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Dylan Thomas: Memories and Appreciations ~

ROETHKE believe, but when I came down from Yaddo
in May,still groggyfrom myownprivate wars
T XSdifficult for me to write anything,
I stunnedas I am, like manyanother, by the
with the world, it seemedto be so.
Someonehad lent mean apartmentup-town;
newsof his death. I knewhimfor only three he was staying down-townon Washington
brief periods, yet I had cometo think of him Square. Wesometimesalternated: one would
as a youngerbrother: unsentimentally, per- rout out the other, different days. Hehadbeen
haps, and not protective as so manyfelt built up to meas a great swill-downdrinker,
inclined to be--for he could fend for himself a prodigious roaring boy out of the Welsh
against maleandfemale; but rather someone to caves. But I never knewsuch a one. Some
be proudof, to rejoice in, to be irritated with, bubblyor Guinnessor just plain beer, maybe;
or evenjealous of. Hewasso rich in whathe and not much else. Wewould sit around
wasthat each friend or acquaintanceseemedto talking about poetry; about Welshpicnics;
carry a particular imageof him: each had his life on the Detroit river, and in Chicago(he
special Dylan, whomhe cherished and pre- greatly admired "The Manwith the Golden
served intact, or expanded into a figure Arm") the early Hammett; and so on. Or
greater than life: a fabulous ageing cherub, maybe bumble across town to an old Marx
capable of all things. I think Thomasoften Brothers movie, or mopealong, poking into
knewexactly what each person thought him book shops or looking into shop windows.
to be, and, actor that he was,wouldlive up to Onenight he insisted I comealong, withothers,
expectations whenit suited his mood.Often whensomefellow Welshmen,in Americafor
this wouldtake the form of wry, ironical, twenty years, entertained. Andthen I saw
deprecatoryself-burlesque: as if he wantedto whathe meantto his ownpeople: to those hard-
remindhimself of the humancondition. Like boiled business menThomaswas the first
Chaplin, whomhe loved, he could laugh at citizen of Wales,and nothingless.
himselfwithout being coy, and call up tender- Sometimeshe wouldrecite--and what that
nessin thosewhorarely felt it. was manyknow;but I think off-stage he was
The demandson his body and spirit were even better, the rhythmsmore apparent, the
many;his recklessness, lovely. But evenhis poemsrendered exactly for whatthey were. I
superbenergiesfelt the strain, I shouldsay, on rememberhe thought "After the Funeral,"
lecture tours whenhe was set uponby fools. creakeda bit at the beginning: that he hadnot
Anykind of social pretentiousness disturbed workedhard enoughon it.
him, and particularly in academia.Thebour- Hehad a wide, detailed and active know-
geois he did not love. Andhe could, and did, ledgeof the wholerange of Englishliterature;
act outrageously, on occasion, snarling from and a long memory.I noticed one day a big
one side of his mouthto a gabbling faculty pile of poems--Edward Thomas, Hardy,
wife that nobody ever came to America l~ansom, Housman,W. 1~. l~odgers, Davies,
exceptto get fees anddrinkfree liquor ; onlyto andothers--all copiedout in his careful hand.
wish, wistfully, the next five minutes,to some- He said he never felt he knewa poem,what
one he respected, that he could stay in this wasin it, until he haddonethis. His taste was
country for a time, and maybeeven teach: exact and specific; he wasloyal to the poem,
showthe youngwhat poetry really was. But not the poet; andthe list of contemporaries he
evenin black moods,his instinctive sweemess valued was a good deal shorter than might
and graciousness wouldflash through. More generally be supposed.
than anyother writer or artist I know,he really Hewas one of the great ones, there can be
cared for andcherishedhis fellow men. no doubtof that. Andhe drank his ownblood,
I first met him in ~95o, in NewYork. John ate of his ownmarrowto get at someof that
Brinnin had written twice that DylanThomas material. His poemsneedno words,least of all
wanted to meet me. I found this hard to mine,to defendor explain them.


