Robert Fulford's review of Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters

(The National Post, January 27, 2001)

Dylan Thomas, the most renowned of the modern boozy bards, was one of those rare poets whose work soars far beyond the literary world and wins an audience among readers who otherwise know little of poetry. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a typical fan, wrote to the dean of Westminster Abbey in 1982, on the occasion of Thomas's installation in the Poets' Corner: "He has been my favourite poet since 1953, when I first happened to read 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London' in an anthology of modern poems. We then bought a book of his collected poems and my family spent many good hours reading his words aloud."

In the postwar period, Thomas was everybody's favourite romantic, a poet of fierce and obvious passion who also happened to be hell bent on staying drunk till it killed him. His short, miserable life is displayed once more in Paul Ferris's updated version of Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters.

Thomas's success represented a radical break with academic theory. He made his trans-Atlantic reputation just when professors were building careers on the idea that we can only understand poetry by rigorously separating it from the poet. The reigning New Critics declared all biographical information, from the mental health of poets to their social situation, totally irrelevant. In this atmosphere, Thomas was an affront. He exposed his soul to his audiences and his private habits were the gossip of every common room.

To slightly younger poets like Philip Larkin, Thomas's poems were lofty in spirit but pretentious and often incomprehensible, precisely what poetry should never be. Thomas's occasional explanations of his work made it even less clear, raising the suspicion that his thought processes were as unruly as his life.

His first book, Eighteen Poems, attracted serious attention in 1934, when he was just 20. For the next 19 years he held a place of importance in contemporary poetry. At the same time, his rich cello of a voice helped make him a notable radio presence in Britain. He read the poems of others as well as his own, reminisced eloquently about his Welsh childhood, and acted in radio dramas (a fellow radio actor, Richard Burton, considered Thomas one of the best). His stories and sketches were collected in widely read books like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Adventures in the Skin Trade. His BBC monologue, A Child's Christmas in Wales, achieved the status of a classic in the 1950s. His work exhibited a schoolboy sense of humour: he gave to the town in Under Milk Wood, his radio drama, the Welsh-sounding name of Llareggub (buggerall spelled backwards).

In 1936 Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara, his life's partner, in a pub (where else?). They twice had to delay their wedding after drinking up the money needed for the registration. They had three children, in an atmosphere of alcohol-fuelled hysteria: She was his equal in drinking and in drunken rages. Someone called them "a matched pair of dipsomaniacs." Caitlin said later: "You must understand that our lives were raw, red bleeding meat."

His letters to her run through this collection, feverishly affectionate, desperate to convey how much he loves her. But as the years go by (and the girlfriends grow more numerous) we can feel the load of guilt pulling down his enthusiasm. She survived him by 41 years, remarried, formed other liaisons, but never escaped from his shadow or perhaps never wanted to. She wrote two books about their marriage, Leftover Life to Kill in 1957 and Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas, in 1987.

As a letter-writer Thomas wasn't much interested in discussing literary questions, didn't care for politics, and wasn't given to soul-searching. So most of these letters are about gossip or money or both. The gossip has dated, along with the reputations of his friends (though malice comes through often, as when he slags Stephen Spender's poetry in a letter to a third poet and then writes Spender grovelling letters of thanks for gifts of money). The money letters convey an aching pathos (the sums so small, the needs so great), but even that wears off after a time.

Quite early in the book, Thomas becomes an accomplished beggar, vividly describing his poverty to potential patrons and asking for money immediately. He worked hard drafting these requests -- as if, Ferris says, "the composition of a begging letter had become a literary end in itself." He sometimes found this hateful, but he also gloried in being the star of a pathetic drama. "I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me," he once wrote -- a complaint that also sounded like a boast. There was a theatrical tone to everything he did, and after he died Emlyn Williams made his work into a long-running one-man show.

In the early years he was poor because his poetry brought little money, despite his reputation; sometimes he was literally starving. But as it turned out, money couldn't cure his poverty, no matter how much he made. When it began arriving as payment for film scripts and radio appearances, it flew out of his hands like a frightened bird as soon as he grasped it. He was as profligate as a Cabinet minister.

Alcohol was the major cause. He lived out the confirmed boozer's paradox: he never had money yet always managed to get drunk. His letters are filled with the alcoholic's frantically improvised apologies, made all the sadder by his ability to shape them with wit and ingenuity. Typically, he failed to show up to perform as best man at the wedding of his closest friend, Vernon Watkins, sending later a brilliantly phrased letter of apology signed "Your worst man." He says he's sorry so often that the book reads like an anthology of apologies. Shame is the emotion he expresses most often.

But alcohol is not a subject he worried about much, so far as he reveals. He eloquently describes a hangover ("I have the villain of a headache, my eyes are two piss holes in the sand, my tongue is fish-and-chip paper") but he never admits that he's bothered by his drinking. He's the man in the old joke: "I have a drinking problem. My problem is I can't get enough to drink."

In 1949 John Malcolm Brinnin, an American poet and Thomas admirer, conceived a solution to Thomas's financial troubles that turned out to be disastrous. Thomas would tour America and read his poetry, with Brinnin as booker and manager. So in three tours he made a reputation as a richly talented reader, a disgusting and insulting house guest, and a sexual omnivore. American audiences adored him, and his ego bloomed. Caitlin said, "Never did anyone enjoy adulation more, or need it less."

Soon his whole life seemed to be a public performance, which was death to his poetry. Finally the liquor killed him, in New York in 1953, at 39. It was said he drank 18 whiskeys during his last visit to a bar, but biographers have doubted that story. Two years later, Brinnin wrote a best-seller, Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal, exposing the poet's wretchedness in painful detail. Alec Guinness played him in the stage version.

If the American tours helped kill Thomas, they brought new life to poetry as a public act. Single-handedly, he revived the then dormant idea that serious poets should read their work aloud. As Seamus Heaney has said, Thomas "wakened my generation to joy in the art of spoken poetry."

Thomas was the grandfather of the poetry festivals now scattered across the globe. And if those events are often tiresome, it's not his fault. He knew how to give a performance (even when sozzled), and how to deploy his vocal talent. The poets who have followed in his wake rarely have voices as gorgeous as his, and fewer still try to reproduce his extravagant bardic manner. Today's poets seem to think they discharge most of their duty by just showing up (which is, admittedly, more than Thomas managed on certain occasions).

A critic quoted on the dust jacket calls this a "masterly and monumental edition." No one will quarrel with the monumental part, since it runs 1,062 pages, but it's hard to see in what way it's masterly. The footnotes are well handled, but if we consider the book as a contribution to literature, it seems close to pointless. Of the roughly 1,100 letters it contains, all but 100 appeared in the Collected Letters that Ferris edited in 1987; and I can't find even one of the new ones that seems indispensable.

Many letters are repetitive, many routine, and many seem to be included just to make the book complete. A telegram saying in its entirety, "STUFF ARRIVING MONDAY SORRY DELAY" is not an addition to our literary heritage, and there are many like that. I hate to seem ungrateful to a publication that has poignantly recalled the pleasures of the Thomas era, but this is an unnecessary book, a collection for collection's sake.

Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters: New Edition (Dent, 1062 pp., $90), edited by Paul Ferris

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