Celebrating a poet: 100 years after the birth of Dylan Thomas

05/03/2014 12:00 AM

10/13/2014 6:10 PM

Fueled by the invincibility of youth, Dylan Thomas was only 19 when he proclaimed “And death shall have no dominion.”

Although he was destined to live only two more decades, his poem became a personal manifesto. This year, a century after his birth, death will have no dominion over one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers.

Thomas’ native Swansea, Wales, is epicenter of Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations that will run more than a year. Festivals, exhibits and performances will radiate out from his “ugly, lovely town” to reverberate throughout Wales.

Thomas was a prodigy, writing two-thirds of his work before age 23 from his birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea. In addition to poems, he wrote film scripts, plays and stories, performing his work on the radio and on stage during tours of the United States.

He’s a YouTube favorite, reading his poetry in what he called his “breathless boom boom boom.” Some consider Thomas the first modern multimedia star — he’s said to be the most-quoted author after Shakespeare.

It was on Thomas’ fourth American tour in 1953 that, after a drinking bout, he proclaimed in the wee hours of Nov. 4, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I believe that’s the record.” He collapsed and died five days later of a “massive insult to the brain.”

The arc of that short life began in the front room of the family home in Swansea on Oct. 27, 1914. The house was lovingly restored to August 1914, when Dylan’s parents, D.J. and Florrie Thomas, moved in.

The house and its contents advance along a timeline. “Bits of chrome are coming in, a direct result of World War I,” said Anne Haden, who put her own money and energy into the restoration. “In 1922, the crystal radio will come in, and radio was very important to Dylan.”

Prepare to climb up Cwmdonkin Drive to the Edwardian house. “You’ve got to be a Sherpa,” Thomas said, to live here.

Visitors can explore the two-story house with a free audio tour and even stay overnight in Dylan’s birthplace room — the front bedroom.

When he started writing at 4, Dylan loved to sneak into his sister Nancy’s room to compose. “I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words …” he wrote in his Poetic Manifesto. “I cared for the colors the words cast on my eyes.”

Thomas never liked his own room, “a tiny renovated bedroom … hardly any light, book-knife. No red cushion. No cushion at all. Hard chair. Smelly. Painful. Hot water pipes very near. Gurgle all the time. Nearly go mad. Nice view of wall through window.”

In his parents’ bedroom at the back of the house, guests still look out to the town “crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore” of Swansea Bay.

In October, the Dylan Birthplace will sponsor The Dylanathon, a photo-marathon celebrating the life and work of Dylan Thomas. Themes from his writing will provide the cues.

In downtown Swansea May 31-Aug. 31, the Dylan Thomas Centre on Somerset Place will display his notebooks, which are returning to Swansea for the first time. The center has an extensive permanent Dylan Thomas exhibition, from his “too happy childhood” to his death in New York.

The exhibit opens with a tweed suit Thomas borrowed from an American painter, Jorge Fick, when the writer ran out of clean clothes in New York. Fick was storing his clothes at the Chelsea Hotel, where Thomas collapsed, and this is the suit he was wearing when he was taken to the hospital. No one knows if the ink stain in the right trouser pocket was from Dylan’s pen.

For such a multimedia star, there are no moving images of Thomas, just a silent newsreel of his funeral procession in Laugharne. But his recordings continue to be money-spinners for his estate.

The Thomas Centre will be the headquarters for the special 2014 Dylan Thomas Festival, lasting from his birthday Oct. 17 to Nov. 9, the anniversary of his death.

Nearby, the Swansea City Centre Trail traces Thomas’ life along the old landmarks and pubs he knew. One of the stops is The Uplands Hotel, now the Uplands Tavern, where he first tasted beer: “Its live white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips.”

The tour also pops into Swansea’s Adelphi Tavern on Wind Street, where Thomas drank as a cub reporter. He left school at 16, with no credentials, and became a reporter for the South Wales Evening Post. It was the only regular job he ever held.

Thomas wrote and scrambled for money throughout his 20s, often heading to Oxford and London. On a trip to the capital in 1936, he met bohemian dancer Caitlin Macnamara in a pub. They married in 1937, and a year later moved to Laugharne, about 30 miles northwest of Swansea, to make a home for their children, Aeronwy, Llewellyn and Colm.

Laugharne, on a nook of the River Taf, is an ancient, cliffside settlement with a 13th-century fortress. It has a venerable literary past, too. Feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Laugharne, and her daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, often visited. Novelist Kingsley Amis wrote during stays in the town, and Margaret Atwood set a short story in Laugharne.

Thomas called it simply “the strangest town in Wales.”

The family moved around a bit in the village of 400, always coveting the Boathouse perched on rocks on the “heron priested” Taf Estuary. The waves sometimes swept into the lower rooms, and there was no running water or heat. But a patron bought the house for the Thomases, and they lived there for the last four years of his life, from 1949 to 1953.

Step inside and you’ll hear Thomas, maybe his broadcast of Quite Early One Morning. Much of the furniture is original, and the tiny rooms have a lived-in feel.

Just 50 yards away, Thomas took an old garage as his Writing Shed. Here, on stilts above the cliffs, he practiced his “sullen craft,” writing Under Milk Wood, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and Poem on His Birthday.

Signposts make it easy to follow the two-mile walk which is the setting for Poem in October, Thomas’ stroll around Laugharne on his 30th birthday. If you walk it on your birthday, with ID, several local businesses will give you freebies.

As Thomas’ fellow Welshman and friend Richard Burton wrote in his diaries, “I remember that Dylan Thomas was almost embarrassingly sentimental about his birthday as indeed he shows in Poem in October.”

Most of Thomas’ ramblings ended at Browns Hotel in Laugharne, where he would commandeer the bay window to drink pints of Buckley’s, write, read the papers and chat with the locals.

The town hosts the Laugharne Weekend each April, but this year, the festival has expanded into September. The council also will move a temporary writing shed throughout Carmarthenshire, to encourage writers inspired by Thomas.

Some pilgrims may want to pay respects to Dylan and Caitlin in the churchyard of St. Martin’s Church. Their grave is marked by a simple white cross, with offerings at its feet. On a recent day, people felt moved to leave sea shells, dollar bills and a liquor bottle for husband and wife.

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