It has been 100 years since the birth of the man who spoke these words to elucidate his process of evoking an image, with words, not a camera. Dylan Thomas, the exceptional poet of the New Romantic era, whose ability to conjure up life’s complex palette through lyrical verses in image-rich poetry would have rendered Ansel Adams’ epithet “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs” pointless, recently arrived in an exhibition at the 92nd Street Y in New York, an exhibition to which Duggal was very proud to lend its support.
Thomas was the first poet to record his spoken poetry under a label, and his words, voice, image and private life broadcast across media, including on television and radio, earned him the title of a rock-star poet, creating the first celebrity poetry figure in the 20th century. Thomas influenced generations of artists, including one whose “poetry” most of us are familiar with—Bob Dylan not only created his eponymous tribute to the poet by changing his name from Zimmerman, but also imbibed the quintessential themes of Thomas’ poetry within his songs. Thomas’ poetry readings marked a significant cultural event of the 20th century, inspiring the Beatles to include his image on the album cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Thomas was introduced to the United States in the 1950s by the 92nd Street Y, the 140-year-old organization for culture, arts, entertainment and conversation in New York. It was John
Malcolm Brinnin, the executive director of the organization, who invited Thomas to the Poetry Center and sponsored his first American reading tour, which wildly popularized both him and the idea of poetry in the United States.
“Dylan Thomas’s voice has added a new dimension to literary history,” The New York Times raved when he launched a U.S. reading tour in 1950. “He will surely be remembered as the first in modern literature to be both a maker and speaker of poetry…the typical reader will become entranced after hearing him recite.”
It was only fitting, then, that for the centennial celebrations of Dylan Thomas’ birth, the 92nd Street Y would host “Dylan Thomas in America,” an exhibition that brings together photographs, letters, postcards, manuscripts and drawings from archives around the world to chronicle the great Welsh poet’s legendary trips to the United States between 1950 and his tragic death in 1953 at the age of 39.
The process of bringing these fragile and valuable artifacts to a public exhibit began with Duggal scanning and photographing more than 80 original photographs and letters. Each one of these vintage pieces was then retouched to ensure content clarity of image when enlarged. Each image was printed digitally and framed in custom-made museum boxes accompanied by the original letters. The exhibition includes an excerpt, in pencil, from Allen Ginsberg’s journal, recounting the evening in 1952 when Thomas and a friend sauntered into the San Remo Café on Macdougal Street and sat next to Ginsberg at the bar: “Ah, Dylan Thomas, I would have liked to know you that night, wish I could have communicated who I was, my true feeling, and its importance to you. For I too am a lover of the soul.” The exhibition also includes a letter from Igor Stravinsky, who was preparing to collaborate with Thomas on an opera, with the heading “The Opera That Might Have Been.”
Thomas once said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around them.” Although Thomas created work for only a couple of decades, the expansive power of his poetry extended past a century and significantly contributed to the formation of a philosophical universe that deeply explores “birth and death, regeneration and ruin, ecstasy and despair.”
Bernard Schwartz, director of 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, called the centenary of Dylan Thomas a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the poet’s life and work, as well as the history he shares with 92Y. I’m proud to have him acknowledge Duggal’s work when he states, “As with last year’s exhibition to mark the Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, Duggal was an ideal—and indispensable—collaborator on ‘Dylan Thomas in America.’ We wanted the show’s diverse array of archival materials, in their varied states of presentability, to come together to tell a story, and what Duggal did for us—with their industry, skill and what can only be described as their magic—was bring that story to life. It’s one thing to have an idea of a time machine and maybe even go to the trouble of assembling its disparate parts. Quite another to have a design partner who can take those parts and build a machine that actually works!”
In a poetry magazine, Kevin Craft, the editor in chief, asks, “Faced with the endlessly replicable image-clutter of the digital age, do words retain their image-making power?” Just as in the hands of the right photographer, a landscape becomes a poem, in the imagination of a poet, words will always be able to evoke powerful imagery that can be seen and understood only with the mind’s eye.