Dylan Thomas is the last in our series of poets born in 1914, the same year as William Stafford. As with Stafford, the centennial of Thomas’s birth is being commemorated world-wide, centered at his hometown of Swansea, Wales.
A prolific writer of poems, fiction, screenplays, and memoirs, his first book of verse was published when he was 18. His best know collection, Deaths and Entrances (1946) sold out its first printing of 3000 copies within a month, and in his early 30s Thomas was firmly established as one of the most important English language poets of his generation, if not the 20th century.
Thomas has been called the first “rock star” of poetry. So great was his popularity that he toured the United States four times between 1950 and 1953, packing halls with his resonant, melodious recitations. It was on his final tour that Thomas died, in New York, of complications following a drinking binge.
Much has been made of Thomas’s life—the flamboyance, the alcoholism, the philandering, the hubris and self-promotion that masked an incessant self-doubt. All of these situate him in the company of other highly romanticized poets such as Byron and Shelley. But more significantly, Thomas’s poetry follows in the tradition of 19th century Romanticism in its lyric emphasis on emotion and the imagination over intellectual constructs.
“Poetry,” he writes, “is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it – the great undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation and ignorance – however unlofty the intention of the poem.”
Some critics cite the inaccessibility of much of Thomas’s poetry with its often abstruse tropes and intensely personal expression. Fair enough for those to whom a poem must, above all, “make sense.” But the essence of poetry is in the expression of experience, the perceptions of consciousness; it’s about “sense” as feeling, the ineffable immediacy of what it means to be alive.
In this “sense,” the poems of Dylan Thomas offer deep and rich treasures, served up in a mastery of craft. His use of forms (most notably sonnet and villanelle), rhythm, rhyme, and the many other sound values of language weave words into musical compositions in which, like a fine symphony, theme and meaning is conveyed rather than stated. One need only listen to any of the several recordings of Thomas performing his poetry to realize fully the power and the pleasures of the work that he has left us.
In his “Poetic Manifesto,” Thomas asserts that “the best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in. The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.”
Silverton resident Steve Slemenda serves on the Board of the Silverton Poetry Association. He is recently retired from a career of English instruction at Chemeketa Community College.
Line Break is a partnership between Salem Weekly and Mid Valley Poetry Society (MVPS), a group working to spread awareness and appreciation of poets and poetry in the greater Salem area through articles, events, and monthly meetings. News of its activities can be found at oregonpoets.org For information about local poetry events or to submit a column for review, contact Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org