I saw him only once, at The White Horse Tavern in New York City. I’d been told that he always went there when in Manhattan; he liked being at a remove from the tourists of Greenwich Village, and The White Horse, on the corner of Hudson and 11th streets, fit his needs perfectly. And that of others as well. The West Village bar was a favorite of the likes of Anaïs Nin, the singular diarist and woman of mystery, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, when not on the West Coast. A disapproving hand signaled displeasure at the Beat’s founder by writing on the bathroom wall: “Go home, Kerouac!” There were no such graffiti against Dylan Thomas. In time, the walls of the White Horse bore images of his time there.
Despite his reclusiveness, I was determined to see Dylan, and one night in October, early in my first year of college, I wandered over to the tavern on the chance that he might be there. I was in luck. I was too young to drink but not to sneak into the place and take a peek at the rotund, disheveled figure sitting alone at the bar. His curly-haired head was hung low and he was as desolate a human being as I had ever seen. Had I been older, I might have approached him and told him how much I admired his poetry, loved the sound of his recorded voice. But all I could do was stand by the doorway and take in his figure, trying to fix it in my mind.
I was soon hustled out of the premises by the bartender. And yet, I had caught my glimpse of the great poet. Despite his drunken state, I felt privileged to have seen him in person. Not long thereafter, he was dead. He passed away at New York City’s St. Vincent’s Hospital on Nov. 9, 1953. I had celebrated my 18th birthday two days earlier. I was never to experience hearing him read in person.
Dylan Thomas had been and continues to be one of my literary touchstones. Since seeing him not long before his death, the spirit of the great Welsh poet had called me to visit his homeland. So it was natural that, while on a 1979 journey around the circumference of the United Kingdom to visit archaeological sites, I should take time off from that endeavor to give vent to the long-held desire to visit his haunts. I traipsed the streets of Swansea, Wales, to several pubs that Dylan had frequented or otherwise been associated with; thereafter, I headed to Laugharne, where he had lived.
My first stop was the cemetery. There I found not a great monument to the town’s and Wales’ greatest poet but a simple plot topped by tufted grass. At the head of the burial was a wooden white cross simply inscribed: “In memory of Dylan Thomas died Nov. 9th 1953 — R.I.P.” It was a disappointment not to find a better homage to the creative genius who had penned “Fern Hill,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the play “Under Milk Wood,” and that highly resonant poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” But since such matters of remembrance are left to the living and many of them did not appreciate the drunkard that they saw all too frequently, or the man whose raucous arguments with wife Caitlin were legendary, it is perhaps understandable that no marble monument celebrated his life. The living, however, could not undermine the monument of a body of work that will ever stir those who read it and hear the recordings of Dylan’s sonorous voice.
But if the cemetery was a disappointment, the poet’s house was not. Perched atop the promontory overlooking the sea, it too was a simple affair, a modest wooden structure now turned into a museum, if one of minute proportions, run by the Ffynone House School Trust. I took my time during my visit in the house, silently thanking the poet for letting me have the place to myself.
Behind the house stood the tiny shed-like study where he wrote or polished so many of his fine works, as the placard above the entrance proclaims: “In this building / Dylan Thomas wrote / many of his famous / works seeking / inspiration from the / panoramic view of / the estuary.” I entered the one-room outlier where he went daily to write as if approaching the holy of holies. For me it was a sacred site, the home of Dylan’s spirit.
Fortunate to be alone in the room, I sat at the small table he had used as a desk and marveled at the beauty below that had fed his creative soul. Caught up in the mystique of the place, I was moved to write a paean at his desk:
Above the estuary of Laugharne,
seeing gentle as the water rolled
ashore and out again to sea,
he strode on his high walks
with power of figure, mighty ken,
and rolling voice that carried,
like the tide, its own eternal gait.
Above the estuary of Laugharne,
poised within his flimsy wooden perch
[aerie for the eagle in the man],
he overlorded sea and land
and made them his through Bardic voice.
Mine was not a poem in praise of an Apollo but of a very human poet who had put to paper some of the most memorable lines ever penned. And it is our fortune to be able to hear still that “Bardic voice” with which he was gifted by the gods of Wales as it recites those unique verses from his poems and plays.
Putting aside his human frailties, Dylan Thomas remains my poet of poets. He may have passed away in 1953, but his voice, be it in writing or in the spoken word, remains as a testament to his poetic genius.