“Poetry is dead!” cried John Berryman, emerging in distraction from the Manhattan hospital room that Dylan Thomas had just exited by another, more conclusive route. Poetry had been unconscious for four days, as a result of alcohol and then morphine. It had finally succumbed while being washed by a nurse—babied into eternity under a woman’s hands, life’s last feebleness recalling its first.
Poetry is dead. Did Berryman, himself a poet, really say that? The record is unclear. It could be a legend. But he was certainly there, by the bedside at St. Vincent’s, on November 9, 1953; certainly overwrought; and if he did say it, his words—as Walford Davies points out in the new edition of his excellent study, Dylan Thomas—“were something more than melodrama.” Marshall McLuhan hadn’t yet given us the formula, but if Dylan Thomas was the medium, poetry was the message. Already a radio favorite in Britain, he blazed his reputation across 1950s America with a sequence of Led Zeppelin–esque reading tours, multicity road shows in which the dying throb of Romanticism met the incoming crackle of mass communication. This Welshman was electronically famous, and he constellated in his rumpled persona various blips and signals that all said poet. The bow-tied ham at the lectern, bass-baritoning away; the scapegrace of the after-party, peeing into potted plants; the inspired tavern regular, talker for hours, blood brother to the universe; the craftsman in his deep and scratching silence; the fire-tailed bard; the cometary Celt. All of it was Dylan, all of it was poetry, and when he died, it died with him. He was the last of the rock-star poets, because the minute the real rock stars showed up—amps buzzing, drugs twanging—the poets would be shuffled off into inconsequence.