Thursday, May 24, 2012

Charles Bukowski / I'm In Love

by Charles Bukowski

she's young, she said,
but look at me,
I have pretty ankles,
and look at my wrists, I have pretty
o my god,
I thought it was all working,
and now it's her again,
every time she phones you go crazy,
you told me it was over
you told me it was finished,
listen, I've lived long enough to become a 
good woman,
why do you need a bad woman?
you need to be tortured, don't you?
you think life is rotten if somebody treats you
rotten it all fits,
doesn't it?
tell me, is that it? do you want to be treated like a 
piece of shit?
and my son, my son was going to meet you.
I told my son
and I dropped all my lovers.
I stood up in a cafe and screamed
and now you've made a fool of me. . .
I'm sorry, I said, I'm really sorry.
hold me, she said, will you please hold me?
I've never been in one of these things before, I said,
these triangles. . .
she got up and lit a cigarette, she was trembling all 
over.she paced up and down,wild and crazy.she had
a small body.her arms were thin,very thin and when
she screamed and started beating me I held her
wrists and then I got it through the eyes:hatred,
centuries deep and true.I was wrong and graceless and
sick.all the things I had learned had been wasted.
there was no creature living as foul as I 
and all my poems were

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Transgressive Thrills of Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

The Transgressive Thrills of Charles Bukowski

The captain of a low-life odyssey, Bukowski accomplished something rare: he produced a large, completely distinctive, widely beloved body of work.

By Adam Kirsch
March 6, 2005

In the third edition of “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry,” in which poets appear in order of birth, the class of 1920 fields a strong team, including Howard Nemerov and Amy Clampitt. If you were to browse the poetry section of any large bookstore, you would probably find a book or two by each of those critically esteemed, prize-winning poets. Nowhere to be found in the canonizing Norton anthology, however, is the man who occupies the most shelf space of any American poet: Charles Bukowski. Bukowski’s books make up a burly phalanx, with their stark covers and long, lurid titles: “Love Is a Dog from Hell”; “Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.” They give the impression of an aloof, possibly belligerent empire in the middle of the republic of letters.

Charles Bukowski
Photograph by Ulf Andersen / Getty

Bukowski himself, and his many, many readers, would not have it any other way. John Martin, the founder of Black Sparrow Press, who was responsible for launching Bukowski’s career, has explained that “he is not a mainstream author and he will never have a mainstream public.” This is an odd thing to say about a poet who has sold millions of books and has been translated into more than a dozen languages—a commercial success of a kind hardly known in American poetry since the pre-modernist days of popular balladeers like Edgar A. Guest. Yet the sense of not being part of the mainstream, at least as the Norton anthology and most other authorities define it, is integral to Bukowski’s appeal. He is one of those writers whom each new reader discovers with a transgressive thrill.

Fittingly, for a poet whose reputation was made in ephemeral underground journals, it is on the Internet that the Bukowski cult finds its most florid expression. There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to him, not just in America but in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, where one fan writes that, after reading him for the first time, “I felt there was a soul-mate in Mr. Bukowski.” Such claims to intimacy are standard among Bukowski’s admirers. On, the reader reviews of his books sound like a cross between love letters and revival-meeting testimonials: “This is the one that speaks to me to the point where each time I read certain pages, I cry”; “This book is one of the most influential books of poetry in my life”; or, most revealing of all, “I hate poetry, but I love Buk’s poems.”

Today’s fans can no longer call up Bukowski on the phone or drop in on him at home in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life. But before his death, from leukemia, in 1994, they could and did, with a regularity that the poet found flattering, if tiresome. As he told an interviewer in 1981, “I get many letters in the mail about my writing, and they say: ‘Bukowski, you are so fucked up and you still survive. I decided not to kill myself.’ . . . So in a way I save people. . . . Not that I want to save them: I have no desire to save anybody. . . . So these are my readers, you see? They buy my books—the defeated, the demented and the damned—and I am proud of it.”

This mixture of boast and complaint exactly mirrors the coyness of Bukowski’s poetry, which is at once misanthropic and comradely, aggressively vulgar and clandestinely sensitive. The readers who love him, and believe that he would love them in return, know how to look past the bluster of poems like “splashing”:

Jesus Christ,
some people are so dumb
you can hear them
splashing around in their dumbness. . . .

I want to
run and hide
I want to
escape their engulfing

Bukowski’s fans realize that “some people,” like E. E. Cummings’s “mostpeople,” or J. D. Salinger’s hated “phonies,” are never us, always them—those not perceptive enough to understand our merit, or our favorite author’s. This is a typically adolescent emotion, and it is no coincidence that all three of these writers exert a special power over teen-agers. With all three, too, there is the sense that if the misanthrope could know us as we really are he would welcome our pilgrimage; as Holden Caulfield says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Similarly, Bukowski might declare his contempt for humanity, and his alarm at its constant invasions of his privacy—“I have never welcomed the ring of a / telephone,” he writes in “the telephone”—yet he titles another poem with his telephone number, “462-0614,” and issues what sounds like an open invitation:

I don’t write out of knowledge.
when the phone rings
I too would like to hear words
that might ease
some of this.

that’s why my number’s

This sort of cri de coeur is not what first comes to mind when the name Charles Bukowski is mentioned. In the course of some fifty books, he transformed himself into a mythic roughneck, a figure out of a tall tale—brawler, gambler, companion of bums and whores, boozehound with an oceanic thirst. (This legend gained still wider exposure with the 1987 movie “Barfly,” in which a version of Bukowski is portrayed by Mickey Rourke.) In his heavily autobiographical novels and some of his poems, he gave this alter ego the transparent pseudonym Hank Chinaski—Bukowski’s full name was Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., and he was known to friends as Hank—but since he almost always wrote in the first person, the line between Chinaski the character and Bukowski the man is blurred. This blurring is, in fact, the secret of Bukowski’s appeal: he combines the confessional poet’s promise of intimacy with the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp-fiction hero.

Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artifacts but as ongoing installments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial. They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes that typically involve a bar, a skid-row hotel, a horse race, a girlfriend, or any permutation thereof. Bukowski’s free verse is really a series of declarative sentences broken up into a long, narrow column, the short lines giving an impression of speed and terseness even when the language is sentimental or clichéd. The effect is as though some legendary tough guy, a cross between Philip Marlowe and Paul Bunyan, were to take the barstool next to you, buy a round, and start telling his life story:

I was the mean and
crazy white
guy, full of humor, laughter
and gamble.

I was shacked with a
I drank and fought all
was the terror of the
local bars.

These lines are from “then and now,” a poem in the latest collection of Bukowski’s work, “Slouching Toward Nirvana: New Poems” (Ecco; $27.50). Death has not put a dent in Bukowski’s productivity; this is his ninth posthumous book of poems, and there are more to come. Nor has it changed his style: these “new poems” are just like the old poems, perhaps a shade more repetitive, but not immediately recognizable as second-rate work or leftovers.

