In February 2014, after spending several snowy days in Buffalo, Jaimie Thomas began what would turn out to be a stressful 36-hour return trip to London. The polar vortex raged outside the plane, but Thomas had a bigger concern: the empty seat beside her.
As exhibitions officer for the National Library of Wales, Thomas was chaperoning a priceless shipment of childhood notebooks, handwritten poems, photos and letters of one of the world’s most famous literary talents, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (no relation). The extra seat was booked for the case designed to hold all the items, but the heavy, awkward container was too large to fit. So flight attendants helped clear out an overhead bin to accommodate it. Thomas, an experienced courier who was accustomed to keeping an eye on her precious packages at all times, worried about it the entire flight.
Fortunately, the rare materials, on loan from the UB Poetry Collection in the University Libraries, landed without incident in London, and then arrived safely in Wales, where they went on exhibit from May to December as part of Dylan 100, a yearlong centenary festival commemorating Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday.
“The curators at University at Buffalo are fiercely proud of the Dylan Thomas collection and have been so gracious in allowing us to borrow these items,” Jaimie Thomas wrote in the National Library’s blog.
This past June, six months after the collection traveled to Wales, those curators—Michael Basinski (PhD ’95, BA ’75) and my husband, James Maynard (PhD ’07)—made the same trip across the pond to view the UB materials and give talks about their provenance. Mike’s wife, Ginny O’Brien (curator of education for the UB Art Galleries), and I accompanied them. The four of us landed at Heathrow on June 28 after a long and delayed flight, jet-lagged but excited. We immediately took a five-hour train ride west through the Welsh countryside and drizzly rain to the coast, where we would spend the next seven days immersed in the works and legend of Wales' favorite son.
“The town was not yet awake, and I walked through the streets like a stranger come out of the sea”
The first stop on our Dylan Thomas tour was Aberystwyth (Ahber-IST-with), a tiny university town on the western coast of Cardigan Bay. It’s home to the National Library of Wales, a handsome building perched on a hill with lofty, panoramic views. Charming and archetypal with its quaint pubs, Edwardian castle ruins and manicured flowerbeds, Aberystwyth has become a popular weekend getaway spot. It was summer when we visited, so Aberystwyth University’s students had been replaced by retired couples speaking Welsh. (The region is a stronghold of the country’s bilingual culture.)
It was a fitting place for four weary Americans to begin our journey. We didn’t have to go far; the highlight of our stay was up on that hill: a private tour of the National Library and its Dylan Thomas expo, where four separate exhibits had been set up in and around the library’s sprawling main gallery. Jaimie was our docent, and she wowed us with her knowledge of the library’s seemingly endless collection of Welsh culture, history and civic documents. Although the library houses Wales’ largest collection of Dylan Thomas materials, a majority of the 150 works on display—some from UB, most from the library’s permanent collection—had never before been shown publicly.
The Thomas exhibits were highly interactive and engaging. Since, as Jaimie told us, “The best way to show the poet’s work is in his own voice,” placards were written in the first person, and the poet’s rich baritone boomed from strategically placed speakers. His quotes were strung from the walls, and visitors could “pull a poem” (instead of a pint of beer) from a miniature replica of one of his favorite pubs. A wall-length magnetic poetry board let children build their own verses, while adults could learn the real meaning of his radio play “Under Milk Wood,” whose setting is the fictional seaside town of Llareggub (read backwards: “Buggerall”).
Most exciting for our party, however, was “Dylan Comes Home,” the special exhibition of UB’s manuscripts and photos that was to eventually head to the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. About the exhibit’s title, Jaimie told us, “It was tremendously exciting to see these manuscripts in person. We are honored and, in a way, content that Dylan’s poems have finally come back to Wales.”
Aberystwyth and Swansea divided UB’s Thomas materials between them, swapping their collections in September to give more visitors access to some of Thomas’ most famous and seldom-seen works and letters. It was, my husband told me, the first time that these materials had been shared publicly outside of the Poetry Collection since they first landed at UB.
