Thomas, even at 21, could see the writing—the lack of writing—on the wall: I “can’t, for the life or the death of me,” he wrote to his friend Vernon Watkins in 1936, “get any real liberation, any diffusion or dilution or anything, into the churning bulk of words; I seem, more than ever, to be tightly packing away everything I have and know into a mad-doctor’s bag, and then locking it up.” A torturing self-oversight, and a fear that his God-given facility with words might be a trick, a scam, fake poetry: These were the steady companions of his muse. In Last Call, it is the bartender of the White Horse—perhaps a hallucination by this point—who finally, hissingly articulates this terror to Thomas: that underneath the poetic fireworks there is “nothing … It’s just the cadence of the language.”
What’s the common denominator here? Is writing itself the problem? In his 2019 memoir, One Blade of Grass, the Zen master Henry Shukman, once an award-winning poet/novelist/journalist, describes the moment when, after much struggle and many mind-blows, he finds that he can at last renounce his literary ambitions—renounce writing itself. Not just “the worldly side of writing,” the chasing of kisses and prizes, but “the engines of the inner creative process too, the forces that generated phrases, paragraphs, verses, images, structures.” This generative, word-bubbling force—is this what Thomas, in one of his greatest poems, called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”? The original pulse of creation, to be hallowed? Shukman thinks not—or rather, being a Zen master, he not-thinks. “Quiet. No words. The flywheel of hope and angst that had driven the writing lost its momentum. The need to write had risen from a node of unease on the ribs, and it was empty now.”
Nothing slows the flywheel, nothing treats the node of unease on the ribs, like a drink—you don’t have to be an alcoholic to know that. And for writers, there might even be a fragile biochemical moment when the drinking helps. (Though Mank began Citizen Kane in a state of enforced dryness, laid up after a car accident, he finished it drunk.) But Mank and Thomas shared something else, too: They both went west. Part of the human condition is the condition of needing money, and these two writers felt it sorely. They went into America, into the world—Mank with his rat trap, Thomas with his mad doctor’s bag—and they were consumed.
Let’s tread warily, because there’s mystery here. If Mank doesn’t leave the Algonquin, and all of its bladed quips, and go to vulgar soul-swallowing Hollywood, there’s no Citizen Kane. If Thomas doesn’t launch himself repeatedly and self-destructively at America, and into the inferno of American adulation, there’s no Under Milk Wood—his career-crowning vision of a Welsh village as seen from heaven (or from 3,000 lonely miles away). The disaster of their drinking, we might say, was part of their negotiation with the unattainable. Their muses, their demons, were quite merciless. Their standards were impossibly high. Would either man, as a writer, have had it any other way?