“Dylan Thomas In America” by John Brinnin

My reading preference is fiction, particularly authors such as Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Damon Runyan, Alan Bennett etc who wrote humour. Waugh was the all-time master and his 1930s novels are for me, the best fiction ever created.

With non-fiction the more esoteric the subject, the more I’m attracted.

Recently I read American poetry academic, the late John Brinnin’s quite extraordinary account, published in 1956, of Dylan Thomas’s infamous 1950 tour of American universities, plus the two subsequent years’ shorter visits.

Although only 39 the last in 1953 brought about Dylan’s alcohol-inflicted death. Frankly, it’s astonishing that he lasted that long.

As his host and minder Brinnin was with him every day. His description of the Welshman’s alcohol consumption is simply mind-boggling. Dylan sought a drink as soon as he woke and continued all day and every day, pouring mostly beer but occasionally spirits down his throat. Food consumption played little part in his day.

If utterly irresponsible Thomas wasn’t entirely stupid and must have been aware he was on an effective suicide course, perhaps reflected by his famous poem on death.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…” etc.

These are not sentiments I share. That said, I’ve always liked “Under Milkwood”, it reminding me of elements New Zealand small society.

Surprisingly, Brinnin’s book revealed Under Milkwood was first performed on stage in New York. It was a comical, typically Dylan chaotic situation.

There seated awaited the sell-out audience while backstage sat Dylan drunk, while flat out completing the last lines and handing them on scraps of paper to the poor actors. A fortnight later he was dead.

Originally commissioned by the BBC as a radio drama, largely involving the first half only, the Under Milkwood version we’re now familiar with was not finally set in stone until after his death.

Some Thomas biographers blamed Brinnin for the poet’s early demise, claiming he over-worked him. That’s unfair, rather he tried to keep him on track with his agreed schedule.

As said it really is an astonishing story vis a vis Thomas’s drinking.

I gave it to one of the chaps in the office who was equally overwhelmed and passed it on to our Wellington manager, insisting he read it. He too was flabbergasted.

It’s certainly not uncommon for famous creative types to claim drugs or/and alcohol were key to their success. Maybe, but I prefer Picasso’s approach, he dying in his 93rd year with a mistress barely out of her teens. Perhaps she was responsible for his heart attack and if so, then that’s the way to go.

2 Comments

Couldn’t agree more!

Thank you, have just read Under Milk Wood and today Dylan Thomas in America arrived from Auckland Libraries basement,due by date in back of book has the last borrower in1980.

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