Guiding spirits

Last year (2013) I wrote a few things about Sylvia Plath as it was the fiftieth anniversary of her death. It was a resolution that was hard to keep up as there was just so much going on with writing, work-work and Paris Lit Up. As with all things I promise myself, I vow to try again, and try harder this year. Whose the chosen one then? You may well ask.

The answer is pretty obvious if you think about it for moment, Welsh poet, born 1914, died 1953. I give you one guess... Yes, well done.

Dylan Thomas it is then. Why him? Bit of cliché, n'est-ce pas? No, actually I think his poetic reputation needs reviving. There will be hundreds of column inches and minutes of airtime devoted to his hard drinking, womanising and untimely death. English journalists will imitate Welsh accents (as Stephen Fry did so disastrously on QI recently) and patronise us (nothing new there) in begrudging copy, marvelling that anything good could ever come from Wales. The old animosity will rear it's head for the next three hundred and six five days. So, let's just nip all that in the bud, shall we?

Laugharne, towards the Boat House
Dylan Thomas is a major poet. Who would really argue with this? Actually plenty of people who think his style is hyperbolic: overblown rhetoric full of flourish to no purpose. I couldn't disagree more and will be writing several articles explaining myself. Check back on this page often for more on this.

To start us off then, let's peek at his most well known poem, read at funerals all over the world. Do not go gentle into that good night is the anguished cry of a son facing his dying father. It is the most perfect villanelle in the English language and it was written by a Welsh man (sorry, masked slipped for a second). The trick to a villanelle such is to find two really good lines that bear the close repetition required of the form ('Do not go gentle into that good night,' and 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light'). Follow the rhyme scheme and your done. Piece of cake really, if your name's Dylan.

But look at these two phrases: 'words had no forked lightning' and 'frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.' Pardon?

Words that were plain, didn't split themselves in two and had no double meanings, which is, of course, an irony, a piece of meta-poetry and is Dylan tipping us one of his wicked winks. And what of the second? A piece of fancy that feeble actions could come to fruition in the sea? No, a rather depressing expression of the futility of life, but it takes some thinking about. Dylan seems clear on the surface, but like all good writers, he takes some working at. Get ready to roll up your sleeves and read more of him with me this coming year.


On Immortality

Find yourself the Everyman edition of Dylan's Collected Poems (ed. Davies and Maud), which collects the poems he chose to keep and publish in 1952. I am using the 1993 edition if you are trying to follow my page references. And Death Shall Have No Dominion (pg. 56) was Dylan's first published poem (at the tender age of 18), although he edited it heavily later in the version we now have.

It varies a well known bible verse from (St. Paul's Epistle to the) Romans 6:9 as the repeating phrase at the opening and closing of each of the three stanzas. This repetition and the insistent rhythm gives the poem its power as a meditation on immortality. If you're going to say something more than once, make it something worth hearing.

Boats at Laugharne
Most of the lines elaborating the theme are end-stopped, so it's interesting to focus on those that are not as they break that pattern and draw attention. There are three enjambed lines, one in each stanza:

'Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon.'

'Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily.'

'Where blew a flower may a flower no more
lift its head to the blows of rain.'

In each of these there is yet more repetition (man/man, winding/windily and flower, repeated even on the same line). Is this lazy writing? Perhaps the last one as the object is the same, but not the others I think as these add to the circular effect of the poem turning over its ideas on themselves.

I am curious as to the nature of the man in the wind and the west moon. We know of the man in the moon, but not in the wind, so that seems a playful variant. But the man in the west moon? What does he mean by the west moon. Literally there is no such thing, we only have one moon. The moon over Wales i.e. in the west perhaps? But why? As illustration of the poem's panthesism is one suggested explanation.

As to windings/windily, this jars for me rather badly and if it were my poem, I'd have edited that out. The flower line on the other hand is interesting, or rather the blows of rain are a clever conjuring of the wind and its punches and is imagery extended in the next to lines: 'dead as nails' and 'hammer'. Dead as nails seems again to be Dylan invention, we know deaf as a post or thick as a board, but not this.

