Poetry's Rock Star: Dylan Thomas

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Listen to Dylan Thomas reading "On The Marriage of a Virgin"

He had an appetite for women and drink but he said his chief love affair was with language. Described as the most musical poet of the twentieth century, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas came to America at the invitation of the 92nd St. Y in 1950 and audiences treated him like a rock star. He collapsed in room 206 of The Chelsea Hotel three years later. On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, Judith Kampfner remembers him

Kingdom as Thomas: Good evening culture vultures, I welcome you to this roly poly word binge in which I throw my lyrical weight around

Kampfner: On stage behind a podium, Bob Kingdom describes himself as embodying his Welsh countryman, the great lyric poet Dylan Thomas. The scene is Thomas on tour in America. Kingdom does Thomas in his own words - he would begin a reading sending himself up. Like an edgy comedian might today...

Kingdom: with the face of an excommunicated cherub a nose that is polished every day...a body when clothes one cruelly described as looking like an unmade bed.

Kampfner: In a corner of a room at the 92nd St. Y, there is a death mask of that cherubic face made by a New York sculptor. The lips are powty. The brows are furrowed. As if in a tipsy dream which he'll soon shake himself out of. His lust for life and bohemian character endeared him to NY audiences says David Yezzi who's director of poetry at the 92nd St. Y. And there was an added appeal; Thomas seemed to step out of the mists of an ancient druidical country.

Yezzi: There was a degree of exoticism about his persona and his reading voice... he was such a gorgeous reader. The kind of organ tones. I think were not something that audiences were accustomed to

Dylan Thomas reading And Death shall have no dominion

Kampfner: Thomas in the booming performance voice which got him regular work reading poetry on the radio. Though he didn't have the most singsong Welsh accent and didn't speak the Welsh language, he was influenced by it. It's an ancient tongue - with sonorous cadences, which is still widely spoken. Welshmen have a verbal parlor trick - they like to rattle off the longest word says Bob Kingdom

Kingdom. (Welsh word which ends in) gogh gogh gogh - the idea of having that long word is fun

Kampfner: Thomas enjoyed creating with those odd sounds. He also from childhood, picked up the oratory of the Anglican Church. He said rhythms had rolled over me from the Welsh pulpits. Just like a preacher, he interacted with his audience says Bob Kingdom.

Kingdom He wanted his audiences to respond as he read - he said he left holes so that the listeners experience could creep in the cracks.

Kampfner: Today the current poetry scene invites audience reaction in an energetic two way process. Thomas introduced Americans to the idea of poetry as performance says the Y's David Yezzi.

Yezzi: It was really Dylan Thomas who rises to the popularity of the poetry reading in recent times and so in a way he was really the forefather of the poetry that kids are listening to today.

Owen Sheers: He strikes a chord that hits you at below meaning

Kampfner: Owen Sheers is a young Welsh poet who is town now to commemorate Thomas.

Sheers: You get a big thump in the guts and the heart

Kampfner: Welsh rugby players often invoke a Welsh word which has no vowel -(hooil) Hywl . It means a kind of patriotic spirit. As if the mists of the valleys and the swell of the male choirs for which Wales is famous take over your soul. When Dylan Thomas read he had hywl.


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