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Bottoms up! Dylan Thomas and other dipsomaniac writers

books Updated: Oct 28, 2016 13:28 IST
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Dylan Thomas was famous for his prolific creative output and his hard-drinking. (Getty Images)

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Chances are that even if you’ve never heard of or read Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, you would be familiar with these famous lines from his poem Do not go gentle into that good night.

Considered to be one of the best modern poets, Dylan Thomas was born on October 27, 1914, in Swansea, Wales. Though he is best known for his poetry, Thomas was a prolific writer who also wrote radio plays, film scripts and short stories.

He was just as famous for his hard-drinking and for the longest time was believed to have died of alcoholic brain poisoning after a binge-drinking session in New York in 1953. His last words, apparently, were said to be: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies; I think that’s the record.”

Much as that feeds the popular stereotype of the tortured artist creating brilliant art, recent research cites bronchitis, pneumonia and misdiagnosis as the cause of the Welsh talent’s premature demise at age 39. Though one could say his dipsomaniac lifestyle was in the long run responsible for his poor health and short life span. On Dylan Thomas’s birthday, here’s looking at other binge-drinking artists whose tragic lives struck a rather stark contrast with their robust creative outputs:

Meena Kumari

Subh se sha’m talak

Doosro’n ke liye kuch karna hai

Jisme’n khud apna koi naksh nahin

Rang us paikare-tasweer hi mein bharna hai

Zindagi kya hai, kabhi sochne lagta hai yeh zehan

Aur phir rooh pe cha jate hain

Dard ke saye, udasi ka dhuan, dukh ki ghata

Dil mein rah-rah ke khayal a’ta hai

Zindagi yeh hai to phir maut kise kahte hain ?

Pyar ik khwab tha, is khwab ki ta’bir na pooch

Kya mili jurme-wafa ki hame’n ta’zir na pooch

(From morning to night

We must do things for others,

That living picture must be vivified

In which there is no trace of one’s self.

What is life, the mind sometimes wonders

And then the soul

Is overcast by shadows of grief

The smoke of despondency

Clouds of agony.

My heart wonders incessantly

If this is life, what is it that they call death?

Love was a dream

Ask not about the fate of this dream

Ask not about the punishment I received for the crime of loyalty.)

From Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema. Translated by Noorul Hasan, Roli Books.

One of the finest actors of Hindi cinema of the 50s and 60s, Meena Kumari is best remembered for her tragic roles and films such as Baiju Bawra (1952), Pakeezah (1972), and as the unhappy, alcoholic Choti Bahu from Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962).

Born Mahajabeen Bano, Meena Kumari began working in films in when she was just seven. Much like her onscreen persona, her personal life too — a difficult childhood, a failed marriage and several unsuccessful relationships — was mired in unhappiness and hardships. In his 1972 biography of Meena Kumari, Vinod Mehta writes of how she began drinking a peg of brandy at first on the advice of her doctor and as a remedy for her insomnia and exhaustion. This later grew into an addiction. Meena Kumari died of liver cirrhosis at 39.

Meena Kumari began drinking a peg of brandy at first on the advice of her doctor and as a remedy for her insomnia and exhaustion

She also wrote Urdu poetry under the pen name Naaz. Soon after her death in 1972, her friend, poet Gulzar, got her poetry published in a collection called Meena Kumari Ki Shayri. Her simple and melancholic poems reveal the angst of a soul weary of the world. An English translation of her poems, titled Meena Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema, was published by Noorul Hasan in 2014.

Tennessee Williams

“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”

Tennessee Williams was addicted to drugs and alcohol in his later years

One of the greatest 20th century American dramatists, Tennessee Williams was addicted to drugs and alcohol in his later years, a habit that also affected his creativity if not his routine of getting up at dawn every day to write. When he died in a NYC hotel, choking on a plastic eyedrop bottle cap, he was lonely, depressed and isolated. Williams, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955), said in a Paris Review interview about alcoholism: “American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.”

Saadat Hasan Manto

“People think Manto was always an alcoholic, but he wasn’t. He was always a heavy drinker; it was Pakistan that made him an alcoholic.” — Ayesha Jalal, historian and Manto’s grandniece

Traumatised by the Partition, living in near penury in Lahore and finding himself a misfit in Pakistan’s literary world, Manto started drinking heavily

Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto was charged with obscenity in his writing and tried several times. He managed to evade prison each time. Undeterred, the iconoclast continued to attack hyprocrisy of all kinds in his writings, and till his tragic end stood up for his beliefs. Manto spent 12 years in Bombay ( a city he loved) writing screenplays for Hindi films, but chose to move to Pakistan after the Partition in 1948. It was during this dark and terrible period in the subcontinent’s history that Manto produced his best and bleakest work as he tried to make sense of the madness around him. It was also during this time, traumatised by the bloody Partition, living in near penury in Lahore and finding himself a misfit in Pakistan’s literary world, that he took to drinking heavily and grew disillusioned and depressed. He died of a failed liver at 42.

Charles Bukowski

I went to the worst of bars

hoping to get

killed.

but all I could do was to

get drunk

again.

—The Suicide Kid

Unlike others on this list, German-American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was powered and not ruined by his heavy drinking or so he often said and credited his prolific literary output to this habit. “Alcohol is probably one of the greatest things to arrive upon the earth -- alongside of me. Yes...these are two of the greatest arrivals upon the surface of the earth. So...we get along,” the California-based author once said in an interview.

“If I hadn’t been a drunkard, I probably would have committed suicide long ago,” Charles Bukowski said on the record. (Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

His work, mostly autobiographical, focussed on the urban poor in America, drinking, writing and relationships with women. “If I hadn’t been a drunkard, I probably would have committed suicide long ago,” he said on the record. It probably worked for him given that he died in 1994 at the age of 73 of leukemia.