An uncannily prolific afterlife was something that Bukowski counted on. As early as 1970, he wrote to his editor, “just think, someday after I’m dead and they start going for my poems and stories, you will have a hundred stories and a thousand poems on hand. you just don’t know how lucky you are, babe.” In the next quarter century, the surplus grew, thanks to Bukowski’s nearly graphomaniacal fecundity. “I usually write ten or fifteen [poems] at once,” he said, and he imagined the act of writing as a kind of entranced combat with the typewriter, as in his poem “cool black air”: “now I sit down to it and I bang it, I don’t use the light / touch, I bang it.”

Alcohol was the fuel, as it was often the subject, of these poetic explosions: “I don’t think I have written a poem when I was completely sober,” he told one interviewer. And he rejected on principle the notion of poetry as a craft, a matter of labor and revision. Against the metaphors prevailing in the New Critical atmosphere of the nineteen-fifties, when he started writing in earnest—the Well Wrought Urns and the Verbal Icons—Bukowski posed his own, entirely characteristic image for writing: “it has to come out like hot turds the morning after a good beer drunk.”

That kind of grossness is a large part of Bukowski’s appeal. His own life, as it appears in the poems, at least, is a teen-age boy’s fantasy of adulthood, in which there’s no one to make you clean up your room, or get out of bed in the morning, or stop drinking before you pass out. Yet, crucial to the myth, slobbery and drunkenness only increase Bukowski’s appeal to women:

you’re a beast, she said
your big white belly
and those hairy feet.
you never cut your nails. . . .

beast beast beast,
she kissed me,
what do you want for breakfast?

Such poems offer the same kind of vicarious wish fulfillment that differently inclined readers might find in spy novels or gangster movies, with their parodies of unbound masculinity. (In one poem, Bukowski acknowledges this affinity, boasting: “don’t believe the gossip: / Bogie’s not dead.”) And Bukowski is best read as a very skillful genre writer. He bears the same relation to poetry as Zane Grey does to fiction, or Ayn Rand to philosophy—a highly colored, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing. He has two of the supreme merits of genre writing, consistency and abundance: once you have been enticed into Bukowski’s world, you have the comfort of knowing that you won’t have to leave it anytime soon, since there will always be another book to read.

The pleasures offered by Bukowski’s work are more quickly exhausted than the questions raised by his life, and the way he transformed that life into something like art. The crucial episodes in his biography are reworked again and again in his poems and novels, so that any reader quickly learns the broad outlines of his story. In “Slouching Toward Nirvana,” for instance, the poem “clothes cost money” recounts Bukowski’s childhood memory of a classmate called Hofstetter, who would get beaten up on the way home from school every day, only to be berated by his mother: “youve ruined your clothes again! / dont you know that clothes cost money?” This is nearly identical to an episode from Bukowski’s novel about his childhood, “Ham on Rye,” where the hapless boy is called David: “David! Look at your knickers and shirt! . . . Why do you do this to your clothes?”

In both versions of the story, what matters is the brutality of children and the cruel indifference of parents; and these seem to have been the major themes of Bukowski’s own childhood. Born in Germany to an American-serviceman father and a German mother, Bukowski moved at the age of three to Los Angeles. The Depression, which shadowed his whole adolescence, affected him primarily through his father, who took out his frustrations on his wife and son. Bukowski describes terrible beatings, sadistically inflicted for minor transgressions like missing a blade of grass when he mowed the lawn. When Bukowski reached adolescence and broke out in a world-class case of acne, he saw it as a symptom of his helpless suffering: “The poisoned life had finally exploded out of me. There they were—all the withheld screams—spouting out in another form.”

This disfigurement helped to make Bukowski a surly, friendless teen-ager. But there was another element in his isolation, one that he dwells on much less often—an innate sensitivity and intelligence, which led to the first stirrings of literary ambition. This is a standard element in the biography of most poets, but it fits awkwardly with the myth of Bukowski the tough, who constantly proclaims his contempt for mere bookishness. “Shakespeare didn’t work at all for me,” he told one interviewer. “That upper-crust shit bored me. I couldn’t relate to it.” The promise of his books is that they detour around emasculated, fussy artistry—“We’re all tired of the turned subtle phrase and the riddle in the middle of the line,” he declared to another interviewer—and plunge deep into life itself.

Yet Bukowski also admitted, on other occasions, to having been a very bookish youth: “Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four I must have read a whole library.” In his letters (four volumes of which have been published so far), he shows that he is conversant with the entire range of modern fiction and poetry. He parodies Eliot (“Bukowski’s old, Bukowski’s old / he wears the bottoms of his beercans / rolled”), drops references to Mann (in “Slouching Toward Nirvana,” there is a poem titled “disorder and early sorrow”), debates the relative merits of Turgenev and Tolstoy (he prefers the former). Most surprisingly, he admires the New Critics, whose aesthetics of complexity and impersonality he so gleefully violated. “I know that the Kenyon Review is supposed to be our enemy,” he wrote to a friend in 1961, “but the articles are, in most cases, sound, and I would almost say, poetic and vibrant.”

In fact, Bukowski started out in eager pursuit of conventional literary success. He attended Los Angeles City College, where he took a creative-writing class, and wrote furiously, as he wryly recalls in “the burning of the dream”:

and I wrote from 3 to
5 short stories a week
and they all came
from The New YorkerHarpers,
The Atlantic Monthly.

In his poverty and dedication, and, especially, in his low-rent Los Angeles milieu, the young Bukowski strongly resembles Arturo Bandini, the hero of John Fante’s minor classic “Ask the Dust”; the book, which Bukowski accidentally discovered in the stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library, made a huge impression on him. (Decades later, when Bukowski was famous and Fante forgotten, his advocacy led Black Sparrow Press to bring Fante’s work back into print.) During the war, when he was classified 4-F for psychological reasons, Bukowski travelled around the country on almost no money, working menial jobs and staying in flophouses—but always writing. He even scored a considerable success in 1946, when he was published in the literary magazine Portfolio, alongside Henry Miller and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Yet after that, so the legend goes, Bukowski gave up writing completely, and became a full-time drunk. For the next decade, he bummed his way across America, eventually washing up in Los Angeles once again; he boozed, whored, fought, spent time on factory floors and in jails. He frequently recalled one Philadelphia bar, in particular, where he would sit from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m., earning free drinks by allowing the bartender to beat him up for the entertainment of the crowd. This low-life odyssey is to Bukowski’s poetry what Melville’s South Sea journeys were to his fiction: an inexhaustible store of adventure and anecdote, and a badge of authenticity.