The mention of the unicorn myth and its abilities to dispel evil in stanza two is rather suspect and undermines the poem from within, even more so as this is the only line in which the syntax is tortured. I am inclined to smirk at this image, and that's me being unkind and reading it eighty years after it was written, but it does give the poem a risible register. This is a pity, but yet, classic Dylan imagery is at work here: moon, sea, stars, bones, all busily resisting death.


On Writing

In my craft or sullen art (pg. 106) Dylan expostulates on writing. He explains the thankless nature of his solitary, nocturnal labours (alone being one of the meanings of 'sullen' here), with what has to be his tongue firmly in his cheek, that is not for 'ambition or bread,' of ' the strut and trade of charms/ on the ivory stages,' but the 'common wages' of lovers' hearts. It is on the one hand a piece of unreliable autobiography and wishful thinking if ever I read one, yet the fear of going unremarked surely haunts all writers, especially the egotists amongst us.

Laugharne Castle
Structurally I find this poem interesting in that it has the feel of a palindrome. This is not precise in any sense of course, but is by way of inventive repetition in the phrases, objects and images; a working over and around of the limited palette: moon, lovers, griefs, arms, wages whereby form aligns with argument; as well as the rhyme scheme, which although irregular, is approximately similar between the two stanzas, and the opening and closing lines being very close. Note the word sullen disappears at the end.

Images that especially appeal are 'singing light' as I could certainly do with one of those when I am working; 'spindrift pages' because it is an interesting one - the idea that pages are either waves or snow being blown by the wind, either way they are white and unfilled with ink; and I enjoy the side swipe at his predecessors: 'the towering dead with their nightingales (Keats, presumably) and psalms.'


On Childhood

Dylan is famous for many things, one of which is his fond, tender and playful writings about childhood, especially his own, or more specifically boyhood, since girls are those other creatures with whom snowball throwing boys waiting for cats to appear on the garden fence have little to do. See the stories in Quite Early on Morning, for example.

Dylan's memorial Stone in Cwmdonkin Park
The Hunchback in the Park (pg.93), does what it says on the tin. Here I want simply to point out the imaginative, original and arresting nature of Dylan's descriptive powers:

- in stanza one, the notion that the unlocking of the gates 'lets the trees and water in'

- in stanza two, the accuracy of observation 'the chained cup that the children filled with gravel'

- in stanza three, the simile 'like the water he sat down'

- in stanza four, the image of the park  as a 'loud zoo'

- in stanza five, the brilliance of 'the boys among willows/made tigers jump out of their eyes'

 - in stanza six, the simile 'straight as a young elm'

 - in stanza seven, the simile 'the wild boys innocent as strawberries.'

A fellow poet advised me once that all you need for a really good poem is one astonishing image, metaphor or simile. I am glad to say that this is otiose here.

Read the poem too quickly, blink, and you will miss Dylan's sparkle and might be in danger of dismissing this poem as a piece of over-sentimental froth. Not so, I say, not so.


On Childhood, Religion and Countryside

Yes, probably Dylan's most beloved poem, Fern Hill, (pg 134)  and read here by Richard Burton, has all these elements. It is both hymn of praise and love song to a rural upbringing 'Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs.'
Apple tree related images are just one of a number of motifs that repeat themselves throughout the poem, as does the colour green, green also in the sense of innocence in this paradise, emphasised, as if that were necessary, by his mention of 'Adam and maiden' and indeed the apple tree itself. 
Other religious imagery also appears in every stanza ('his eyes,' 'the mercy of his means,' 'blessed,' 'fields of praise,' 'follow him out of grace,' 'lamb white days' and so on).
But the poem changes tack in the last stanza with the lack of foreknowledge that 'time would take me' out of innocence and to the final couplet: 'Time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea.' What exactly does Dylan mean? It seems to me that this is the adult reflection of the illusion of childhood as not as idyllic as we might remember, green but a kind of death to the will perhaps, and happy enough to ellicit song, but still be enslaved. Perhaps that's why he called it a 'poem for evenings and tears.'
Things to be enthralled by in this poem are, as always, the lush and beautiful imagery. Who doesn't wish that they had thought of 'the sabbath rang slowly/ in the pebbles of the holy streams,' or describing a farm on a winter morning as 'like a wanderer white/with dew?' Lovely.