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A Portrait of the Poet as a Doomed Man
October 29, 2014  | By Eric Gould  | 7 comments

So, granted, the upcoming made-for-TV biopic of Dylan Thomas won’t be a family night – with the tortured poet torturing himself with all manner of alcoholism, gluttony, infidelity, chain smoking and other methods of self-sabotage. In fact, it’s hard to think of a reason to watch Thomas’s last months of walking suicide except for the things that made him known worldwide – his incomparable poems.

And what words. While the scripted BBC America film A Poet in New York (airing Wednesday, October 29, 8 p.m., ET) pulls no punches, starting with Thomas’s drowning in his own financial and romantic troubles, it also goes straight to his unparalleled eloquence and power. Early on, Thomas (Tom Hollander) reads “Fern Hill” to a still audience, his words punching the air with remembrances of his childhood, footloose on the grassy hills of Wales, sun glinting and flashing around him.

It’s an extraordinary moment. Much of Thomas’s life is likewise summoned in flashbacks during readings of his poems. There are passages here from his radio drama “Under Milk Wood" and perhaps his best known poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night." They are remarkable and uncanny for their insight and perception into our human experience.

No poetry or golden reflections of childhood, however, can prettify Thomas’s sad plight and his downward bender before his death at 39.  Screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Aisling Walsh have made the last of Thomas’s four tours to New York City their grim setting, which he made to drum up income from readings and appearances since he could not support himself or his family on the small amounts he made publishing his poetry. And, like bad verse, there are recurring scenes of his emotionally tumultuous marriage to co-alcoholic Caitlin Macnamara (Essie Davis, above, with Hollander).

While in New York, Thomas played the enfant terrible to adoring gatherings of intelligentsia, upper crust and hangers-on. He relied on his assistant and lover there, Liz Reitell (Phoebe Fox) often leaning on her as companion, muse, apologist and nursemaid. His boorishness and arrogance became his trademark, as were his encampments at the bohemian White Horse Tavern where he took his last drinks.

According to A Poet in New York and other common accounts, Thomas (right) was a roiling drunk, a self-absorbed lout and all-purpose prick. He was also capable of conjuring the most breathtaking descriptions the metaphysical mind could perceive – being widely accepted as one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, mashing up classical forms of poetry with wild flights of surrealism and modern imagery.
Those are two very different aspects of the same person. And maybe that’s the point of A Poet in New York: a Thomas post-mortem and a view of how both a man and a poem can contain the stark polarities that live within.
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The factual errors stood out like New York skyscrapers. And worse, far worse, was the continuation of this sentimental, ultimately soggy romantic vision of the tortured poet whose grip on existence solely revolves around his ability to pluck poems from the life-defying chaos. Dylan himself didn't even know when he was lying so it's up to those writing about him now to sort the truth from his fiction. The eighteen straight(double)whiskies was merely his proven last lie and it's sad enough to perpetuate that. But all this was nothing to compare to the sight of his spirit lifting from his corporeal self on his hospital bed on his death (not while unromantically being given a bed bath which would have been the truth) and then this phantom phantom rising to smile as it watched its younger self gambolling through the child high hay around pretend Fern Hill. A scene that would have been perfect in a Powell and Pressburger film of the 1940's but is laughable now.
Nov 3, 2014   |  Reply
Similar sentiments from a Thomas biographer here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/aug/17/poetry.highereducation -- and agreed, the phantom bit was hackneyed.
Nov 3, 2014
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