Pg. 351 of David Markson’s copy of Forces in Modern British Literature: 1885-1946 by William York Tindall:
On which Markson made a line in the margin and wrote the name of his friend “Dylan Thomas” to mark where Tindall’s discussion of Thomas begins.
This seems like the right time to share a piece Markson wrote re: Thomas, in prose, that became one of the appendices for Markson’s own Collected Poems:
TWENTY YEARS LATER
For weeks now, I have been scowling over the premise behind this essay. Can it truly be possible that twenty full years have passed—to the day, come Friday—since Dylan Thomas died on West Eleventh Street? My lord, I think I saw him yesternight. And out of what ineluctable, startling legerdemain can I myself actually be older now than he was then?
Dylan, you randy, rumpled, boilermaker-chugging young dog…twenty years?
There he stands, in the White Horse Tavern. Though I have been to Laugharne as well, in southern Wales the color of owls, and seen where he rests in country sleep….
So what words then, to mark the day? That for many of us he remains the truest poet in the language since Yeats? Even were there point in such a judgment, just who am I to venture it?
I had thought of a reminiscence also, possessed of the trivial fond records of some eight or ten Dylan-soaked nights—but time, I am sure, must long since have distorted most. Did he and I really once race, mad as birds, some several staggered blocks along Hudson Street after a midnight’s glorious lying about our boyhood heroism at track? Or have I been making up most of that story for years?
But perhaps I find something I can trust. I have letters that I wrote about him, that seem in retrospect a fair accounting of what one casual acquaintance saw and felt, back then—and worth a modest footnote’s pause, as it were, for today. (The letters were to Malcolm Lowry, then in British Columbia; they were returned to me after Lowry’s death later on. If I abridge them considerably, often without ellipses, the only other very few changes will be for clarity.) Thomas died on November 9, 1953; the date on the earliest excerpt, at the time but incidental intelligence, is November 3:
Dylan is here again—kind of painful. He has been setting records with the bottle, unfortunately—doesn’t focus, moves about as if hypnotized, speaks past you into the emptiness of a limbo all his own—and is apparently writing nothing. I love the bastard’s stuff, and have for years; and liked him much when I was seeing him about a year and a half ago. Then, even in the drunkenness there was a kind of wit and vitality and stimulation that means life in abundance; but now he seems a caricature of himself, even in appearance. A dirty shame….
Even youth, it strikes me now, is flimsy excuse for that sort of prose—though there would appear more insight back of it than I knew. Before writing, I’d seen Thomas only once during the two weeks of his then-current visit; yet within days I was to send Lowry the following:
A brief and terribly painful follow-up to something in my letter of a couple days ago. I learned just now that Dylan collapsed at the Chelsea (his hotel) yesterday, and is in a local hospital with a serious brain ailment. Precisely what it means I don’t know, but will let you know as soon as I hear anything. Christ.
Typing hurriedly, I contrived to write “brail” instead of “brain.” In a reply he started before taking things quite seriously, Lowry asked if I meant to intimate “an ailment as of one slightly blind.” There was no returning the jest when I wrote again, however; I would post the letter only a few hours before Thomas “expired,” as the hospital switchboard was to have it that evening:
What to tell you, but the facts? There is no change in Dylan’s condition: five days in a coma, still critical. He has a brain hemorrhage and they have no idea what is keeping him alive. Caitlin flew in yesterday.
The facts. And your damned guts turn over. The young men already composing their elegies, and a disgraceful mob of them mills around the corridors of St. Vincent’s holding a premature wake. To be able to tell their tavern friends: look on Shelley plain? Hell, I was in the hospital the day he died….
I remember your story about him as a kid, hacking his lungs out, breaking bottles, declaiming on death. And so it’s taken twenty years. I guess he must have known—or knows, whatever the damned tense—his position. At the time I got to know him best, he was caught up in a whirlwind in which he seemed indifferently content. On the trip before, he had wondered, honestly, if he would be liked or understood. And on these later visits it was the purest degradation. They liked him, all right, all the fawning, uncreative sycophants who robbed him of his time and his energy and every other damned thing until even the person was gone and only the “personality” remained. What matter if he is mesmerized, mechanical, inarticulate? Hell, ma, look at me, sitting here buying beers for Dylan Thomas…and I also, those months in 1952. The mob that will feed upon him even in death—or what is worse, right now….
I saw a manuscript of his once, a poem of about thirty lines that made a sheaf as thick as a fist. I wonder, after the early romanticism passed, what he was like alone, working that way, doing “Fern Hill” and “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” the others that will last. When he was his own, I mean, and belonged to himself. The picture I have now is so cluttered, so unclean. But there is such a damned impossible purity and vitality in some of his things that probably it is that, even now, that is keeping him alive this long. It is the thing that made him, and will remain….
“When he walked with his mother through the parables of sunlight and the legends of the green chapels….” “And death shall have no dominion.” Jesus Jesus Jesus.
Two years ago the White Horse Tavern was an empty, unknown seamen’s bar where old men played chess, peripheral to the Village, nowhere. And now, because Dylan found it and had the instinct to make it a refuge in the beginning, it is the most mobbed, crawling bar downtown, the place to be. They came like flies, now like jackals. And now for a while it will be hushed, somber, a kind of shrine….
Balls. I’ll have a drink there with you one day. Meanwhile I’m sorry, with both of you out there, who knew him so long. I wish I had, before….