Thursday, December 29, 2016

builds strong bones and teeth

While reading a book of Dylan Thomas' letters, I came across one from 1951 or so, written to Marguerite Caetani, publisher of the Italian literary journal Bottega Oscura. Thomas is, as usual, begging for money, offering Caetani the first rights to a "play for voices" called, provisionally, "Llareggub", which is obviously a fake Welsh place name and also "bugger all" spelled backwards. Thomas offered the as-yet-incomplete play to Caetani for £100. I'm not sure he got the money, and I am sure the play actually went to the BBC rather than to Italy. That is not the point. The point is that Thomas describes the play to Caetani in a long breathless and inspired paragraph, clearly in love with the idea and possibly making some of it up in the heat of the moment. The description of the play in Thomas' begging letter made me want to not only read Llareggub, but to write my own version of it. Yes, I said, that's a grand idea, a sort of "Our Town" influenced by Proust's ideas of memory and Joyce's ideas of character and language and the further influence of whatever American writers have seeped into my bones, with no doubt a larding of Shakespeare for good measure. I feel that I could do something with those ideas, that there are many possibilities to be discovered within the work. By now I've read the first part of "Under Milk Wood" (the name Thomas eventually settled on for the play) and it seems pretty terrific. I see that a couple of films have been made of it. I am particularly interested in the first version, with Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Why would I not be? I digress.

Anyway, this is an attractive idea despite the fact that it's highly unoriginal of me. I would of course not write a play; the novel seems to be the form that's chosen me. And I've sworn off writing novels after I complete the current work in progress. And yet. It is an attractive idea that looks interesting in all the right ways. I know a small town on the Colorado plains that I could take as a model. Of course "Under Milk Wood" is quite well known (there's a statue of Captain Cat in Swansea) and I'm like a man in a rowboat washing ashore on Coney Island and thinking he's discovered the New World, despite the millions of people already living in Brooklyn.

9 comments:

  1. Now I am curious about the novel literalizing your last sentence. I guess that is not so far from what actually happened, except the millions were spread out a lot more.

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  2. Like that Eddie Izzard bit: "I claim this land for...oh, hello, and who are you?"

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  3. Trivia signifying nothing: I portrayed Captain Cat in a readers' theater production in college way back in 1970. And for more reasons than that one, I have always been fond of Dylan Thomas. Best wishes and Happy New Year, Scott.

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  4. Captain Cat is a fine invention. The only Thomas I've read (aside from that book of his letters) are "Do Not Go Gentle" and now "Under Milk Wood." I found the Dylan Thomas section in my Norton poetry anthology last night and so tonight I'll read a few more of his poems. Happy New Year to you and yours, Tim.

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    1. When I was teaching (if that is the right word for what I was doing), I would enlist a student to read aloud "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." As the reading progressed from stanza to stanza, I would "coach" from the sideline, urging the student-reader to become more angry, more loud, more desperate with each stanza. It might not have met with Thomas's approval, but it drove home a worthwhile point for students: we should go gentle into that good night!

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    2. We argued about this poem a year ago! I don't actually have a problem with going gently. We're all going anyway, and I'm not afraid of death: yours, mine, or anyone's. Like Nabokov said, we're not at all fussed by the eternity before our birth, so it makes no sense to be fussed by the eternity after our death.

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  5. Well, we will not argue again. Of course, I do not remember the past argument. The poem, however, is Thomas's reaction to his father's dying. My and your POVs regarding death are beyond the scope of the poem: Thomas's POV matters. But let us not argue. As I recall, Under Milk Wood has many bittersweet, ironic moments deserving readers' careful consideration. I shall have to revisit it. I remember only one of my lines: "Lie down, lie easy, let me shipwreck in your thighs." And then there was the woman drawing lipstick circles on her nipples. The audiences at my college was not sure what to make of it all!

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    1. It's a fine fine poem even if I disagree with the sentiments. From a different letter from Dylan Thomas to Marguerite Caetani: "The only person I can't show the poem to is my father, who doesn't know he's dying."

      Yes, the girl in the field declaring to the goats that she'll be the baddest of the bad, the sinningest of sinners, and then nothing happens because she has no real idea what any of that means. Great stuff. I wonder how the original BBC audience felt about all the direct talk of sex. I wonder if it was censored.

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    2. I remember wearing out an LP recording I had of the work. I wonder now about the provenance (i.e., was it the original BBC recording)? If you figure out the answer to your own wondering, I look forward to hearing what you learn about the audiences reactions.

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