At 73, I have at last found Dylan Thomas. He was not lost to the world, only hidden from me. This discovery by happenstance, fate, of serendipity, has been a fine gift. I came upon this man’s writing while reading the book of another author. That book, to go unnamed, turned out to be boring and little more than an attempt of the author for his self-aggrandizement. But I thank him for pointing me toward Thomas. The reason Dylan Thomas was mentioned was to show an almost perfectly crafted one-hundred fifty-word sentence written by Thomas. This is that sentence.
“I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War – an ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled, and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Sunday afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes.”
This passage comes from the Dylan Thomas book Quite Early One Morning. First published in 1945. Upon reading the sentence, I immediately ordered a copy of this book. I have had it in my possession for more than a week, and after reading it daily, I am now on page fourteen. Although I am not a fast reader, this is not the reason I have only read so few pages. This feast of words cannot be consumed as though it were a pint of ice cream. As a child, I was told to chew my food thirty-two times before swallowing. I’m pretty sure I never put that advice into practice. Yet, there is no way one can gulp down the delicious words of this book in large doses. It requires a patient slow chewing.
One more sampling – Parchedig Thomas Evans making morning tea,
very weak tea, too, you mustn’t waste a leaf.
Every morning making tea in my house by the sea,
I am troubled by one thing only, and that’s – Belief.
By what manner were we given this man? Devine Providence? Karma? A Simple Twist of Fate? I don’t know. When younger, I thought we were handed down certain people by some entity greater than I could understand. Einstein, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, and others. I’m not sure I believe that any longer, but I know there are special people, and sometimes they come into our lives. And I am grateful Dylan Thomas has come into mine.
I am not sure from where his genius came, but it was clearly present, and it cannot be ignored in reading his writing.
He earned no MFA from Yale or Cornell. At age sixteen, he dropped out of school and became a reporter for a local paper. Dylan pronounced (Dull-an) in Welsh caused his mother to worry that his name might be teased as “Dull-one” Dylan preferred the Anglicized pronunciation of Dillan. I can’t imagine that anyone would tease his name today.
Had I come upon him twenty years ago, I’m pretty sure I would never have attempted to write anything other than some cryptic handwritten note to a friend. I hold fast to the belief that through study, effort, and persistence, we can all become better writers. But just like my tennis game and that of Roger Federer, there is a vast ocean that separates my game and his. The only thing that is similar between the writing of Dylan Thomas and mine is that we use the same alphabet. The similarity ends with the letter Z.
Reading the prose of Thomas is like reading beautiful verse. By today’s standards of writing, I think many might fault him for being flowery or verbose. Clearly, he used far more adjectives than might have been required. But somehow, rather than over-writing sentences, he created beauty and imagery that is spellbinding. Because he was from Wales and wrote nearly 75 years ago, his word choices might seem vague or ‘foreign’ to the average American reader. And so they are to me, yet in sorting out his word choice is part of the wonder of reading Dylan Thomas.
One more example:
Outside the booth stood a bitten-eared and barn-door-chested pug with a nose like a twisted swede and hair that startled from his eyebrows and three teeth yellow as a camel’s, inviting any sportsman to a sudden and sickening basting in the sandy ring or a quid if he lasted a round; and wiry, cocky, bowlegged, coal scarred, boozed sportsmen by the dozen strutted in and reeled out; and still those three teeth remained, chipped and camel-yellow in the bored, teak face.
This sentence a mere 81 words.
Can you read that and not be standing there, watching those poor drunk men getting walloped by that barn-door-chested mountain of a man? Can you not hear the cheering of those watching, a small bet wagered and lost? Can you not see and feel the sweat spraying across the room as the brief fight takes place?
Dylan Thomas only lived 39 years. In his short life, he left gifts to us that take us deep into another time and another place. For me, I want to stay, to have a pint of ale, and to stroll by the beach and hear the sounds of boys running and laughing. Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for the trips you allow me to take.
Go well, David