“The war, they say, is all over bar the dying, and when it is I want to come to America,” Dylan Thomas wrote to a friend in 1945. “How could I earn a living? So far as I can see it, one single, good, important-sounding invitation will do.”
That invitation arrived in April 1949, when John Malcolm Brinnin, newly appointed director of the Poetry Center, offered Dylan $500 to read at the 92nd Street Y. In a subsequent exchange that would alter the course of both their lives, Dylan accepted Brinnin’s offer to arrange a tour of readings that would take him to colleges and universities around the country.
Dylan made his American debut on February 23, 1950, in the concert hall next door—“the first of those performances which were to bring to America a whole new conception of poetry reading,” Brinnin later wrote. Among the nearly one thousand listeners that night was E. E. Cummings, who was so moved by what he heard that he walked the streets until morning.
All four of Dylan’s reading tours began and ended in New York. Manhattan was “a titanic dream world, soaring Babylon, everything monstrously rich and strange.” On adventures beyond his home base of the Chelsea Hotel, he flashed around the continent at poet-breaking speed—a voice on wheels, he called himself. Returned to The Boat House in Wales, he described his first trip as “three months and longer of hysterical, thumping chore-and-more.” Always on the move, he never knew what to wear. “In Chicago, it was bitterly snowing,” he wrote to his parents. “In Florida, the temperature was ninety. And New York itself never has the same sort of weather two days running.”
With the release of his Caedmon recording in spring 1952, the poet’s fame as a performer was well established, but what was the effect of performance on the poet? “The more I used words, the more frightened I became of using them in my own work once more,” he told an editor. In letters home to Caitlin, Dylan expressed his ambivalence—“I have no idea what on earth I am doing here, a very lonely foreign midget orating up there in a huge hall before all those faces”—and his ambition: to land a job—teaching, writing, broadcasting—that would allow him to provide for his family and possibly relocate them to the States.
Dylan gave his greatest Poetry Center performance in the premiere of Under Milk Wood on May 14, 1953. He finished the play just in time, and the famous Caedmon recording of the reading is the only one with Dylan in the cast. He and five American actors—all of whom were also employed, in some capacity, by the 92nd Street Y—would go on to perform it three more times. Dylan kept his advice as director to the absolute minimum: “Love the words.” Two additional performances were cancelled when Dylan died that November. In the BBC radio broadcast the following January, Richard Burton replaced him as First Voice.
“What is a poet in our time, our world? The life and death of Dylan Thomas seems to answer that question,” wrote Tennessee Williams, an artist who suffered from his own self-destructive demons. “His poems are his life, the part of it that matters, the part of it that concerns you. . . . We know that he burned and is gone. But having his voice in our ears.”
Dylan Thomas in America—A Centennial Exhibition is a collaboration with Duggal Visual Solutions and made possible by the generous support of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, the British Council and the Welsh government.
Click on any image below.