After being hospitalized, in 1955, with a nearly fatal illness, Bukowski returned to writing, but in a new spirit. His focus was now on poetry, instead of short stories, and he sent his work to underground journals with names like CoffinGrist, and Ole. These, and not the glossy weeklies, were the right venues for his new work, which boasted a proletarian grittiness: “After losing a week’s pay in four hours it is very difficult to come to your room and face the typewriter and fabricate a lot of lacy bullshit.”

Once Bukowski returned to his vocation, success arrived slowly but surely. He became well known among readers of little magazines, and published a series of chapbooks and limited editions. Yet, as his reputation grew, he was still stuck working as a postal clerk, a job whose indignities he detailed in his first novel, “Post Office.” The real breakthrough in his career as a writer came in 1970, when John Martin agreed to pay him a monthly stipend of a hundred dollars in return for the right to publish his work through Black Sparrow Press. This arrangement was a gamble for both publisher and author, but it proved tremendously successful: by the time Bukowski died, his monthly payment had risen to seven thousand dollars and he had nineteen titles in print.

The deal can also be seen, however, as a sign of Bukowski’s lack of literary confidence. Instead of offering his publisher each book as he finished it, Bukowski simply sent all his work to Martin, who then selected the contents of the new volume. “He didn’t even know what I was going to put in,” Martin is quoted as saying in the 1998 biography “Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life,” by Howard Sounes. “He didn’t care.” It sounds less like modern publishing, with authors and editors and agents all defending their own interests, than like the quasi-feudal relationship that John Clare, the archetypal nineteenth-century “peasant poet,” had with his publishers. Clare, too, sent off all his writing to his editor—John Taylor, of Taylor & Hessey—and received a regular allowance in return, a sign of the parties’ profound imbalance in social status and worldly savvy. But, while Clare and Taylor eventually had the bitter falling-out one might expect from such an arrangement, Bukowski and Martin remained close, trusting partners to the end. Black Sparrow continued to publish Bukowski until Martin retired, in 2002; the Bukowski catalogue was then sold to Ecco, itself a formerly independent house that is now part of HarperCollins. (The ironic result is that Bukowski, the ultimate underground poet, is now published by Rupert Murdoch.) 

It is not just in his business dealings that Bukowski gives the impression of insecurity—of feeling, as he once wrote to a friend, not “so much like a writer as . . . like somebody who has slipped one past.” The same sense emerges, more damagingly, in his defensive scorn for complexity and difficulty, as if these literary values were a trick played by effete professors on honest, hardworking readers. “What’s easy is good and what’s hard is a pain in the ass,” Bukowski declared to one correspondent; or, again, “Somebody once asked me what my theory of life was and I said, ‘Don’t try.’ That fits the writing too. I don’t try, I just type.”

Just typing allowed Bukowski to accomplish a great deal. He became wealthy and famous, a friend of celebrities like Sean Penn and Madonna, the subject of biographies and documentaries. In his late poems, his delight in driving a BMW and hobnobbing with Norman Mailer is so genuine that it becomes infectious. His escape from poverty and menial labor, solely through the passion and popularity of his writing, is like a fairy tale. “I laid down my guts,” as he put it, “and the gods finally answered.” In a literary sense, too, Bukowski accomplished something rare: he produced a large, completely distinctive, widely beloved body of work, something that few poets today even dream of. It is a testament to Bukowski’s genuine popularity that, at a time when most poetry books can’t be given away, his are perennially ranked among the most frequently stolen titles in bookstores.

Yet Bukowski and his work also have the pathos of missed possibilities. He occasionally took pains to align himself with a coherent literary tradition, writing about his admiration for Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, Céline, and Camus—the classics of modern alienation, the biographers of the underground man. He was especially fond of Hamsun’s “Hunger,” the story of a young writer demented by poverty and ambition. And Bukowski came much closer to this experience than almost any other American poet. There is every reason to believe that “a note upon starvation,” a poem in the new collection, was written from experience:

about the fourth day
you begin to feel almost intoxicated
panic subsides
one sleeps well:
12 to 14 hours,
and most unusual
one continues to defecate.
the vision grows more acute
everything is seen with a new clarity.

Yet the contrast with Hamsun reveals just how conventional a writer Bukowski remained. There is nothing in his work even remotely like the episode in “Hunger” where the starving hero, having encountered an old man on a park bench, starts to make up fantastic lies about his landlord: that his name is J. A. Happolati, that he has invented an electric prayer book, that he was once the Prime Minister of Persia. The old man patiently accepts all of these outrageous stories, and even asks polite questions about them, sending the narrator into a rage: “ ‘Goddamnit, man, I suppose you think I’ve been sitting here stuffing you full of lies?’ I shouted, completely out of my mind. ‘I’ll bet you never believed there was a man with the name Happolati. . . . The way you have treated me is something I am not used to, I will tell you flatly, and I won’t take it, so help me God!’ ”

The comic fury of this episode does seem to take us to the edge of insanity: Hamsun, like Dostoyevsky, shows that the most frightening symptom of madness is the immolation of self-esteem, the urge to humiliate oneself at the same time as one humiliates everyone else. And this is the risk that Bukowski never takes. Even at his most unheroic, he is the hero of his stories and poems, always demanding the reader’s covert approval. That is why he is so easy to love, especially for novice readers with little experience of the genuine challenges of poetry; and why, for more demanding readers, he remains so hard to admire.

Published in the print edition of the March 14, 2005, issue, with the headline “Smashed.”

Adam Kirsch is a poet, a critic, and the author of, most recently, “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bart Edelman / Three Poems

by Bart Edelman
(In Motion)

A student sitting in my office
Is privy to a conversation
I have with my publisher.
Through a strange quirk of fate
Harley-Davidson offers, possibly,
To ante up bucks for my new book ---
Something about improving their image
By taking the literary high road.
"How cool," the young woman coos.
"That's so unbelievably awesome.
Will they put a picture of you
On the back of a bike?"
I tell her quite frankly
This remains to be seen.
We have no sign of money yet ---
Only the word of an underling
Who wants a manuscript
Sent to his office,
Somewhere in Illinois,
By this time next week.
"Where the hell is Illinois?"
The inquisitive student wonders.
I think a geography course
With the dynamic Professor Leaver
May do her more good
Than the current poetry class
She visits rather infrequently.
Soon she is on her way,
All filled up by alliteration
And a dash of caesura --- for good measure.
I'm left with a curious image of me,
Straddling some red metallic hog,
Dressed from head to toe in black leather,
A rather disconcerting thought.
But, then again,
Things could fare far worse;
I could be perfectly posed
Behind the wheel of my father's Oldsmobile,
Driving the sleek General Motors dream,
Deep into the new millennium.

Baby Harold
Baby Harold is unhappy again;
They've been taunting him
At the elementary school
And he wants a new name.
He'd prefer to be called Lance
Or Logan or Barry or Bill ---
Anything but Baby Harold!
We tell him every night
That he has a fine name,
He'll grow into some day
If he's just patient enough.

