Dylan Thomas, for all his drinking, carousing and recklessness, was a man deeply devoted to his art. It was what defined him – utterly, irrevocably – and he was lost in its clutches, while struggling in the deeper grip of a tumultuous love affair with his wife, Caitlin MacNamara. Although no one, especially myself, can claim to have truly known him, what I do believe is that he was an actor, not unlike many of us, and that while his public self was forthrightly outrageous, witty, often simultaneously endearing and unbearable, his private poet-self was one deeply serious and devoted, almost religiously devoted, to the poem– its craft, shape, form, sound and music. This will be the first in a series of essays on various aspects of Dylan Thomas' poetic life, using the threads of his journals, love letters and poetry to weave together my own understanding of this remarkable poet.
The following are a series of quotes from the Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, which focus on his ponderings: of the universe, his place in it, and what he was meant to do with it and within it. Reading his letters, especially those written in his early years - his most fertile writing years - it becomes clear that Dylan Thomas was a young man with a mind exploding with wonder, fear, and music.
A MOMENT OF WONDER AND EPIPHANY: "… if I can bring myself to know, not to think, that nothing is uninteresting, I can broaden my own outlook and believe once more, as I so passionately believed and so passionately want to believe, in the magic of this burning and bewildering universe, in the meaning and divinity that is so near us and so longing to be nearer, in the staggering, bloody, starry wonder of the sky I can see above and the sky I can think of below. When I learn that the stars I see there may be but the backs of the stars I see there, I am filled with the terror which is the beginning of love. They tell me that space is endless and space curves. And I understand." (CL, 81)
ON HIS VIEW OF 'SYMBOLS' OF THE EARTH: "I found the madness of the night to be a false madness, and the vast horseplay of the sky to be a vaster symbol. It was as if the night were crying, crying out the terrible explanation of itself. On all sides of me, under my feet, above me head, the symbols moved, all waiting in vain to be translated. The trees that night were like prophets fingers. What had been a fool in the sky was the wisest cloud of all – a huge, musical ghost thumping out one, coded tune." (CL, 44)
HIS VIEW OF MAN'S 'EARTHINESS': "The body, its appearance, death, and diseases, is a fact, sure as the fact of a tree. It has its roots in the same earth as the tree. The greatest description of our own 'earthiness' is to be found in John Donne's Devotions, where he describes man as earth of the earth, his body earth, his hair a wild shrub growing out of the land. .. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, skin, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells or senses. Through my small, bonebound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, sensed all." (CL, 39)
His letters are just as powerful as his poetry, while for the most part more concise. He has been accused of being a "word-mad young poet" and many were baffled by the densely packed, highly personal imagery of his poetry. Yet if we look at his letters in his early years, we see his poetical mind at work: everything was alive for him, everything was speaking to him and he was trying to translate the magic and terror of it into what he knew best: words. Indeed, terror and love are deeply entwined in his thoughts, his poetry. His letters show us as much, while also showing us a very rational, brilliant mind at work.
ON HIS OWN POETRY: "Very much of my poetry is, I know an enquiry and a terror of fearful expectation, a discovery and facing of fear. I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression."
ON SOUND & HIS FAVORITE WORDS: "The greatest single word I know is 'drome' which, for some reason, nearly opens the doors of heaven for me. Say it yourself, out aloud, and see if you hear the golden gates swing backward as the last, long sound of the 'm' fades away. 'Drome,' 'bone,' 'dome,' 'doom,' 'province,' 'dwell,' 'prove,' 'dolomite,' these are only a few of my favourite words, which are insufferably beautiful to me. The first four words are visionary; God moves in a long 'o'." (CL, 73)
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CLARITY IN POETRY: "I do not mind from where the images of a poem are dragged up; drag them up, if you like, from the nethermost sea of the hidden self; but before they reach paper, they must go through all the rational processes of the intellect." (from a 1951 statement on poetics)
IN the process of doing extensive research on a poet that one loves, it is not unremarkable to be inspired by their life and their work. One interesting result of my reading of the collected letters and love letters of Dylan Thomas evolved from a deep sadness on my part that his life had ended abruptly at the young age of thirty-nine, after which no more work could swirl and leap from his mind to the page. In reading his letters, I saw such brilliance that I wondered if I couldn't make them leap from the dead page into a new shape.
ON BEING AT THE MERCY OF WORDS: "though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy." (from Dylan Thomas' Choice: An Anthology of Verse Spoken by Dylan Thomas, edited by Ralph Maud and Aneirin Talfin Davies. New Directions Books, 1963)
Taking lines from various love letters to Pamela Hansford Johnson, his first love, I wrote the first in a series of poems "after the love letters of Dylan Thomas." His original words have been shifted and scattered, but they are still his, and I believe the heart of his "beast, angel and madman" still beats strongly inside this newly constructed form.
"Letters to Pamela" – after the Love Letters of Dylan Thomas
To Pamela #1
Look, little Ivanovitch! There are bodies in the Volga.
Jesus, what are we up against, Pam -
What are we going to do? Smile darkly over the fire?
One day I shall undoubtedly turn into a potato.
How horribly easy it is to be hurt,
Look! That is your auntie, the one with the poem
To Pamela #2
Kiss yourself goodmorning and goodnight,
In the beginning was a word I can't spell.
With the intonation of doom, a dreadful
Kiss yourself goodmorning and goodnight,
To cry Jesus to the mice - but I walk,
Out of you and me, Pamela,