The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died in New York on Nov. 9, 1953, at age 39. Already a celebrity, Thomas was turned into a legend.

Did he die as a result of 18 double whiskies drunk neat in the White Horse Tavern?

Or was the cause half a grain of morphine (enough to lay out a horse) administered by an incompetent physician?

Did another doctor really say that the poet was dying of "a serious insult to the brain"?

Reports conflict, myth balloons. Thomas' put-upon physique took several days to finally give up its ghost, time enough for hundreds to flock to the doors of his hospital ward, to pay their respects, perhaps, or to glimpse the roaring boy in his ruin, and for his glamorous and equally tempestuous wife, Caitlin ( Uma Thurman and Lindsay Lohan are among the actress who have down the years been slated to play her, in bio-pics that — this being the story of a great love, and Dylan Thomas — always seem to fall apart at the last minute), to fly in from England, freak out and almost get herself committed to Bellevue. Thus was enacted a tragic death, which had been preceded by a life of fame, love, booze, debts.

It's dramatic, crazy stuff, and no wonder people are always trying to make films about this guy. The odd thing, though, as Paul Muldoon points out in his introduction to a lovely new edition of Thomas' "Collected Poems" (New Directions: 240 pp, $14.95 paper), is that all this still doesn't prepare us for the turbo-charged, high-octane fuel of the poetry:

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;

Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood

Shall calm her sores.

And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb

How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

("The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower")

Thomas, born in a small but comfortable house on Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea, found his poetic voice, or, rather, the first of his poetic voices, early and began publishing when in his teens. The subjects that came most naturally to him were those guaranteed to grab attention — sex, death and nature and how the three mix up together. Poets have seized on these primal themes, and Thomas, freighting himself the influence of Joyce, Yeats, Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins. John Donne, and the King James Bible, sought to rise beyond both the provincial obscurity in which he was raised and the thriving metropolis, London, which he knew would soon beckon. From the start he went for an ecstatic reverie that seems secret yet somehow still universal:

I see you boys of summer in your ruin,

Man in his maggot's barren,

And boys are full and foreign in the pouch.

I am the man your father was.