Baby Harold closes his bedroom door
And states he won't come out.
He's stewing and we know what this means.
He'll pout and act surly
For a good part of the evening
And it won't be fun for anyone.
I wish he took after his sisters;
Everything rolls off their backs.
What's in a name, anyway?
When he reaches the age of 21,
He can change it if he chooses,
But I'll bet he'll be fond of it by then.

Baby Harold eventually decides
We're worthy of his presence
And strolls into the living room.
He sits on his mother's lap,
Wearing the Cincinnati Reds cap
I bought him this afternoon.
He says he wants to play baseball
And be just like Hal Morris.
When I tell him Hal's real name is Harold
He seems rather puzzled for a moment;
Then he suddenly becomes pleased,
Beaming as if he's just seen the light.

Somewhere around midnight
I check up on Baby Harold
And discover him asleep in bed,
A small bat in his hands.
I remove it very gently
And find his little fingers
Tightly grasping my own,
As if he's holding on for dear life.
Perhaps, he's dreaming of the big game,
Hearing the crowd scream out
The same name I've learned to love
Ever since I was a boy.

(Circa 1960)
You open the freezer one morning
In search of an onion bagel
To suppress last night's hunger
And find an old photograph
Hidden among the frozen foods.
You don't question how it got there ---
Stranger things have happened;
Rather, you take it in stride
And begin the thawing process.
About an hour or two later
It all comes into focus:
The year is circa 1960,
Your family carefully posed
Around the backyard swimming pool
Which will one day swallow
Your younger brother, Herbert,
Who will lie, motionless,
At the bottom of the deep end,
Before he is discovered by you.
But in the photograph, of course,
There is no sign of this tragedy ---
Just you two holding hands,
While your parents sit, lovingly,
On the edge of the diving board.
And that makes you wonder:
Who took this particular picture?
Any clue you hoped to find written
On the back of the snapshot
Has disappeared across the wet surface
And become, more or less, illegible.
This bothers you for a brief moment
Until you wash a week's worth of dishes
And place the photograph in the freezer, again.

From The Gentle Man
by Bart Edelman
(Red Hen Press)

Friday, May 18, 2012

A life in poetry / Adonis

Adonis … the Syrian-born poet, critic and essayist sees himself as a 'pagan prophet'.
Photograph: Magali Delporte

Adonis: a life in writing

'A creator always has to be with what's revolutionary, but he should never be like the revolutionaries. He can't speak the same language or work in the same political environment'. 

