This essay exploring the downward spiral of Dylan Thomas during tours of America is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Going Not So Gently into That Good Night
Within half an hour of his first sighting of Dylan Thomas, John Malcolm Brinnin was dragging the poet’s luggage through a “razor-cold morning” to load it into his Studebaker. “What posh cars American poets have,” Thomas said as they slid into the car for the ride into New York City. As they sped through the wastes of Queens, Brinnin was hyper-aware of the ramshackle streets, the junk yards and cluttered fields full of weeds and debris—ugliness that was covered in a thick layer of frost. Thomas stared silently at the landscape before saying, “I knew America would be just like this.” When Manhattan’s skyscrapers came into view, “as formal and white in the sun as an island of the dead,” Thomas simply stared and said nothing.
We can thank Brinnin for this solid picture of Thomas’ first reactions to America just after the Welshman had landed at Idlewild Airport on February 21, 1950: “bundled like an immigrant in a shapeless rough woolen parka, his hair as tangled as a nest from which the bird has flown, his eyes wide, scared, as if they sought the whole dreadful truth of America at once.” This description opens Brinnin’s book Dylan Thomas in America, an incandescent look at the poet’s talent and a difficult survey of his alcohol-fueled slide toward death.
After Thomas is checked in at the hotel, they take a stroll to the RCA building, now 30 Rockefeller Plaza, to ascend to its observation deck. Brinnin watched as Thomas gleaned his first notion of New York as a city: “Through the hyaline sunlight, Manhattan Island glittered, austere and inhuman, a jewel in the hand. Dylan stared into the strangely faraway silence of the streets directly below and out into the Bay where through shining mist he could see the spiked head and lifted torch of Liberty.” By his descriptions and his observations, Brinnin creates an almost hypnotic ebbing and flowing of quietude and clamor as he moves deeper into the story of his relationship with the poet, the book all the more satisfying to read because it is nonfiction written by a poet.
The Undoing of Dylan Thomas
Though Brinnin’s narrative powers are keen, the lyrical quality of his language begins to break down near the end of the book when the story spirals into details of the last days of Thomas’ life and his subsequent death. It’s obvious from the book that Brinnin came to care for the poet in spite of the chaos and insanity he brought to his life. He didn’t mince words when he called Thomas “a living delight and a living torment.” The slide toward a troubled end seems to begin as early as the first day when Brinnin introduced Thomas to Third Avenue with its string of dimly lit pubs in which he felt quite at home. This effort to situate him in a place that would put the poet at ease backfired on Brinnin before long.
Several weeks later, Thomas told Harvey Breit, who was interviewing him for the Sunday book section of The New York Times, “I love Third Avenue. I don’t believe New York. It’s obvious to anyone why. All the same, I believe New Yorkers. Whether they’ve ever questioned the dream in which they live, I wouldn’t know, because I won’t ever dare ask that question.” There’s a haunting quality to this story as Thomas’ coughing fits, followed by retching and vomiting, are commonplace, even as he is undertaking one pub crawl after another. The purpose of his trips to America centered around performing, and I was truly in awe of the fact that he could stand up straight given how much alcohol he had generally consumed by the time he stepped in front of a microphone.
I would have doubted the quality of those performances if Brinnin hadn’t made it a point to praise the brilliance of most of Thomas’s readings, calling the lion’s share of them “genius” (as you can hear from the one above). An occasion that illustrates how deep a dichotomy Thomas presented begins with Brinnin witnessing as the poet “retched into a basin as if he would never stop,” an incident immediately followed by him walking onto the stage at the appointed time “shoulders straight, chest out in his staunch and pouter-pigeon advance, as he proceeded to give the first of those performances which were to bring to America a whole new conception of poetry reading.” Brinnin credits Thomas’ enormous range and the organ-deep resonance of his voice as two reasons he was so exceptional on stage.
As he watched the performances and gauged the reactions of the audiences, Brinnin made a list of things that mesmerized Thomas’ listeners: “Some were moved by the almost sacred sense of his approach to language; some by the bravado of a modern poet whose themes dealt directly and unapologetically with birth and death and the presence of God; some were entertained merely by the plangent virtuosity of an actor with a great voice.” Without fail, Brinnin says, “Ovations greeting him as he came on and as he went off were tremendous, but the sweat on his brow flowed no less copiously either time.”
The disparity of his actions would have been impossible to understand had it not been for Brinnin’s insight into Thomas’ spirit. As early as witnessing his first reading, Brinnin gained a “striking knowledge of the fact that Dylan was alone, that he had been born into a loneliness beyond the comprehension of those of us who feel we live in loneliness, and that those recognitions of success or failure by which we can survive meant nothing to him.” As dark as his story is to digest, I am glad I stuck with it because I learned a great deal about the man who, in spite of existing outside of academia, found great success as a poet—as difficult an achievement at the time as it is now given the level at which he succeeded.
“To Dylan poetry was something that happened, that had been happening for a long time, and would go on happening,” Brinnin wrote; “it was not something to meet upon, to debate, or to fix into hierarchical tables.” Juxtapose the statement “he practiced and promoted joy like a virtue” against his intoxicated behavior, which included four-letter ejaculations of his drunken talk, lascivious retorts to civil questions, and lewd attentions to details of the female anatomy, and you see how complex a character he was. As Thomas lay in a coma, Brinnin senses the end: “At his own pace, in his own time, Dylan was approaching his own good night. When I spoke to him, I knew I spoke only to myself.”
It was clear to me from the story Brinnin told that Thomas’ wife Caitlin contributed greatly to the poet’s emotional pain. Reading about how insulting and cruel she was helped me better understand a number of Thomas’ poems, particularly my favorite:
On a Wedding Anniversary
The sky is torn across
This ragged anniversary of two
Who moved for three years in tune
Down the long walks of their vows.
Now their love lies a loss
And Love and his patients roar on a chain;
From every tune or crater
Carrying cloud, Death strikes their house.
Too late in the wrong rain
They come together whom their love parted:
The windows pour into their heart
And the doors burn in their brain.
This poem is a written example of Brinnin’s claim that Thomas’ social character created a “spell-like illusion of intimacy” that “he would cast upon anyone who came near.” That’s impossible to communicate in a book, of course, and I was left thinking only that he was a nightmare to manage. Brinnin admits it’s true but that didn’t stop him from hosting Thomas in the U.S. four times and visiting him during most of his trips to Europe, making this a story about true friendship and devotion. From a literary perspective, it feels like such a shame that Thomas had to die so young, but from a human perspective, it was a relief to know the skirmish was over because there was something so enormously traumatic about his struggle.
The film Set Fire to the Stars tells the story of the beginning of the extraordinary adventure Thomas would take with Brinnin. Elijah Wood played Brinnin brilliantly as the movie follows the storyline in the book. Ironically, one sentiment spoken so vehemently near the end of the film summed up Thomas’ loathing of everything Brinnin had spent his life building: “Don’t open a book; open a window.”
Dylan Thomas in America © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.by