Archive for September 21st, 2009

seathumbed leaves: a Wales visitation with the Thomases

The love that M. Wynn Thomas and I share for Walt Whitman crosses oceans. His latest book on Whitman (Transatlantic Connections: Whitman U.S., Whitman U.K.) is an energetic and provocative exploration of the remarkable endurance and continued influence of the poet’s work, breaking boundaries of space and time. Wynn’s Lunar Light of Whitman’s Poetry helped set me on my Whitmanic path in graduate school, and I now recommend this illuminating and passionate portrait of Walt to my own students. When I met Wynn in person this June at the Transatlantic Whitman Symposium, I was pleased and awed to experience the power and connectivity I so keenly feel in his writings. The graduate students attending the session, too, were visibly moved by his fierce dedication to studying, teaching, discussing, and loving Walt Whitman.

Catching up at one of the conference’s many after-hours gatherings, Wynn and I found we shared a similar devotion to teaching as well as dedicated passions to our hometowns. Wynn has been living and teaching in Swansea most of his life—which means that he’s been living with Dylan Thomas. Though Wynn admitted that he had never wanted to teach a single author course on Dylan (though he’s led several Whitman seminars), he knows the poet as a neighbor, a ghost, an obsession, a symbol. Wow, I said shyly. If you show me your Dylan’s Swansea, I’ll show you my Whitman’s New York.

Dylan Thomas stagger-danced back into my life this spring, when I decided to include him in my NYU-London seminar, “Bohemian Ink, Beginnings to Beats.” Our final session focused on Dylan’s poetry and love letters (Kerouac’s scroll, on exhibit in the UK for the first time through January 2009, prompted us to read On the Road first)— and as I attempted to wrestle down a few ideas for class, I realized how challenged I was by these rich and highly crafted poems. It was slippery, shimmery stuff, and I needed and wanted to spend more time with it. So Dylan stayed with me through the summer in Whitman’s New York (accompanying me more than once on strange and sad pilgrimages to the White Horse Tavern, where according to urban legend he drank himself to death in 1953) and then back over to the U.K. in August. Of course I had to write to Wynn. Could I take him up on his offer for a Dylan Thomas tour of Wales? Might we really be able to see the house where everything started, hunchbacked Cwmordin Park—maybe even the boathouse at Laugharne, about an hour’s drive west of Swansea? While New York had spelled the end of Dylan Thomas, Wales was the place where he had written best (and most). And M. Wynn Thomas was the person who could best explicate and demonstrate the importance of this place for this poet.

On the morning of August 11, Wynn greeted me warmly at Swansea’s busy train station—and was hailed in turn by several passers-by as we crossed the High Street to the parking lot. It was a wonderful, breathless thing, to drive with Wynn through streets he knew and loved so well. He chatted easily about Swansea’s troubled history, and pointed out several Dylan-related sites that no longer are. The Blitz had ripped through Swansea’s heart, so instead driving by Dylan’s Kardomah Café we past Castle Street’s bland 1950s structures and big parking lots. The streets teemed with life, though—mothers and children, old folks and droves of students. And when Wynn brought me to the top of Townhill, the city looked like a British version of the Bay of Naples—shinier with industry, perhaps, but just as beautifully situated around the curve of Swansea Bay.

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21

09 2009


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