Interview by Maya Jaggi
27 January 2012

Adonis, the greatest living poet of the Arab world, ushers me down a labyrinthine corridor in a stately building in Paris, near the Champs Elysées. The plush offices belong to a benefactor, a Syrian-born businessman funding the poet's latest venture – a cultural journal in Arabic, which he edits. Fetching a bulky manuscript of the imminent third issue of the Other, Adonis hefts it excitedly on to a coffee table, listing the contributors "from west and east", many of them of his grandchildren's generation. He turned 82 this month. His eyes spark: "We want new talents with new ideas."
A Syrian-born poet, critic and essayist, and a staunch secularist who sees himself as a "pagan prophet", Adonis has been writing poetry for 70 years. He led a modernist revolution in the second half of the 20th century, exerting a seismic influence on Arabic poetry comparable to TS Eliot's in the anglophone world. Aged 17, he adopted the name of the Greek fertility god (pronounced Adon-ees, with the stress on the last syllable) to alert napping editors to his precocious talent and his pre-Islamic, pan-Mediterranean muses. Since the death of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in 2008, it would be hard to argue for a poet of greater stature in a literary culture where poetry is the most prestigious form as well as being popular.
He moved to Paris in 1985, and was named a commander of France's Order of Arts and Letters in 1997. Last year he was the first Arab writer to win the Goethe prize in Germany, and each autumn is credibly tipped for the Nobel in literature – the only Arab recipient of which to date was the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988. Though Adonis was Ladbroke's favourite in the year of the Arab spring, he does not begrudge the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer his laurels, having introduced him to audiences on a tour of Arab countries. When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt last year, he wrote "little poems to express my joy and happiness". Yet joy gave way to caution, and warnings of tragedy. "It's the Arab youth that created this spring, and it's the first time Arabs are not imitating the west – it's extraordinary," he says. "But despite this, it's the Islamists and merchants and Americans who have picked the fruits of this revolutionary moment." His reservations sparked impatience and were widely attacked: Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet, novelist and assistant professor at New York University, claimed that the Arab spring has "consigned Adonis, the self-proclaimed revolutionary, to irrelevance".
There is, Adonis says, a "tendency for poets and painters in the Arab world to be politically engaged. There's a lot to fight for: for human rights and the Palestinians; and against colonialism, Arab despotism and closed thinking among fundamentalists. I'm not against this engagement, or against them – but I'm notlike them. A creator always has to be with what's revolutionary, but he should never be like the revolutionaries. He can't speak the same language or work in the same political environment." He adds that he is "radically against the use of violence – I'm with Gandhi, not Guevara."
Like VS Naipaul, a friend who has praised him as a "master of our times", Adonis can be a contrarian, though he lacks Naipaul's acidity and irrascibility. For critics, some of his pronouncements on the "extinction" of Arab culture, or the "Arab mind", have an orientalist taint. Yet his translator Khaled Mattawa, an Arab American poet, sees it as measured iconoclasm: "He's been unsparing against the deeply rooted forces of intolerance in Arab thought, but also celebratory of regenerative streaks in Arab culture."
Although English translations of his poetry have lagged behind French, in the past decade there have been five collections: Mattawa's Adonis: Selected Poemswon the Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize for Arabic translation. Adonis will be coming to London for the award ceremony next month, and also to take part in a two-month celebration of his work, "A Tribute to Adonis", at West London's Mosaic Rooms starting on February 3, which includes an exhibition of the poet's recent art works. He began making small collages using Arabic calligraphy 10 years ago, during a listless period of poet's block, and friends suggested he exhibit them. "I found another way to express my relation to things, other than the word." He uses parchments and rags, "bits and pieces of nothing, thrown away. I rarely use colour; I prefer ripped things," adding fragments of his own poems, as well as classical Arabic poetry "as a homage".
Last June, amid the bloody crackdown on the Syrian uprising, Adonis wrote an open letter to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir - "as a citizen," he stresses. Describing Syria as a brutal police state, he attacked the ruling Ba'ath party, called on the president to step down, and warned that "you cannot imprison an entire nation". He was none the less taken to task for addressing a tyrant as an elected president, and criticising the "violent tendencies" of some of his opponents. "That's why I said I'm not like the revolutionaries," he says. "I'm with them, but I don't speak the same language. They're like school teachers telling you how to speak, and to repeat the same words. Whereas I left Syria in 1956 and I've been in conflict with it for more than 50 years. I've never met either Assad [Bashar or his father, Hafez]. I was among the first to criticise the Ba'ath party, because I'm against an ideology based on a singleness of ideas.
"What's really absurd is that the Arab opposition to dictators refuses any critique; it's a vicious circle. So someone who is against despotism in all its forms can't be either with the regime or with those who call themselves its opponents. The opposition is a regime avant la lettre." He adds: "In our tradition, unfortunately, everything is based on unity – the oneness of God, of politics, of the people. We can't ever arrive at democracy with this mentality, because democracy is based on understanding the other as different. You can't think you hold the truth, and that nobody else has it."
His mother, aged 107, still lives in Syria. For 20 years after he left the country (when released from a year's imprisonment for membership of an opposition party), he was unable to see her. From 1976, he visited each year until two years ago, when "friends said it might be dangerous". But he is adamant that family circumstances have "never stopped me from saying what I think". Of those who accuse him of tardiness or equivocation in condemning the Syrian regime, he says wearily: "I've written many articles – I have a book of them coming out that's 200 pages long. These people don't read."
He lives on the outskirts of Paris, beyond la Défense, with his wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic. "For me she's a great critic, one of the best. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree." They have two daughters: Arwad, who is director of the House of World Cultures in Paris; and Ninar, an artist who moves between Paris and Beirut. Adonis shows little sign of having just spent seven months in Lebanon convalescing from two major operations. Before that, he had announced his retirement from poetry. It was while writing a long poem against monotheism, "Concerto for Jerusalem". "Jerusalem is a city of three monotheistic religions," he says. "If there's one God, it should be beautiful. Instead, it's the most inhuman city in the world. I said I was stopping poetry as an act of defiance." But alluding to his muses, he laughs: "The pre-monotheistic goddesses didn't let me retire."
He was born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in 1930, in Qassabin in western Syria, a "poor village isolated in the mountains". His parents were farmers, and he had no early formal schooling. "I'd never seen a car, electricity or a telephone till I was 13. I always ask myself how I was transformed into this other person; it was almost miraculous." His love of poetry was nurtured by his father, and at Qur'anic school. Aged 13, when he impressed the president of the newly established Syrian republic by reciting one of his own poems, his reward was a scholarship to the French lycée. He studied philosophy at Damascus university, and later did a doctorate in Lebanon.
During a year in Paris in 1960, he found his voice in the poem Mihyar of Damascus: His Song (1961), with echoes of Noah, Adam, Ulysses and Orpheus. While for him, poetry and religion are rivals, Sufi mysticism is a force for renewal.Sufism and Surrealism – the title of his 1995 book – are united in the idea, as he expressed it in a poem, that reality is "nothing but skin that crumbles as soon as you touch it". He is also drawn to a mystical view that identity is not fixed: "A human being creates his identity in creating his oeuvre." Yet Sufism is more profound than surrealism or existentialism, he says, "because it's related to a revolutionary idea – that the other is me; that I am the other. If I travel towards myself, I must go through the other."
This is no philosophical nicety. His family belonged to the Shia minority Alawites, and it is sometimes suggested that this gives him his sense of being apart. "It's not being Alawite that gives me a sense of difference," he objects, "but the present state of the Arab world. A man isn't Protestant, Catholic, Sunni or Shia by birth; it's through projects and pathways that men become Shia or Alawite. I never subscribed to that." He joined the secular Syrian Social Nationalist party, opposed to the colonisation and partition of Syria, "partly to get out of concepts of minorities and majorities". He was duly jailed during his military service in the mid-1950s. Since he quit the party in 1960, he has never belonged to another. "I was only 14 or 15 when I joined – a child. Later, I said I can't be both poet and politically engaged. Ideology is against art."
Beirut, where he fled with his wife into exile in 1956, was a "second birth". He co-founded influential magazines, Shir (Poetry) and Mawaquif (Position), embracing colloquial Arabic and opposing both Arab nationalism and poetry as propaganda. TS Eliot was one of the first poets they interviewed, and Adonis collaborated on translations of The Waste Land, as well as on the works of Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, Philip Larkin and Robert Lowell. He combined new sources with an encyclopaedic, "virgin" reading of Arabic classics. True creation, he says, is "always modern because it speaks to us – Ovid, Heraclitus, Homer, Dante. What's not modern are the imitators. In classical Arabic poetry, you have to know how to distinguish between the greats and their imitators."
His long poem This Is My Name (1970) was spurred by shock at the Arab defeat of 1967. The Book of Siege (1982) came out of the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975, and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which he lived through, before leaving for Paris. As he wrote in the opening lines: "The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust. / Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this space." The six-day war "was terrible, but I wasn't conscious then of its tragic nature, as I was in 1982," he says.
He had first welcomed the Iranian revolution of 1979, but swiftly rejected its reactionary turn. His book The Fixed and the Changing (1974) on a struggle between creativity and intolerance in the Arab world, identified an Arab malaise of "pastism", which he defines now as seeing the past as the "source you must return to, despite the river running on with time. One has to break this circular time. You can't have a revolution to go back to the past."
As the Arab uprisings spread, Adonis said in a television interview that he could not take part in a revolution that emanated from the mosques. He was accused of siding with the regimes, and being out of touch with the dire circumstance of revolt. Asked whether he supports the peaceful protests, he spreads his arms as though pulling a concertina: "If you have a petition, I'll sign it." Does he worry that his words echo Arab dictators who pose as bulwarks against Islamists? "But with a difference," he says. "I'm against the regimes of Ben Ali and Assad, and against the Islamist opposition, because I don't want to fight one despotism for the sake of another ... If we don't separate religion from the state, and free women from Sharia law, we'll just have more despots. Military dictatorship controls your mind. But religious dictatorship controls your mind and body."
What of Islamist power through the ballot box? "In that case, democracy won't be a criterion of progress, so the notion of democracy has to be rethought. Truth is not always on the side of democracy – what can you do?" He concedes that democracy, "with all its failings, is much less bad than dictatorship". Rule by democratically elected Islamists would, "absolutely be better – but I'd be against it".
With Syria teetering on civil war – and speaking before President al-Assad rejected Arab League calls to step down – Adonis was unequivocal that "the present regime absolutely has to go. The Ba'ath party has to go, and another regime to be put in place that's secular, democratic and pluralist." Yet he is against both armed uprising and foreign intervention. "Guns can't resolve these problems. If everyone took up arms, there'd be civil war." Outside military intervention has "destroyed Arab countries, from Iraq to Libya". As for its humanitarian rationale, "it's not true – it's to colonise. If westerners really want to defend Arab human rights, they have to start by defending the rights of the Palestinians."
Calls for intervention from within Arab countries "are wrong; it doesn't make sense. How can you build the foundations of the state with the help of the same people who colonised these countries before?" At a talk this month in the House of Poetry in Paris, he held up a photograph published in al-Quds of some US soldiers in Iraq apparently desecrating the dead. "American soldiers pissed on Iraqi corpses," he says indignantly. "So these are the same people they want to call in to liberate Arabs, and piss on the living?"
Yet within the west, he argues "there are many wests – of Rimbaud, Whitman and Eliot, and of Bush, Sarkozy and Cameron." Explaining his view of Arab culture as extinct, he says: "What is civilisation? It's the creation of something new, like a painting. A people that no longer creates becomes a consumer of the products of others. That's what I mean by the Arabs being finished – not as a people, but as a creative presence."
Adonis holds no hope that poetry can change society. To do that, "you have to change its structures – family, education, politics. That's work art cannot do". Yet he believes it can change the "relationship between things and words, so a new image of the world can be born." Theorising about poetry is "like speaking about love. There are some things you can't explain. The world is not created to be understood, but to be contemplated and questioned."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reckless Endangerment / The making and unmaking of Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas

