Dylan Thomas: ‘lost’ fifth notebook reveals how great Welsh poet changed his style

New insights: Dylan Thomas’s fifth notebook shows how the poet’s creative process developed.
Photo by John Gay © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Goodby, Sheffield Hallam University

It’s the dream of every researcher to get their hands on a hitherto-unknown manuscript by the author in whose work they specialise. As you’d imagine, most never realise that dream. But on December 9 2014 at Sotheby’s auction house in London, I was lucky enough for it to happen to me. A school exercise book that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas, filled with 16 of his poems in his handwriting, was bought by my then-employers, Swansea University, for £85,000 and given to me to edit.

A PhD student, Adrian Osbourne, was funded to help me in my labours. A greater honour, and a more daunting, more thrilling task, would have been hard for either of us to imagine.

To begin at the beginning, however, some context. From April 1930, aged 15, Thomas began copying his completed poems into a series of school exercise books. In his short story, The Fight, the “D. Thomas” character notes how: “In the evening, before calling on my new friend, I sat in my bedroom by the boiler and read through my exercise-books full of poems. There were Danger Don’ts on the backs.”

A red school exercise book belonging to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Lost until 2014: Dylan Thomas’s fifth notebook.
Swansea University, Author provided

In a letter of 1933, Thomas referred to an “innumerable” number of such notebooks. And, unlike most poets, he hung onto his juvenilia, carrying them around with him and raiding them for material until 1941. At that point, in the darkest days of the second world war, hard up and with a family to support, he sold the first four, which run from April 1930 to April 1934, to the library of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Scholars were given access to them and they were published in 1967 as Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas.

No more notebooks emerged during Thomas’s lifetime, nor – despite much speculation – did any appear after his death in 1953. Thus, the Sotheby’s notebook is the only one to have appeared, and it covers the period summer 1934 to August 1935 – making it a direct continuation of the first four.

Scrap paper?

The fifth notebook’s extraordinary nature as an object is matched by the story of its survival. Two notes contained in the Tesco’s bag in which the notebook was found allowed us to establish this. The first, a brief description by Thomas himself, shows that the last time he was in possession of it was early 1938.

After marrying in summer 1937, he and Caitlin Macnamara lived with Caitlin’s mother at her home in Hampshire until early 1938. The second note – by Mrs Macnamara’s maid, Louie King – revealed that after Dylan and Caitlin’s departure she was given the notebook, with other “scrap paper” they left behind, to burn in the kitchen boiler. King, however, withheld the notebook from its fiery fate – out of curiosity, sentiment, or for some other reason we know nothing about. When she died in 1984 the notebook passed to her family, who kept it, still a secret to the outside world, until 2014.

We now had three tasks – to transcribe the notebook poems, deciphering, if possible, Thomas’s many corrections and deletions. We then set out to compare them with the published versions and to work out what light – if any – they shed on Thomas’s poetic development.

It should be said that the fifth notebook poems are all published ones. Unlike its predecessors it contains no unpublished items (this may be why Thomas does not seem to have minded losing it). Where it differed was in the number of corrections it contained. The poems in the first four notebooks are almost always clean copies. In the fifth, many poems undergo radical revision, allowing us to trace Thomas’s creative processes at first hand.

Two pages from a handwritten notebook of poetry containing revisions.
Unlike the four that preceded it, the fifth notebook contains many of Thomas’s revisions.
Swansea University, Author provided

Luckily, we were able to realise most of our aims. Thomas’s handwriting is clear, so most poems and corrections were easy to read. Some problems arose as the notebook progressed, and the poems grew more complex and worked-over. Usually, educated guesswork (not to mention my colleague’s keen eyesight) carried us through – although in a handful of cases we called in a technician armed with a super-photocopier. In the end only five words were unresolved.

Changing style

Among the deleted passages were many of great beauty and originality, some of which Thomas reworked elsewhere. There were also three stanzas, in two of the poems, which had never been seen before.

Everywhere his incredibly rapid development as a poet was evident. Sometimes, even the tiniest item could alter our understanding of a poem; in I Dreamed My Genesis, the notebook confirmed that a comma should replace a full stop found in three print editions, making better sense of eight lines of the poem.

At the other end of the scale of significance, after poem eight, When, Like a Running Grave, we noted that Thomas had, unusually, written out the date in full: “26th October 1934” – the eve of his 20th birthday – with an emphatic line in the centre of the page. We know from the number of poems he wrote about birthdays (they include Poem on His Birthday and Poem in October) that they held great significance for Thomas. So we feel it is no coincidence that the poems that follow this point, beginning with Now and culminating in Altarwise By Owl-Light, the final poem, differ from these before it, and are the most experimental he ever wrote. Agonisingly aware of human mortality, of the end of youth, this emphatic dating marks the exact moment of Thomas’s momentous decision to adopt a more daring style.

The notebook, then, represents a kind of hinge in his early career, and this is something we could only have learned from the notebook itself, since the stylistic shift is completely obscured by the non-chronological order in which When, Like a Running Grave and Now were published. It grants us the privilege of witnessing, for the first time, the young Dylan Thomas at the height of his powers, seizing and reshaping his poetic destiny.The Conversation

John Goodby, Professor of Arts and Culture, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Infinite Jest: how David Foster Wallace’s classic nineties novel foreshadowed the Year of Zoom

It was fun for a while, but people quickly got sick of video calls during lockdown.
Cabeca de Marmore via Shutterstock

Michael Hedges, University of Leeds

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), even the years have their price. They have been sold off and named. Year of the Whopper. Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Time has been reduced to another opportunity for corporate sponsorship, as if it were a Premier League football stadium.

