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In Boozo Veritas #38 by Teege Braune

Dylan Thomas:

Words That Leave Us Dumb

On November ninth, 1953, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, already decrepit and ill at the age only thirty-nine years old, took a drink and had another. “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s a record!” he announced and then fell forward dead at the table of his favorite New York City pub The White Horse Tavern; a fitting, legendary end for a man who cultivated his own legend as a drunken passionate rogue, philanderer, and doomed poet, a man prone to creating his own tall tales such as his claim that he and long suffering wife Caitlin Macnamara were in bed together ten minutes after meeting each other. Macnamara’s own assessment of her relationship with Thomas was less romanticized. “But ours was a drink story, not a love story, just like millions of others. Our one and only true love was drink. The bar was our altar,” she wrote in her 1997 autobiography My Life with Dylan Thomas: Double Drink Story. “Is the bloody man dead yet?” she asked as she arrived at St. Vincent’s Hospital were Thomas was lying in a coma from which he would not awaken. Perhaps a more fitting legend of the poet’s death is that, though alcohol had compromised his health in more ways than one, his autopsy revealed that his liver showed no signs of cirrhosis, the opposite of what everyone believed. In fact, Thomas’ final coup d’état came from pneumonia exacerbated by a preexisting lung condition. While alcohol may have endorsed his demise, it was not the actual assassin.

Despite his love affair with alcohol, its presence in Thomas’ work is limited and intermittent. Death, on the other hand, is the obsession to which he returns time and time again. His poetry chronicles an ambivalent relationship with the inevitable. In much of his most famous work, including “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” “After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones),” and “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” amongst others, Thomas rails against his own demise and that of his loved ones all the while acknowledging the futility of such a lament. In “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” he says that

“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.”

We see death portrayed, not only as a necessity and final conclusion of our birth, but furthermore, a moral action; it is the correct thing to do. And yet we know that in that “good night” our failings are made manifest; our deeds crumble as we are forgotten by those who survive us. In the end, our words, for all their weight and sanctity, were no more than words; they “forked no lightning.” If this was the fear of a poet of Thomas’ unfathomable caliber, then what hope do the rest of us have? Having memorized “Do No Go Gentle into That Good Night” years ago, I often recite it at bars as a litmus test of my own intoxication. If I can get through the final “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” without losing my place or forgetting a verse, I’ll order another drink. If I can’t finish the poem, I know it’s time to find a ride home. In other moments, I ignore my own advice and, overwhelmed by my own desire to “burn and rave at close of day,” I take a cue from the doomed bard and push through past the final horizon of decorum and good sense.

Poet Robert Lowell said of Dylan Thomas, “He is a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.” This was indeed my own experience when I first heard my English literature professor Jim Watt read “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” with a steady, emotional resonance that rivaled Richard Burton and gave me chills as he crawled towards that final image of the crooked worm. A mild, sunny day in early spring had inspired Jim to drag us all outside and there among blossoming flowers and budding trees he found an idyllic location in which to share this poem with a bunch of nineteen year olds, the same age Thomas was when he wrote it. I had been discovering and devouring literature faster than I could process it, but these words left an indelible mark on my imagination. When I came home for spring break I read it to my mom who responded that she didn’t understand a word of it. I admitted that I didn’t either, but loved it anyway. Over a decade later, having read it an uncountable number of times, I now think it is deceptively simple in its meaning, which is, in utterly complex language, an admission of the poet’s own lack of understanding. He sees the connection between his own youth and the fragile burgeoning flower, the never-ending cycle of death and regeneration, the force that drives and destroys everything without judgment or preference, that unites all, living and dying, into one existence, and he says in the face of this overwhelming epiphany that is no revelation, enlightening without revealing, “I am dumb to tell…”

If Caitlin was Thomas’ third love and alcohol his second, his true romance was with words. Thomas had said of discovering nursery rhymes as a child, “before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance…” This is a poet who was never writing for the purpose of being understood in the first place. “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” may simply tell us what Thomas doesn’t know, but it does so in the most breathtakingly beautiful way imaginable. The rhythm, the enigmatic images, every word in every line is immaculate. If a life has meaning, it is most likely a meaning one has wrought out of it, perhaps unnaturally. Most likely this meaning is less significant than the simple fact of the life itself. What’s for certain is that at the moment of our inevitable deaths, the meanings to which we once clung will be lost forever. In Dylan Thomas’ incredible poems we find many meanings, most of which are constantly in flux, endlessly debated; more importantly, we find words. Words collected, adored, beaten, cursed, blessed, and finally arranged in such a way that they do indeed fork lightning, defeat death, and transcend personal legend.

___________

 

Teege Braune (episode 72episode 75episode 77episode 90) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.

 

 

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