Reckless Endangerment

The making and unmaking of Dylan Thomas.

By Adam Kirsch
June 27, 2004

To begin at the beginning: In October, 1914, when the Swansea schoolmaster David John Thomas decided to call his newborn son Dylan, the name was virtually unknown, even in Wales. D.J., as he was called, had found it in the Mabinogion, the collection of medieval Welsh tales, where it is the name of a minor character—“a fine boy-child with rich yellow hair.” Florence, the boy’s mother, had her doubts about the odd name: the correct Welsh pronunciation, which the family used, is “Dullan,” and she worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.” Later, when broadcasting on the Welsh service of the BBC, Dylan Thomas had to instruct the announcers to say “Dillan,” the way he himself pronounced it.

Dylan Thomas

By 2003, according to Social Security records, “Dylan” had become the nineteenth most popular boy’s name in the United States—just below “James.” For the parents of many of those American Dylans, the name probably evokes the teen heartthrob on the TV series “Beverly Hills 90210”; for their grandparents, it will always recall the singer formerly known as Robert Zimmerman. But those later Dylans only borrowed its aura of brooding, youthful rebellion; in the most literal sense, Dylan Thomas made his name.

To achieve that level of fame as a poet demands more than talent, or even genius. From Byron to Sylvia Plath, it has also required scandal, tragedy, and early death. And the glamour of Dylan Thomas has always been peculiarly potent in the United States, because the last acts of his tragedy were played out here, in Manhattan. His Stations of the Cross are the Chelsea Hotel and the Ninety-second Street Y, the White Horse Tavern and St. Vincent’s Hospital—where he died of alcohol poisoning on November 9, 1953, just after his thirty-ninth birthday. Wales was Thomas’s great subject, and England made his reputation; but it was America that created his legend.

The question, raised by many at the time and fiercely debated ever since, is whether America also killed him. During his four American tours, between 1950 and 1953, Thomas put on a better show than any visiting writer since Dickens. His rich, honeyed baritone, and a dramatic instinct honed by years of broadcasting, made him a powerful reader of his own and others’ poems. But what drew crowds from New York to San Francisco, and on every college campus in between, was not just the performance; it was the possibility that Thomas would finally, irreparably, crack up. Elizabeth Hardwick remembered how professors and students alike were mesmerized by his alcoholic high-wire act: “Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exciting possibilities.” As Andrew Lycett writes in his new biography, “Dylan Thomas: A New Life” (Overlook; $35), Thomas “exhibited the excesses and experienced the adulation which would later be associated with rock stars.”

What drew crowds to Thomas’s readings wasn’t just the performance; it was the possibility that he would finally crack up.Illustration by Richard Merkin

What makes him unique among poets, even famous poets, is this distinctly modern and American cast of his celebrity. He took part in the savage transaction of stardom: his reckless self-indulgence satisfied his audiences’ fantasies, and his destruction satisfied their moralistic envy. Many people shared an obscure sense of gratification that Thomas had died young, as a poet should. That way, he could be mourned in the grand style, like Adonais: “. . . the loveliest and the last, / The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew.” Or, as the critic Alfred Kazin wrote in his journal when he heard the news, “Dylan. How much light goes out with the passing of our wizard . . . he embodied the deepest cry of poetry, he was our young singer!” The death of an old singer—a Yeats or a Frost—offers less scope for plangency.

Those closest to Thomas worried about this loving American vampirism. Caitlin, his wife, complained about many things he did—Caitlin’s volcanic temper, and the battles it provoked, is no small part of the Thomas legend—but she complained most loudly, and with most justification, about his visits to America. When he came back from his third trip, in the spring of 1953, she vowed not to let him return. As Thomas wrote ruefully to John Malcolm Brinnin, his American host and lecture agent, Caitlin told him, “ ‘You want to go to the States again only for flattery, idleness, and infidelity.’ This hurt me terribly. The right words were: appreciation, dramatic work, and friends.” But Caitlin was more right than either of them knew: the next trip turned out to be the fatal one. As she wrote in her memoir, “Leftover Life to Kill,” “Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it.”

“Don’t encourage him,” of course, is what we say about a child who misbehaves; and, while Thomas’s misbehavior took lethally adult forms, it was unmistakably a kind of childishness, a testing of boundaries. Lycett’s thorough and well-written biography—rich in anecdote, if short on psychological and literary penetration—shows that Thomas’s entire life was an experiment in how much he could get away with. Probably the most dramatic example—missing from Lycett’s account, it can be found in Paul Ferris’s 1977 biography—concerns a dinner party at the house of a psychiatrist, to which Thomas was invited by a mutual friend. When Thomas arrived, he told the host’s wife that he wanted to wash up, and was shown upstairs. When he came back down, he had taken off his own clothes and was wearing his host’s suit, tie, socks, and shoes. But what makes the story really astonishing is that no one said a word about it. As Hardwick observed, “Thomas was acknowledged, unconsciously perhaps, to be beyond judgment.”

Most people, especially women, readily granted him this immunity; a few bystanders, almost all of them men, found it infuriating. One story Lycett does tell involves John Veale, a young composer, who lent Thomas some money for a taxi. Two weeks later, Veale made the mistake of asking for it back; Thomas gave him “a look as if I’d delivered an unforgivable insult.” Veale’s loss was only three shillings and sixpence—many agents, publishers, friends, and total strangers were stung for hundreds of pounds—but it showed him an important truth about Thomas: “Dylan was accustomed to being trailed around by people in whose eyes he could do no wrong. He was allowed to get away with anything.” Under the circumstances, Thomas could hardly avoid becoming ruthless and even contemptuous in his exploitation, feeling that—as Lycett writes—“anyone who made a fuss of him was a fool and to be treated with disdain.” As the historian A. J. P. Taylor—whose wife, Margaret, was Thomas’s most generous sponsor—put it quite bluntly, “I disliked Dylan Thomas intensely. He was cruel.”

