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Around age six or seven, Dylan Thomas became obsessed with learning what made words “tick, beat, burn.” At the kitchen table in the Thomases’ suburban house in Wales, he tirelessly bothered his older sister, Nancy, for subjects for poems. His mother, Florrie, later said that verse simply came pouring out of him. He wrote about anything that came to mind: the kitchen sink, his bike, a love of bread and butter. For paper he used cardboard from his father’s ironed shirts, fresh from the laundry. He filled the cards with neatly scripted stanzas, adorned with scribbled, playful drawings, and decorated the walls of the family parlor with them. He loved to engage both eye and ear. It was a visual approach to craft that he used often during his career. [End Page 163]
Dylan Marlais Thomas was born in 1914 in Swansea, Wales, to grammar school master Jack “D.J.” Thomas and his wife, Florrie. They named their cherubic child after a minor character in the medieval Celtic collection, the Mabinogion. Dylan started publishing poems in grammar school and earned from his classmates the monikers “the second Milton” and “Byron rehashed.” The theater department provided another outlet for his energies; there he discovered a talent for performing. After failing his exams, he took up a period of self-study, moving swiftly through the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound.
At seventeen, Thomas honed his editing skills in the newspaper offices of the South Wales Daily Post, covering the local hospital, police court and city council meetings. Hoping to strike the attitude of a seasoned reporter, he donned a porkpie hat and a loud checkered coat, keeping a cigarette permanently pasted to his upper lip. His tough-boy exterior disguised an uncertain inner self; he was not cut out for journalism. Eventually, Thomas knew that to succeed he had to move to London to try his luck in the literary capital. By 1933, with a sheaf of poetry in hand, he did just that, but he had little experience in fending for himself. His mother, who had always made sure he had clean clothes and a meal on the table, sent him an allowance of a £1 a week. Being in the city offered social and sexual liberation, and he quickly fell into the café life and sleazy clubs of the demimonde. He loved observing humanity in all its variety: “It’s only among poor failures that I find the people I like best.”
The poems came slowly. He believed there was only one word to use in any given context and that the job of a poet was to take well-worn words and imbue them with new life. He shied away from phrases too easily pretty, wanting to speak with “an un-borrowed language.” He was also discovering his subject matter, which was in some way to reconcile the brutality and horror of the world with its wonder. “I do not want to express only what other people have felt; I want to rip something away and show what they have never seen.” His goal was to work toward what he called “earthquakes of the heart.”
Struck by the freshness and originality of his work, London periodicals took notice and began to publish the young Welshman. In interviews, he defined himself in opposition to the poets of the previous generation. The personal and emotional extremity of his work was at odds with the political agenda of W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender. [End Page 164]
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Thomas was also developing his poet’s persona in...