The characters who inhabit Wallace’s world feel the pernicious grip of consumerism even more acutely than we do. They battle with the same addictions: to entertainment; to drugs and alcohol, of course; to sporting success at any cost. Sadly, we recognise each of these in our society. But at least our years haven’t been put up for sale. Yet.

Infinite Jest narrates a vision of the near future, which is now our recent past. The novel depicts a conjectural North American superstate during the first decade of the 21st century. But what if we were we living out Wallace’s speculative fiction? In a number of frightening ways, we are. One thing is for certain: there would be a clear contender for 2020 sponsorship. It would be the Year of Zoom.

Or Teams. Or Meet. Since the COVID-19 restrictions on our lives began in March, these platforms have become household names. Many of us have had to grow familiar with their distinct idiosyncrasies in order to work or socialise. Infinite Jest provides something of a user guide to handling video calls. However, it is not a ringing endorsement of them. Quite the opposite.

That Infinite Jest predicts video calls is hardly noteworthy. Communicating at a distance through a screen has long been a staple ingredient of science fiction. What is so eerily prescient about video calls in the novel is not its description of their rise. It is the reasons Wallace gives for their demise.

Bearded man giving lecture with microphone and lectern.
Ahead of his time: the late author David Foster Wallace.
Steve Rhodes/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Wallace calls it “videophony”. This nascent video-telephonic technology enjoyed “AN INTERVAL OF HUGE CONSUMER POPULARITY” before demand “COLLAPSED LIKE A KICKED TENT”. A capitalised passage of faux media analysis concludes that phone users “ACTUALLY PREFERRED THE RETROGRADE OLD LOWTECH BELL-ERA VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONIC INTERFACE AFTER ALL”. It then asks: “WHY THE ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT BACK TO GOOD OLD VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONING?”

Wallace’s narrator answers the call. People rejected videophony because of “(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech”. The pandemic has proven Wallace right on all three counts.

Fancy a Zoom later?

At the beginning of lockdown, we flocked to video conferencing. It was – and remains – an invaluable means of staving off boredom and loneliness. But we have begun to feel the effects of what Wallace identified more strongly in recent months.

We held pub quizzes, then we stopped. We agreed to Zoom every week, then we didn’t. As Wallace puts it: “it turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces.”

Plenty of people had been regularly making video calls long before the COVID-19 outbreak. Back then, however, the technology wasn’t serving as a substitute for face-to-face interaction to the same extent. In Infinite Jest, consumers have the luxury of rediscovering an earlier technology, the merits of which passed them by the first time around. We are not in the same position. We know full well the value of what we lack in lockdown – and every call has been coloured by the mourning of its loss.

We continue to use video calls in part because we know that this is as good as it’s going to get for some time. Socialising indoors is once again illegal for millions of people across the UK and elsewhere. So we have developed the videophonic coping strategies that Wallace envisioned.

Thankfully, we have been spared the “emotional stress” of realising that – as Wallace puts it – “traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her.” Each of us had that earth-shattering realisation midway through our first Skype call, however many years ago. Incredibly, up till then we had never been “haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided”.

Lockdown has been more troubling for our “physical vanity”. Wallace foresaw the “shiny pallid indefiniteness” of seeing our own faces on screen. They are “not just unflattering but somehow evasive, furtive, untrustworthy, unlikeable.” To combat what Wallace terms “Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria”, the telecommunications industry devised “High-Definition Masking”. What started as composites of “flattering multi-angle photos” culminated in “a form-fitting polybutylene-resin mask”. We are not quite at that stage. Yet.

Background information

Our vanity extends far beyond our faces. Or rather, behind our faces to the backdrops that frame them. The early weeks of lockdown were littered with stories mocking politicians and journalists for their carefully curated bookshelves. But who among us cannot empathise with these contrivances? Wallace knew we would want to communicate “the sort of room that best reflected the image” of ourselves that we “wanted to transmit”. In my experience, this means having to resist the urge to tailor the spines on display to match the reading habits and political allegiances of every caller. The call ends up beginning well before the scheduled time.

The alternative isn’t much better. In Infinite Jest, people cover their videophone lens with a “Transmittable-Tableau”. These are “high-quality transmission-ready photographs, scaled down to diorama-like proportions”. Not such a ridiculous idea, given the wide range of video call backgrounds currently available.

The artfully staged bookshelf and the digital backdrop both run risks. The former can be construed as being horrendously self-involved. The latter invites the inference that there is something to hide behind whatever high-resolution facsimile the disembodied head is looming in front of. The key is to find the sweet spot between not appearing too concerned with one’s appearance, while shielding the call participants from the chaos lying slightly out of frame.

Which brings me to Wallace’s third reason for the failure of videophony. In its final throes, there emerged a “chic integrity” in rejecting videophony as “tacky vain slavery to corporate PR and high-tech novelty”. I have noticed a similar trend in recent weeks. Some callers now take a wonderful stance against vanity.

The messier the background, the better. Unsuitable lighting now trumps precisely directed anglepoise lamps. Which begs the question: why bother with the video component of video calls at all? Is the “self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech” starting to take hold, as Wallace prophesied?

Wallace’s narration announces that videophony is “less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door”. These inconveniences would be a small price to pay if it meant our doorbells would ring again. And I don’t mean for another Amazon delivery.The Conversation

Michael Hedges, PhD Candidate in Contemporary Literature and Sound Studies, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not My Review: The Daevabad Trilogy (Book 1) – The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty