously drank himself to death at age 39 - 18 whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern in New York City. No commemorations are planned at that bar, it seems.
     "There's nobody here who knows anything," said the bartender taking my call.
     For his 1952 Arts Club reading, Thomas was introduced by Karl Shapiro, a poet of no small renown himself, then editor of Poetry Magazine, who called Thomas "the greatest lyric poet now alive." Bradley, the Daily News critic, sniffed at that introduction as "too generous, perhaps, in view of the selections from his own work Thomas read." Though in Bradley's defense, Thomas was a controversial "ultramodern" poet whose poems were being praised as "the most absolute poetry that has been written in our time," which fairly screams for disagreement, which others provided, damning his work as "an unconducted tour of bedlam."
     Bradley enjoyed it when Thomas read Yeats, and British poet Edward Thomas, but found Thomas' own poems obscure.
     "His verbal pyrotechnics are pleasant to hear, but their meanings sometimes are quite unclear to his listeners."
     Which, Polito observes, was a good thing.
     "Thomas' poems epitomize the sounds of poetry while also resisting the intelligence," he said. "It's part of what makes them still seem modern to us. You really have to puzzle them out, line by line, word by word. At the same time, as you're trying to figure them out, it just sounds like this tremendous clanging music and sonic clamor."
     Although Bradley did appreciate one of Thomas' poems, with its unambiguous refrain, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," enough to mention it by name.
     "The best of his own poems heard Wednesday night were 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' from his new book."
      The next night Thomas recited, for free, at Northwestern, though coverage of his appearance at Tech Auditorium was dwarfed in the Daily Northwestern by news that red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy would be packing them in the next night at Patten Gym.
      Chicago made the expected impression on Thomas. "In Chicago it was bitterly snowing," Thomas wrote his parents, complaining that he never knew what to wear on any given day. "In Florida, the temperature was 90." But Thomas did not love Florida, a reminder that sometimes it's the hardest roads that make for the most memorable journeys.


  1. "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is the work I associate with Thomas more than any of his poems. Happy Birthday, Dylan.


  2. With a cast of good Welsh actors "Under Milkwood" can hold the stage. He burst on the scene in the 1950's reading his own stuff, but I found his declamatory style and fruity anglo-welsh accent didn't wear well and thought his poetry was better served by the Welsh actor Emlyn Williams, who did a one-man show of his poetry.

    His reputation for consumption of strong spirits was somewhat exaggerated, but the liquor-fueled battles with wife Caitlen were real enought. She is said to have asked, after hearing about his final bender and last hospitalization, "Is the bloody man dead yet?" He was criticized by traditionalists in Wales for writing in English, although if he had become a Welsh bard hardly anybody would have ever heard of him. By now I'm sure he's regarded as a great native son and his works an evocation of hireath, the legendary longing for the hills and valleys of Cymru.

  3. Loved that Christmas in Wales PBS piece.


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