“... an ugly, lovely town ... crawling, sprawling ... by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.”
Bidding Jaimie and the bucolic landscapes of Aberystwyth goodbye, we squeezed our luggage into a cab and sped past countless grazing sheep to reach our next and final destination: Swansea, a working-class shipping port about 70 miles to the southeast. Thomas grew up in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood called the Uplands, where he began to write and to frequent local pubs. During his teen years there, he completed a good portion of his raw and energetic early poems—most of which are in notebooks owned by UB (see "The UB Dylan Thomas Collection," below). He often drew crude doodles and self-portraits alongside his drafts, which he read aloud to friends and fellow writers at Swansea’s Kardomah Café, a bohemian coffeehouse.
We spent the better part of the week exploring these and other haunts in Swansea, which was more cosmopolitan than Aberystwyth and abuzz with Dylan Thomas-related events. In fact, the entire south of Wales organized a regional “Dylan Thomas trail,” from the rural town of Laugharne, where Thomas wrote some of his best poems and lived in a boathouse during the last four years of his life, to secretive pubs along The Mumbles, a quaint strip of seaside towns south of the city.
At the Dylan Thomas Centre, housed a few blocks from our hotel in a handsome repurposed municipal building not far from Swansea’s marina, we met Jo Furber and Nick McDonald, the curators who had traveled to Buffalo a year earlier to select the Thomas items for the centenary. Jo is a Dylan Thomas expert, while Nick oversees Swansea’s citywide cultural programs. Both were deeply involved in curating, planning and organizing the city’s Dylan Thomas events, many of which were hosted at the center.
On our first visit there, Nick met us at the door and apologized for Jo’s absence; she was busy being interviewed by The Times of London about the centenary. As we toured the center’s extensive permanent collection of Dylan Thomas memorabilia and literary holdings, the exhibit rooms quickly filled with school groups and poetry lovers.
As at the National Library, a special exhibition space had been created at the center to display the UB materials, complete with a guard and climate-controlled room to protect the fragile items. I was impressed by the thoroughly researched, well-written displays inside the exhibit, which paid loving attention to how the young Thomas had absorbed his world. Through his notebooks and letters, we began to see his creative process unfold as he matured and, through prolific correspondence with wife Caitlin and others, how his Welsh upbringing, the countryside and city, and his friends, enemies and lovers, had all influenced his poetry.
As I had first learned in Aberystwyth, Thomas was deliciously quotable, yet his reputation in his hometown was complicated by his youthful arrogance and, throughout his life, a certain ambivalence toward Welsh culture. One morning, we walked from our hotel across town to his childhood neighborhood, the Uplands, on our way to his birth house at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. The hills were steep and the sun hot, so we decided to stop at the Uplands Tavern for a breather. A pub rumored to be one of Thomas’ first watering holes, the Uplands was dark, cavernous and empty at 11 a.m., save for a few older gents nursing pints over a newspaper. One of them, in town to see his mother, saw our cameras and heard our American accents. He approached our table, which was tucked inside a touristy corner of the bar labeled the “Dylan Snug.” As I snapped photos of Jim and Mike in front of a portrait of Thomas, the man related a tale we were warned locals are inclined to share: His father had supposedly gone to school with the poet. Before leaving he chuckled and shook his head, adding that his father never understood “what all the fuss was about.”
“And now, gentlemen, like your manners,
I must leave you.”
However the Welsh feel about Dylan Thomas, his presence is everywhere. His words reverberated throughout our travels, from his bronze statue along Swansea’s waterfront, to the murals on the outside of the Dylan Thomas Theatre and his famous lines “Though lovers be lost love shall not/And death shall know no dominion” painted on pub windows.
We experienced a lot in that week in Wales, but it was only a slice of the Dylan Thomas centenary and its extensive reach. During the past year, hundreds of local organizations and institutions, schools and art houses across the country held public performances, scholarly lectures and writing workshops. There were poetry competitions, visual art exhibits, theatrical interpretations of Thomas’ life and times, social media buzz, even “Dylathon,” a 36-hour marathon poetry reading.
