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In Praise of Oscar Williams

Readers of the Dylan Thomas letters will know that no one did more for the heavy-drinking, over-spending poet, in North America, than Oscar Williams, yet sadly, in letters to friends back home, Thomas mocked his supporter, calling him things like "old Captain Oscar Cohen" - a borderline antisemitic jibe (Williams was, in fact, Oscar Kaplan). Thomas, who I think was a great poet and a shit as a human being, probably, wrote things to Oscar like "Little dear Honourable Treasurer of mine, how are you?" - and would then ask for money. Thomas kept Williams hooked with promises of featuring his work on the BBC radio, which I believe never materialised (and not just because of the death in New York). The Thomas-Williams affair exposes a constant of the poetry world - certain successful poets often misuse their closest allies to get ahead, flattering them mercilessly. Thomas wrote (perhaps his last printed words) the following cable, on October 25th, 1953:

DEAR ELLEN OSCAR WILLIAMS HAS TOLD ME THAT YOU WOULD LIKE ME TO PRESENT MY PLAY ENTITLED UNDER MILKWOOD IN CHICAGO I SHALL BE DELIGHTED TO DO SO WITH OR WITHOUT CAST BUT NOT WITHOUT CASH SOME TIME BETWEEN NOVEMBER 12TH AND NOVEMBER 15TH ON MY WAY TO HOLLYWOOD WOULD YOU KINDLY GET IN TOUCH WITH MY MANAGER JOHN BRINNIN 100 MEMORIAL DRIVE FOR FULL DETAILS THANK YOU VERY MUCH LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING YOU WITH WARM REGARDS DYLAN THOMAS

But there is more to the Oscar Williams story. The entire Anglo-American poetry world has been unkind to Oscar, the old Captain. No man or woman, in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, did more to popularise modern English-language poetry, than Williams. His anthologies sold in the millions, and were early instruments of celebration of complex, difficult, intelligent, and beautiful, work. His selections were often imaginative, and judicious. He is one of the 20th century heroes of poetry activism, one of the greatest advocates for modern poetry ever. And yet, his own poetry has been unduly neglected, as if the price of his enthusiasm, interest, and commitment - let alone generosity - to countless struggling poets - was to be attacked, or worse, ignored. I suspect there is a complex psychological reason for this - for it often seems that the very people who do the most for poets are those most attacked by poets, too.

Perhaps poets despise those who help them to get to their lofty reputations, because so often, those on the way up know (to mix a metaphor) how many eggs were broken to make the reputation souffle, and how many eggshells licked. I don't think Williams is a major poet, deserving of canonical status. But his name is somehow synonymous with the second-rate, and the hapless, in a way that is entirely out of proportion to his dedicated, professional, real historical role. It isn't just Dylan Thomas that owes him. We all do.
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