Thursday, July 17, 2014

Forever Young and Easy

If Dylan Thomas hadn’t pickled his liver and drowned his lungs at age thirty-nine he would be a hundred years old this year. He gurgled his last words in a Manhattan hospital after emptying eighteen shots of whiskey, by his account, though the bartender at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village says it couldn’t have been more than half that amount.

The silver-tongue poet with a voice that sent shivers down to your socks was also the doomed poet. He is one of those voices whose popularity among the general public has never waned.  Robert Zimmerman took his name and became Bob Dylan but few could recite with such Welsh resonance. Even Richard Burton seems a pale imitation. Listening to his rich intonations is itself intoxicating. Many would-be poets have heard him recite and can't get that voice out of their heads. I was one of them.

By most accounts Dylan Thomas was a gifted lyrical writer whose genius dribbled away at the bottom of demon drink. Of the ninety poems he wrote more than half were completed before his twentieth year. Fern Hill, one of his most anthologized works was completed at age 21. It begins, When I was young and easy under the apple boughs (available on You Tube). In a sense Thomas never stopped being young and easy. He was what Jungian psychologists call a puer aeternus.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
       The night above the dingle starry,
               Time let me hail and climb
       Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
               Trail with daisies and barley
       Down the rivers of the windfall light.

It was of Eden he was dreaming... in his marriage and in much of his poetry and longer prose-poems, Under Milkwood and A Child's Christmas in Wales.

Described by some peers as a self-loathing, serial womanizer, sponger, coward, liar and thief, he wasn't the man you’d want your sister to have married. Last night we watched the 2008 film, The Edge of Love, in which Dylan Thomas comes off as the reprobate-artist, feckless, reckless and a betrayer of friends.

I’m left with the question I’ve often asked myself. How can such mellifluous words issue from the mouth of such a loathsome person? Is there a disconnect between one’s art and their character? Does the sublime enter through the backdoor as a mysterious visitation?

Nice folks do not necessarily make good art so why should the converse be true? It would seem that the most profound artistic expressions come from those who have found a way to step out of the tent, out of the passing parade in order to see with fresh eyes and sing the song or find the words that stir the rest of us. It takes some misbehaving and Thomas in his self-absorption ignored conventions.

He seemed to believe that life and by extension, his personal behavior, moved inexorably by its own rhythm as in his poem, The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower. Life, Death and Life again. In another of his famous poems, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, he argues for the renewal of life as through the simple daisy as it opens each morning claiming a small victory over the sun. Our spirit, our love remain unvanquished. They are realms over which Death has no dominion.

This life force knows of no morality. It destroys and regenerates and we live our lives mimicking that process; some of us intertwined in a fierce tango. Perhaps Dylan Thomas self-destructed in accordance with this belief. In any case he lived an unfettered life and certainly one too short.

We made a trade along the way. In the name of authenticity we gave away Thomas' wondrous imaginative language-stretching for a more conversational one. Much has been lost and we are poorer for it.

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