Book Review

The Poems of Dylan Thomas

welsh poetry, often wonderful, sometimes dry

I’d never considered this before, but I think it speaks volumes about the quality of my undergraduate education that I studied English Literature in Wales and have, until this week, never read an entire book of poems by Dylan Thomas. Obviously, that doesn’t mean I’ve never read his work and I am, of course, very familiar with some of his texts, especially the deservedly canonical ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ which is a gorgeous, terse and evocative piece of writing about dying and grief. 

This selection of 192 pieces of poetry by “Swansea’s bard” were first published like this in the 1970s in an edition edited by Daniel Jones, a school friend of Thomas’ who’d had some success as a writer himself. Using the 90ish poems Thomas had chosen himself for his 1952/53 Collected Poems (the meaning of that title has changed), Jones adds pieces taken from Thomas’ published books, his letters and – in a very impressive (if precocious) appendix at the end of the book – his tweenage journals.

The poems are presented chronologically with notes indicating the date and location of composition (as accurately as possible), which – as a reader – I appreciated.

Jones’ notes include details of first publication (often this selection), any relationship to similar poems in Thomas’ oeuvre, some textual analysis when provided by the poet himself in other writing, as well as mild biographical detail, i.e. who in Thomas’ life were dying or being born proximate to poems about death or birth. There are also some pleasingly-engaged autobiographical digressions whenever Jones’ friendship with Thomas had some bearing on composition. 

Regardless of my opinion of Dylan Thomas’ verse (which I’ll get to), I have to say that this is a perfectly organised edition of a selected poems.

There’s no fucking around with the text, no distracting footnotes or dry bibliographic detail anywhere other than at the book’s ending, beyond all the verse.

There’s a nicely detailed biographical chronology, there’s a little – not too much – textual analysis, and there are pieces that span the entire creative life of the poet.

This is a great example of a selection of a poet’s work, though I’m perhaps stating this so bluntly because of the poorly-edited Selected Poems of Stevie Smith which was the last book of this type I read.

This handsome New Directions edition is a joy, not only for its sexy paper, but also because it includes a CD of Dylan Thomas reading his own poems. Now, I don’t have a CD player (it’s 2019), but if I did have one and wanted to listen to the CD, that would obvs be a plus.

There are – I’ve looked – many recordings of Dylan Thomas reading on Spotify, so if you wanna hear him then that’s the place to do it. Other music streaming services are available, but I don’t use them.

The fact that there are all of these readily available recordings, though, is important: Dylan Thomas is not a poet from ancient history.

Thomas was internationally famous: he wasn’t the last rockstar poet, but he was certainly the last British rockstar poet (unless I get my act together).

Thomas had a true rockstar death – the bar in which he slipped into the alcoholic coma he would never awake from (what’s the line, “eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s the record”) was the bar of the Chelsea Hotel, the same building where like a decade and a half later Janis Joplin would give Leonard Cohen head on an unmade bed while the limousines wait[ed] in the street.

Obviously, Thomas’ exit from the hotel was part of the same myth those hip musicians were randily adding to, but the later history of a place affects the way we – even later – read its histories.

Bob Dylan took his pseudonym from Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas was a major, cool, cultural figure whose life has been dramatised in many big budget movies, and when he was alive he worked with glamorous Hollywood types, not only with Richard Burton on Under Milk Wood, but he wrote several screenplays, including one that was a propaganda film for the oil company that [I believe] became BP.

Thomas, as this book tells me, was a big deal: widely published, he read on the BBC about a hundred and fifty times and was lauded and loved in his day. Popular culture tells me that he was a rascal and a rogue, a womaniser and a boozehound, a charmer and a performer and a success. Some of his poems, yes, are gorgeous and moving and perfect, but a lot of them are slow, vague, disjointed and structured around near-Oulipian levels of absurd rigidity.

Thomas used very trad verse forms and weird, highly-structured syllabic counts as a framework for some very beautiful poems, but he also used very trad verse forms and weird, highly-structured syllabic counts as a framework for some pretty boring ones. And used looser forms for great ones and looser ones for dull ones too. This isn’t very insightful analysis, I know that.

The Poems of Dylan Thomas doesn’t contain everything he ever wrote, but I won’t deny that there weren’t – among many irrefutably perfect poems – many pieces that I found boring.

This is old school, man’s poetry. It is dick-swinging poetry. It is – as I’m sure contemporary posho reviewers would have called it – grammar school poetry. It’s posturing, it’s performative, it’s brash but nervous.

Thomas had a massive literary dick and no one is laughing at his literary dick when he gets it out, but resorting so frequently to doing so shows a lack of self-confidence, as it is in his softer, less fronting, moments that he repeatedly evokes deep, universal, humanity.

There are many impressive phrases and images, but the one that stuck with me is from a piece of his tweenage juvenilia, and I like it so much that I’m renaming my current in-progress sad life writing manuscript after it: “the pleasure of regret” (publishers hit me up!)

There’s a lot to love here, but also a lot to cause yawns. I’ll revisit Thomas’ work in a few years, maybe I’ll enjoy it more.

A very well edited selection of sometimes excellent poems.

Nice.


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