Dylan Thomas, whose centenary is on 27 October, was a prodigy who became a living legend, the first poet to be magnified by celebrity culture – his words, voice, image and private life broadcast on an international scale through the 20th Century’s new media of radio, television, film and audio recordings.
"Dylan Thomas's voice has added a new dimension to literary history,” the New York Times raved when he launched a US reading tour in 1950. “He will surely be remembered as the first in modern literature to be both a maker and speaker of poetry... the typical reader will become entranced after hearing him recite."
Thomas was the first to record for the Caedman label when it started in 1952, setting the standard for spoken-word recording at that time. As Seamus Heaney noted in 1992, the recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his own work were “important cultural events”.
Dylan Thomas’ 1950s US tours set the template that poets follow to this day. He paved the way for the Beats, the West Coast poets, the St Mark’s Poetry Project, poetry slams, and all the touring poets. He crossed over to influence rock stars like Bob Dylan (who changed his name from Zimmerman) and The Beatles, who included his image on the album cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“He was the first,” says Philip Levine, a former US Poet Laureate honoured with the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and multiple National Book Critics Circle awards. “The idea of a tour was original. And he had the poetry to back it up. He had a profound influence. It was beneficial because it made us better readers. And giving readings became a huge source of income.”
Today Dylan Thomas’ books are still in print. His poems And death shall have no dominion and Do not go gentle into that good night are staples at memorial services, his nostalgia-drenched prose piece A child’s Christmas in Wales is revived each holiday season, and you can hear his work all over YouTube. But his pioneering contributions to the poetry scene and his critical reputation have long been overshadowed by a personal life riddled with heavy drinking, infidelities and ‘bad boy’ behaviour.
In this centenary year, there’s been time for a re-evaluation, amid an international celebration of the poet’s work. On 26 October, Michael Sheen directs and stars (with Kate Burton) in a performance of Under Milkwood at New York City’s 92 nd Street Y, where Thomas himself once had the lead in the premiere performances. A 36-hour Dylathon in Swansea peaks at the hour of his birth (11 pm on 27 October) with readings by Sir Ian McKellan and Katherine Jenkins OBE.. There also are walking tours, readings, exhibits, films and new editions of his work, including Selected Poems from the Folio Society introduced by poet Owen Sheers, who calls Thomas “a seismic event in English-language poetry” and “a reminder that poetry has its roots in music, and always will”. . There’s also the first book-length critical study since 1966, John Goodby’s The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall.
Age of anxiety
An extraordinary lyric energy infused Dylan Thomas’ work from the outset. At 18, following “in the path of Blake,” as he put it, he wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer.” He wrote the majority of his poems while still in his teens, drawing upon imagery gathered as he wandered the coastline of Swansea, where he was born, or on long strolls through the Welsh countryside.
In his poems, Thomas linked birth and death, regeneration and ruin, ecstasy and despair. He was experimental, working through a poetic process in which he accrued word clusters rather than following a preconceived narrative scheme. He wrote of the body: “Through my small bone island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, and sensed all.” His poetic perspective often created the illusion of being inside the imagination as it formed the words. He revived the bardic tradition with words so musical and a voice so melodious that thousands flocked to hear him and buy recordings of his work.
Thomas’ language and imagery were so original as to baffle the critics accustomed to WH Auden, TS Eliot and Stephen Spender. But they paid attention. Desmond Hawkins called his first book, 18 Poems, published in the UK in 1934, “a book of unusual promise… the sort of bomb that bursts not more than once in three years”. In 1947 Robert Lowell called him a “dazzling obscure poet who can be enjoyed without understanding”, and praised his technical rigour.
Thomas was of a generation of poets immersed in anxiety. He was born in 1914, only months after the Great War began. “I dreamed my genesis and died again, shrapnel rammed in the marching heart,” he wrote in one of his first poems. He came of age in a time of unemployment and economic crisis. He worked briefly as a journalist in Wales, then as a broadcaster and scriptwriter in London as Hitler’s rise cast a dark cloud over Europe, and the bombings began. In the 1940s he wrote sombre and distinctive war poems, like “Among those killed in a dawn raid was a man aged a hundred”, drawn from a newspaper headline, and “The refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London.” In the late 1940s he contributed regularly to the BBC.
In February 1950 Thomas embarked upon a lucrative series of US readings under the stewardship of John Malcolm Brinnin, the newly appointed executive director of the 92nd Street Y. Brinnin told the audience of a thousand on the first night that their visitor came “out of the druidical mists of Wales.”
Philip Levine heard Thomas read in 1950 at Wayne State University, where he was a student. “I had only seen pictures of him, the young Dylan Thomas in a turtleneck sweater with a lot of blond hair blowing in the wind. He comes out and he looks like a miniature WC Fields. Sort of round and very rumpled. He staggers out, gets up there and is in complete command. His voice was melodious and powerful and nothing was slurred.”
American poetry in 1949 and 1950 was domestic and urban and suburban, says Levine. “And here comes this wild man with all this marvelous nature imagery. His voice was inspiring, exciting, exotic.”
By the time Dylan Thomas began his US tours, he was broke, suffering from years of alcohol abuse and in a troubled marriage. He earned $500 for his first night’s reading –more than ten times the $40 advance his publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, offered for his first American poetry collection in 1939. But he drank most of that income away as he gave readings on campuses from coast to coast. “I don’t see how he can survive long at the present pace,” Laughlin told Brinnin.
In October 1953, Thomas was back in New York preparing for performances of Under Milkwood. He was ill, and drinking heavily. He collapsed at the Chelsea Hotel, lapsed into a coma and died on 9 November at St Vincent’s Hospital. He was thirty-nine. The White Horse Tavern, where he drank, became a tragic literary landmark.
“Dylan Thomas had a mythology built around him,” says Frank Delaney, a long-time BBC host and novelist who worked with people who knew Dylan Thomas when he was writing and broadcasting for the BBC. “He and his wife [were] always fighting, the drinking. That tabloid reputation had nothing to do with the quality of his poetry.”
He was two men, says Delaney, “He was an absolute, true, genuine poet who worked enormously hard, who was a perfectionist about his own poetry. And the declamatory Dylan Thomas, who was the public man, marvelous on stage. He had a melodious gorgeous Welsh accent which made him compelling to listen to.”
Thomas’ impact on poets and writers stretches into the 21 st Century. As a budding writer in Swansea, Simon Van Booy, winner of the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story award, emulated the rebel poet, down to the formal, disheveled style. As an adult, Van Booy rejected the alcoholic lifestyle, but, he says, “I retained a love for Dylan Thomas’ language, and the sensuality, and the imagery that reminds me of my own childhood...”
The award-winning poet Eileen Myles came under Dylan Thomas’ influence at high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The poem in our book was Thomas's Poem in October: ‘It was my thirtieth year to heaven…’ Thomas's way of taking his feelings for a walk represented poetry for me and made me want to be a poet.”
Myles has followed in his tradition, making her living giving readings and also taping work, doing videos, trailers and animations of her poems and prose. “All poets are looking over their shoulder at who else was here and who is following you now,” she says. “Lineage. It's sweet. Dylan Thomas is certainly the start of mine.”
With his musical words, Thomas brings us back to the essence of poetry. “Poetry is a very communal thing,” says Myles. “Right now the live aspect of poetry is its chief calling card. One starts by being drunk on nature, I think that's the through line in the life and the work.”
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