The virtue of Lycett’s biography is that although he does not fall under Thomas’s spell, he also resists such summary assessments. Paul Ferris, whose “Dylan Thomas: The Biography” was issued in a revised edition in 2000, remains Thomas’s best and most comprehensive biographer; but half a lifetime spent with Thomas—he also edited the poet’s letters, and wrote a life of Caitlin—clearly sapped his patience. (His index to the “Collected Letters” contains, under the heading “Finances,” the entry: “needs money, passim ad infinitum.”) Ferris takes an unmistakable satisfaction in exposing Thomas’s lies and outrages; Lycett, a journalist and biographer whose past subjects include Muammar Qaddafi and Ian Fleming, simply shares with the reader his pleasure in the whole gossipy spectacle. When Lycett differs from Ferris about a particular episode, his interpretation is usually more charitable.

The affair of Vernon Watkins’s wedding is a good example. In October, 1944, Thomas was to serve as best man at Watkins’s wedding in London, but he did not appear. Lycett writes that Watkins “then received an envelope from Dylan containing two fawning letters, one apologising for having failed to post the other; and the other claiming that, in a confusion of missed trains, Dylan had forgotten the name of the church.” This would be bad enough, but Ferris’s version is worse. He reports the suspicion of Watkins’s wife that the letter Thomas allegedly failed to post on the day of the wedding was a fake, deliberately creased and grimed to make it look as though he had accidentally been carrying it around in his pocket. In any case, the sequel was as usual: Watkins vowed, “That’s the end of Dylan as far as I’m concerned,” and then forgave him.

It was natural for people to indulge Thomas as though he were a child, since he was barely out of childhood when he became famous. By the age of nineteen, Thomas had already written many of his major poems: “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” “Before I Knocked,” “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.” The world got a glimpse of what Thomas was up to in his “bedroom by the boiler” in March, 1934, when “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines” was published in The Listener. Its completely assured voice drew the notice of T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender, among others, and its suggestive imagery brought angry letters from subscribers:

Dawn breaks behind the eyes; From poles of skull and toe the windy blood Slides like a sea; Nor fenced, nor staked, the gushers of the sky Spout to the rod Divining in a smile the oil of tears.

That December, when Thomas’s “18 Poems” was published as the winner of a contest sponsored by the newspaper Sunday Referee, it created a minor sensation in literary London. The book was far from a commercial success—it took two years for the edition of five hundred copies to sell out—but it was widely reviewed, and gained Thomas some important champions. The critic Desmond Hawkins called it “the sort of bomb that bursts no more than once in three years”; the influential man of letters Cyril Connolly declared himself “completely ensnared.”

A début like “18 Poems” would have attracted attention at any time, but in the mid-nineteen-thirties a poet of Thomas’s particular gifts was especially welcome. Ever since W. H. Auden’s “Poems” appeared, in 1930, British poetry had been dominated by his cool, intellectual, ominous music; along with such disciples as Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, Auden created what sounded like the inevitable idiom for a decade of crisis. After five years of the “pylon poets,” as they were sometimes called, Thomas’s intoxicated lyricism was greeted like a rainstorm in a dry climate. Thomas could be as hermetic as any modernist, but his passionate incantations seemed to come out of an older Romantic tradition; it was not long before he was being hailed as a bard. Hawkins announced, “The Audenesque convention is nearly ended; and I credit Dylan Thomas with being the first considerable poet to break through fashionable limitation and speak an unborrowed language.” The editor Geoffrey Grigson, whose early friendship with Thomas was ruined, predictably, over money matters, put it more snidely: Thomas was “a Young Poet untainted with Eliot or with Auden . . . whose poems, though a bit unintelligible, sounded at least familiar in an old grandiloquent way.”

Thomas was alert to the danger of becoming merely a prodigy—like the surrealist poet David Gascoyne, who published his first book in 1932, at the age of sixteen—and insisted that his work be judged without reference to his age. But at the same time he played up his boyishness for comic or pathetic effect: at age twenty-three, he was still joking about his “particular baby bulbousness . . . like an Aryan Harpo bitten by wasps.” In her memoir, Caitlin recalled that when they first met “Dylan may have been a skinny, springy lambkin, but I was more like its buxom mother then, and distinctly recollect carrying him across streams under one arm.” And his early love letters try to enlist her in a conspiracy of Peter Pans: “You mustn’t look too grown-up, because you’d look older than me; and you’ll never, I’ll never let you, grow wise, and I’ll never, you shall never let me, grow wise, and we’ll always be young and unwise together.”

This hope—like Thomas’s assurance, in a letter to his sister just before his marriage, that Caitlin cared “absolutely nothing for the responsibilities of husbandly provision”—was inevitably disappointed. For it was Caitlin who had to bear the full brunt of Thomas’s womanizing, drunkenness, unemployment, and simple domestic helplessness. (On one occasion, Lycett writes, Caitlin asked her husband to make a cup of tea, and “he came back with a curious greasy concoction, explaining he could not find a top for the pot, so had covered it with half a pound of cheese.”) Not unnaturally, she grew bitter, to the point of becoming, by most accounts, a monster. Lycett tells the story of how, when she suspected Thomas of flirting with a woman at a party, “she came up behind her supposed rival and, without saying a word, stubbed her cigarette down hard on the back of [her] hand. Then she said, ‘Hullo’ and walked calmly away to talk to someone else.” Lycett acknowledges the extent of Caitlin’s infidelities, but does not mention her nonchalant admission to Ferris, in the late nineteen-seventies, that “only a miracle had saved” her three children by Thomas “from being somebody else’s.”

The only person more revolted by his weakness than Caitlin was Thomas himself. Philip Larkin, the leading British poet of the generation after Thomas’s, claimed to have read his published correspondence “with almost supernatural boredom, scrounging, apologising, promising, apologising again, fixing up appointments, apologising for not keeping them.” But Thomas was well aware of the impression he made, writing to one editor that “nobody, one might think, could say that he was sincerely sorry so many times and still be sincere about it.” Thomas, however, was sincere, every time; he just wasn’t able to change, and his helplessness left him prey to a venomous self-loathing. “The selfish trouble,” he explained to the poet and critic Henry Treece, “is that I myself have had to put up with these seriously annoying faults for so long that I’ve almost come to think other people can bear them. I am the one who wakes up nearest to myself, and the continual horror that comes from the realisation of this individuality has made me almost to believe that the reactions of others to my horrible self . . . are small enough, in comparison.” Two years before his death, in a letter written to Princess Marguerite Caetani—the American-born editor of the international literary magazine Botteghe Oscure—he offered a more damning self-portrait than any enemy could: “I’m sick of my always hurdygurdying these little griefs out and me like a monkey on the top of it all with my beggar’s cap.”