12 Encounter
l~I. LOUIS MACNEICE a pint in one hand"; no writer of our time
approached his art in a morereverent spirit or
y~A~s describedthe poet as one w,hoknows
that Hamletand Lear are gay.’ Nopoet
gaveit moredevotedattention. Oneglance at
a Thomasmanuscript will show the almost
of our time wasa better exampleof this than incredible trouble he took over those elaborate
DylanThomas.Whenhis first workappeared arabesquesthat could yet emergeas fresh as
it wasastonishingly newand yet wentbackto any of the "woodnoteswild" expected from
the oldest of our roots--roots whichhad long the bornlyric poet. In fact, he wasa bornlyric
beenignored,written off,. or simplyforgotten. poet but it was a birthright he workedand
Hewasnot just a poet among poets ; he was, as workedto secure.
has often beenremarked,a bard,withthe three His lyrical gift, thoughthe mostimportant,
great bardic virtues of faith, joy, andcrafts- wasonly oneof several gifts. Hehada roaring
manship--and,one could add, of charity. Many sense of comedy,as shownin manyof his prose
of his poemsare concerned with death or works.Hehada natural senseof theatre, as was
the darker forces, yet they all havethe joy of shownnot only in his everydayconversation
life in them. And many of his poems are but in those readingsof poetry(and his taste,
obscurebut it is never the obscurity of care- by the way, was catholic) which earned him
lessness; thoughI, for one, assumed it mightbe such applause both here and in the U.S. He
whenI first read his early workin the ~93o’s. wasmoreover a subtle andversatile actor, as he
Lastly, all the poems
(a rare thing in this age of proved repeatedly in radio performances.
doubt)are suffusedboth with a sense of value, And he "took production." Though his
a faith in somethingthat is simultaneously special leaning (as was natural, given his
physical and spiritual, and with (what is astonishing voice) was to the sonorous and
equally rare in an age of carping) a great emotional,he enjoyedplayingcharacter parts,
breath of generosity, goodwill not only especially comicor grotesqueones, such as a
towardsmenbut towardsall created things. friendly tkaven whichhe played for meonce
Thenext few years will obviouslysee a spate in a dramatised Norwegianfolk-tale. He
of writing about Thomas--hisvision, imagery, could even "throw away"if required to. And
technique, etc.--and the writers will be beset in all these sidelines--as in all his verse and
by two distinct and OH~Ositedangers--the prose--there appearedthe samecharacteristic
dangerof trying to equip himtoo exactly with blend of delight in whathe wasdoing andcare
a literary pedigreeandthe dangerof isolating as to howhe did it.
himas a sport, a Villon figure, a wild manwho This does not seem to me the momentfor
threw up works of genius without knowing analysing DylanThomas.He is assured of a
whathe wasdoing. Theformermistakehas been place, and a unique one, in the history of
madefor years by various academiccritics, English poetry, t3ut, whensuch a personality
often Americans,whohave dwelt at length on dies, his friends are not muchin the moodfor
Thomas’srelations to ancient Welshpoetry or literary criticism. Whatweremember is not a
to ILimbaud; though he has something in literary figure to be classified in the text-book
commonwith both (and though Wales in but somethingquite unclassifiable, a wind
general and Swanseain particular were the that bloweth whereit listeth, a windwith a
most important factors in his make-up), it chuckle in its voice and newsfrom the end of
should be remembered that he had never read the world. It is too easy to call him uncon-
1Limbaudand could not read Welsh. As for ventional-which is either an understatement
the "wild man" conception, immediately or a red herring. It is too easy to call him
after Thomas’sdeath it was exploited in its Bohemian--aword whichimplies affectations
mostdisgusting and imbecile form by certain whichwere quite alien to Thomas.It is too
of our daily papers. Of course Thomasliked easy even to call himanarchist--a better word
pints of beer. (so what?he also liked watching but too self-consciousan attitude. Thomas was
cricket) but he did not write his poems"with an actor--and wouldthat more poets were--