Fortunately, this brief taste was enough to permanently connect the UB Poetry Collection to its new international friends and resources. “We’d love to keep this going. Let’s keep collaborating,” Mike told Jaimie, as we said farewell outside the National Library while sheep bleated on some distant farm. She nodded, smiling, and promised to keep that seat on the plane open.
Lauren Newkirk Maynard is a section editor for At Buffalo.
One of the intentions of the Dylan 100 centenary was to elevate the conversation surrounding Thomas’ work beyond the poet’s “rock star” reputation. Thomas’ not undeserved rap as one of poetry’s bad boys has unfortunately fed a variety of urban legends and gossip about the man and his life. Some of the stories are true (particularly those surrounding his alcoholism) while others are flagrant myths—for example, that he had a major influence on the young folk singer Bob Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. The story goes that Zimmerman took the name after reading Thomas’ poems. The singer has denied doing either—reading much of Thomas or taking his name—in interviews.
It’s not clear, or likely, that Thomas drank 18 shots of whiskey at New York’s White Horse Tavern—one of his famous boasts shortly before his death, and the primary source of the myth that the bender is what killed him. It is now believed that Thomas’ passing was brought on by a variety of factors, including misguided treatments of morphine (resulting from a misdiagnosis of chronic lung disease) days before he died.
In addition to his writing, Dylan Thomas was lauded for his rich baritone and theatrical poetry readings. He used those gifts for what were probably his most successful paid gigs, as a BBC broadcaster and later as a scriptwriter/narrator for British propaganda films during World War II. He also made some of the first known audiobook recordings, reading his own poetry. We listened to several stirring examples at the National Library of Wales’ exhibit.
Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on Oct. 27, 1914, in Swansea. He died of pneumonia on Nov. 9, 1953, in New York City at the age of 39. From his teen years until his untimely death (see "The Man and His Myths," above), he wrote several highly influential and well-loved poems, plays and short stories, including “Fern Hill,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and his “play for voices,” “Under Milk Wood.” Though best known for his poetry, Thomas also wrote films and an unfinished novel, and his radio broadcasts are credited with pioneering the audiobook genre.
The University at Buffalo holds a significant slice of the Dylan Thomas oeuvre. In 1937, poetry collector Charles D. Abbott was beginning to build the university’s 20th-century poetry collection, then called the “Modern Poetry Project.” Thomas was one of the first poets he contacted to solicit manuscripts for the collection. In the fall of 1941, UB acquired five of Thomas’ early notebooks from a London bookseller for the modest sum of $140. Although at the time Abbott had a firm policy of taking only donations, he recognized Thomas’ talent and wanted the notebooks badly, so he persuaded a friend, Thomas B. Lockwood, to make the purchase. The notebooks, compiled by Thomas in his teens during the early 1930s, were one of the first acquisitions to mark UB’s decision to accept paid as well as donated submissions of literary works, broadening the Poetry Collection’s reach as it began more comprehensive collecting.
Additional Dylan Thomas materials made their way to Buffalo in the 1950s and ’60s, including an original draft of his famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” and two portraits of Thomas painted days before his death. According to Basinski, scholars from around the world come to Buffalo to see the UB collection, which also includes rare original fragments and corrected versions of Thomas’ poetry, some typed and others put down on paper in his small, neat handwriting. There are photographs of Thomas, too, including 10 unattributed black and white photos of him wearing a disheveled tweed suit, a cigar hanging from his mouth, that were taken in New York during his final U.S. reading tour in 1953. There are also early photos with his wife, Caitlin, taken by photographer Nora Summers.
Enjoyed the article, thank you. I grew up in Swansea, Wales and
played in the same park as Dylan Thomas (Cwm Donkin Park). Played
and walked on the same beashes (Swansea, Mumbles), watched the same
trains (no longer there) and drank in the same pubs. I have now
lived in Buffalo, N.Y. for 40 years.