He couldn’t even pour a glass of water. Then, he began to read his poetry…By Hans Meyerhoff
Monday, October 27 marked one hundred years since Dylan Thomas—the brilliant, beloved, mercurial poet—was born in Swansea, Wales. Just thirty-nine short years later, he died after achieving fame—and infamy. One afternoon, a New Republic contributor attended a poetry reading held by Thomas that highlighted both the depths Thomas’s alcoholism had taken him to, and the sheer awesome power of his voice and work. His report of that reading is sad and triumphant, in equal measure.
To mark its 100th anniversary, The New Republic is republishing a collection of its most memorable articles. This week’s theme: Literary birthdays.
This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on July 11, 1955.
I saw and heard Dylan Thomas only once. De mortuis…. Perhaps it is unbecoming to remember him as I do; but this memory is deeply engraved as his mark of greatness for me; and it is by this mark that I shall always remember this man and poet whom I did not know.
It was a public reading of poetry at a university. At three o’clock—who reads poetry at three o’clock in the afternoon?—the large lecture hall was half-filled with students, visitors, and a sprinkling of the faculty. The introduction was stiff, formal, academic, and distant. Then the poet stepped forward to the lectern. Only it wasn’t the poet. It wasn’t the lean, sensitive face with the Grecian curls and dreamy, far-away look in his eyes familiar from the youthful portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John which had become a trademark for every edition of the poet’s works. (It is, fortunately on the cover of the present volume.) Instead, the man behind the lectern was quite pudgy and stocky, with a fleshy face, a fiery, almost angry, eye, a thrust of the jaw, unruly hair, a wrinkled suit and a loose collar and tie.
There was time to absorb the initial shock; for he had trouble finding his bearings behind the lectern. He appeared unsteady, nervous and ill at ease. The notes from which he was going to read were written on loose sheets which looked like scraps of paper. As he was shuffling them rapidly, perhaps to put them into some kind of order, they fluttered to the floor. He stooped down, scrambled after them and scooped them up in awkward gestures—all the while cursing in sotto voce obscenities. Then he poured himself a glass of water; only he didn’t. He held the water pitcher with an outstretched arm and aimed at the glass below; but he missed; and a steady stream of water ran from the pitcher onto the floor. There was no doubt now that he was unsteady. Nobody laughed. There was deep silence in the room.
Then he began to read, without a word of greeting, from his notes. He read hurriedly and half-audibly as if embarrassed; but what he had written, as an introduction and commentary to his readings, was excellent: quick, sharp pen sketches of the poets—he seemed to like Hardy best—catching them in a live portrait on a bicycle ride or in a family group around the table, and subtle, sensitive insights laying bare the heart of the poem with an empathetic eye and ear and an attitude loving, hesitating, and reticent as if these confessions were not meant, as they were not, for a public reading before a college audience. Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible, because I am suffering—he seemed to say and said it in almost these words. And then the initial shock gave way to a wave of deep sympathy among his listeners; for he obviously was suffering. This was some kind of an indignity, and he responded to it with ill-concealed disdain and suppressed anger.
Continue reading The Day Dylan Thomas’s Poetic Brilliance Triumphed Over His Sad Alcohol Dependency.