Long ago, longer ago than I like to think it was, I was 18 and in my first year of college at the University of Chicago, out of my small town and in the city more-or-less on my own for the first time. Somehow, I no longer remember how, I discovered a great treasure in the west tower of Harper Memorial Library. Someone must have told me about it because I can’t imagine that I would ever have found it on my own.
A long helical stairway, smoothly worn limestone steps, led upward from the cloistered library entrance, past the floors that held classrooms, reading rooms, the Nonesuch Coffee Shop filled with nervous, sometimes frantic, students, and faculty offices, to the top floor of the tower several stories above. There I dared to walk into the hallowed hall of the special collections department, turned to my right to pass through a door to the north, and found myself in the nearly hidden room reserved for the Harriet Monroe Modern Poetry Collection.
And there, on a stark oaken table surrounded by slim volumes containing the works of obscure poets, was a simple record player with a set of headphones. On bookshelves nearby stood vinyl discs, spoken word recordings, that included that great treasure — a set of Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his own poems.
And when school, and the world, became too much for me I could retreat to the top of this grey limestone tower overlooking the south side of Chicago, sit quietly on a hard, straight-backed oak chair, and listen to that magical voice speaking — “and death shall have no dominion”, or “do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light”, or “mister, hey mister” in the voices of children taunting the hunchback in the park. The room was quiet, nearly devoid of the presence of people, the windows were high, the view was sky only, and Thomas’ voice carried me to a different place, and I will always be grateful for it.