Moral airbrushing can't remake a great poet's character

It's pretty late in the game to put a friendly face on the behavior of the intermittently brilliant poet Dylan Thomas. But "Dylan the Bard," Andrew Sinclair's new version of his 1975 biography, "Dylan Thomas: Poet of the People," tries to spin Thomas back onto the wagon.

Early on, Sinclair suggests that Thomas was not an alcoholic, a claim the book's nonstop chronicle of late-night bar crawls and blackouts undercuts to the point of giggly absurdity. Sinclair plays down the uglier side of the Welsh versifier's character for the sake of hymning his art, which sprang from "a divided bardic tradition, a bilingual speech, a split-minded people, a provincial bias; only his home was safe, first with his parents, finally with Caitlin, the womb with a view." In other words, Thomas was a tortured genius who needed unruffled keepers of the flame.

It is no surprise that Thomas's widow, Caitlin, liked the romanticized version of the poet: She wrote to Sinclair that the 1975 version of this book should "be the last word on Thomas." Those familiar with the latest attempts to clean up Jack Kerouac for academic and public consumption are familiar with this process: Admiration for the artist propels moral airbrushing, as if an unsavory or untrustworthy character couldn't produce first-rate writing.

Sinclair seems to lay the blame for Thomas's opportunistic boorishness on the fact that "he was born into conflicts that he could never end except through his work of words, his endless search for a synthesis that was impossible, a unity in divergence, a sweet final resolution of the soul."

Sitting on this paper-thin magic carpet, Sinclair glides over Thomas's ethical and behavioral shortcomings, endless begging for money, horrible treatment of friends, boundless self-advertisement, dependence on drugs, and refusal - during and after a visit to Communist Prague - to speak out on the censorship of Czech poets.

The biographical material is trotted out in straightforward fashion, though Sinclair's cloying style is problematic. The author alternates between clumsy stabs at heightened sorority ("He had one foot in Eden, the other in Babylon. He had one hand on the Bible, the other under the bedclothes") and clever jokiness ("This governmental act somewhat disillusioned Dylan, but he stepped clear of the pack-ice of the Cold War").

Worse, Sinclair places an enormous emphasis on the bardic value of Thomas's verse, but his commentary on the poems prefers windy rhetoric over concrete analysis: "His romantic revolt unleashed a certain coarseness and richness of language, a reveling in comedy and bawdry, an affirmation of the holy myths rather than a sniveling at God, an orgy of the irrational as opposed to the careful classification of what was meaningful or significant."

For some critics, Thomas's wild wordplay and inscrutability has more to do with self-serving ego than with a "sweet resolution of the soul." The dewy-eyed blather in "Dylan the Bard" doesn't provide much of a defense.

Bill Marx is a freelance critic in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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