Like many kids destined to a life of writing, I liked to play with words. But, alas, my word-play obsession often went looking for victims: Big Butt Betty and Mealy Mouthed Melvin were easy victims, but not even Willy-nilly Willie could get a free pass. My seventh and eight-grade teacher had the wisdom to redirect my word-play from insults and mockery into more acceptable forms. The jingling and the tinkling of Poe’s “Bells” fit the bill, as did his Nevermore-quothing raven. I loved any poem that played with words or delighted in musical uses of language. Limericks of all sorts were high on my list of desirable literary expressions. Then, in high school and college Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas raised the ante. These guys knew how to delight in magical sounds without having to belittle Bumbling Barney or Saw-tooth Stanley.
My love for Dylan Thomas’s work has never wavered, but to be interested in his work also meant that I would become interested in his life. As I came to know more people in the larger literary community in America, I met writers who had known Thomas or who had heard him give public readings. Some former students of the great poet Theodore Roethke knew that Roethke both admired and resented Dylan Thomas, probably because both were such masters of poetic sound effects but Dylan Thomas, in Roethke’s eyes, was getting all the glory with his reading tours in America.
Then one year I met James Laughlin who both knew and had published Dylan Thomas with New Directions, the press that Laughlin had founded. Of course, Laughlin knew Thomas’s alcoholism all too well. He knew Thomas’s bouts of depression and his frequent undependability. But Laughlin also passed on a bit of information that I suspect all Dylan Thomas readers will appreciate. Laughlin said that most readers and critics of Thomas’s memorable villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” believe that it was written in response to his father’s impending death. No, said Laughlin, the poem was actually written in response to his father’s impending blindness. A tidbit worth knowing when one reads that poem.
Jim Heynen's most recent book publication is the novel, The Fall of Alice K, Milkweed Editions. A paperback edition is due out in 2014. Jim lives in St. Paul and is currently preparing for the release of Ordinary Sins, a new collection of short-shorts.