The many people who tolerated and encouraged Thomas’s vices used his genius as an excuse. More accurately, his vices were seen as an indispensable part of his genius; he fit the vulgar stereotype of the poet whose head was in the clouds, what he himself derided as the “Dreamy Poet Type B classified by Punch.” And when Thomas’s life of helplessness was consummated in a helpless death, brought on by weeks of hard drinking and a doctor’s morphine injection, there was a widespread, if disguised, satisfaction at this perfection of the stereotype. Thomas’s end could be appreciated on the terms Saul Bellow described in “Humboldt’s Gift”: “For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. . . . The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. . . . So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.”

Indeed, Thomas’s death was at least a dress rehearsal, and possibly a direct inspiration, for the fates of a generation of American poets. Delmore Schwartz, in the psychotic and alcoholic haze of his last years, began to haunt the White Horse Tavern, the famous site of Thomas’s dissipations. Elizabeth Bishop, whose reticent, lucid poetry could not be more different from Thomas’s, felt an “instantaneous sympathy” when they met in 1950, during her tenure as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Writing to Pearl Kazin—whose affair with Thomas was by far the most serious of his American romances—just after his death, Bishop claimed her own kinship with Thomas: “In my own minor way I know enough about drink & destruction.”

Most possessive of all was John Berryman, who was a graduate student at Cambridge when he first met Thomas, in the late nineteen-thirties. Berryman—who was born just two days before Thomas—was staying at the Chelsea when Thomas had his final collapse there, and was the only person at his bedside when he stopped breathing. As Pearl Kazin recalled, she and Berryman both attended a conference at Bard College during Thomas’s last, comatose weekend; on one country walk, Berryman “kept saying, as he took long gulps of air: ‘I’m breathing for Dylan, if I breathe for him perhaps he will remain alive.’ ” Months before Berryman’s suicide, in 1972, following his own battle with alcoholism, he wrote “In Memoriam (1914-53),” an elegy for Thomas:

His talk, one told me, clung latterly to Eden, again & again of the Garden & the Garden’s flowers, not ever the Creator, only of that creation with a radiant will to go there.

Although Thomas stood at the head of what Berryman called a “wrecked” generation of poets, he himself never blamed poetry for what befell him. The bitterest part of his shame was that, while he profited from the popular equation of poetry with weakness, he knew that it was in poetry alone that he was strong. “My selfish carelessness and unpunctuality,” he wrote Treece, “I do not try to excuse as poet’s properties. They are a bugbear & a humbug.”

In fact, with a strange symmetry, Thomas’s poetry takes the very things that cursed his life and turns them into blessings. In his verse, self-absorption becomes intense awareness; childishness becomes freshness of perception; and heedlessness becomes verbal daring. These are the virtues of youth, and it remains astonishing how very young Thomas was when he began to write his great poems; his precocity rivals that of Keats and Rimbaud.

Unlike Keats’s, however, Thomas’s poems reflect their creator’s rawness. His thought is rudimentary—as Randall Jarrell noted in an early review, “the best and most brilliantly written pieces usually say less than the worst”—and much of his verbal tumult seems willfully obscure. Confronted with lines like “The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, / Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream,” many early readers grouped Thomas with the surrealists as a deliberate maker of nonsense. But Thomas passionately, and rightly, refused this label. “I agree,” he wrote, “that much of the poetry is impossibly difficult; I’ve asked, or rather told, words to do too much; it isn’t theories that choke some of the wilder and worser lines, but sheer greed.” His difficulty is not the cool provocation of the avant-garde but the heat of the teen-age poet writing for no ear save his own.

Isolation and appetite, in any teen-ager, naturally find release in self-gratification; in that sense, Thomas’s poetry can fairly, and without insult, be called masturbatory. It is also frequently masturbatory in a more literal sense: he writes of being “tickled by the rub of love,” “rehearsing heat upon a raw-edged nerve,” “the scalding veins that hold love’s drop.” The last line of “My Hero Bares His Nerves” quickly became notorious: “He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.” Like Whitman, another great poet of onanism, Thomas sees his body from a certain remove, awed and even frightened by its capacity for sensation: “Ears in the turrets hear / Hands grumble on the door, / Eyes in the gables see / The fingers at the locks.”

The same tendency, carried to its extreme, is what allows Thomas to see his entire existence as something that essentially does not belong to him. In his seething, pantheistic poems, his own life becomes just one moment of a universal process, a temporary habitation of the life force. At times, this can sound like narcissism—“My holy lucky body,” Thomas writes in one poem—but in a deeper sense it is a shocking denial of the self. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer”: death is the implicit, inescapable end of growth. At his best, Thomas has a nearly metaphysical ability to make us see all the moments of a life, from birth to death, in a single instant: “The oak is felled in the acorn / And the hawk in the egg kills the wren.” And when the Second World War came it was this power simultaneously to see death and to see through death that produced his great war poems: “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred,” and—the most significant title of all—“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”

But that poem, which beautifully imagines the child’s death as a homecoming to Nature—“Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother”—also reveals the limitations of Thomas’s vision. It is not, finally, a truly consoling poem; in his haste to adopt a cosmic view of the tragedy, Thomas seems indifferent to its human meaning. The refusal to mourn is a refusal to love the dead child as an individual, the way those who knew her might have; it turns her immediately into a symbol. “After the first death, there is no other,” Thomas writes in one of his many unforgettable lines. But first there is the first death, in all its irredeemable particularity; and Thomas’s language, with its totem words and sorcerer’s rhythms, is not scaled to the particular. His poetry, as Elizabeth Bishop noted, has a “desperate win-or-lose-all quality,” which “eliminates everything from life except something almost beyond human supportability after a while.”

This insupportable intensity was, perhaps, the price of Thomas’s adolescent genius. In some ways, Thomas resembles Wordsworth, whose lament for lost childhood, the “Immortality Ode,” haunts several of Thomas’s later poems. What makes Wordsworth the larger poet is the experience he captured in a line from “Elegiac Stanzas”: “a deep distress hath humanised my Soul.” Thomas’s sorrows, terrible though they became, never had that effect; instead of broadening and renewing his gift, they eroded its early momentum. At the age of twenty-six, Lycett points out, “Dylan had already written more than eighty percent of his published verse.” In the last eight years of his life, he wrote only six poems. And the self-inflicted decay of his final years, though accelerated by his American tours, was surely rooted in this loss of inspiration. Being treated as a poet, with all the indulgence and condescension that entailed, was always bad for Dylan Thomas. Writing poems was what allowed him to survive it, as he gratefully acknowledged: “To take to give is all, return what is hungrily given / Puffing the pounds of manna up through the dew to heaven.”


Published in the print edition of the July 5, 2004, issue.

Adam Kirsch is a poet, a critic, and the author of, most recently, “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?