So here we are again, with yet another dead white man! I don’t turn often to Thomas’ work, but when I do, it’s for the sound. When you read his work, it doesn’t always spring off the page to meet you – it’s not easy. But it always makes sense, in a grand, mythic way. Some of this is the old-fashioned delivery, from back when poems were performed, not excused*.
Thomas is a difficult poet. He is not on my shelf of “literary husbands”. His biography is unpleasant, his poems must be wrestled more than read. But this aurality captures me. I try to be pragmatic with poetry, and explain its use to imagined crowds of bean counters. I try to justify my presence and my need to write it as “worthwhile”. But Thomas reminds me of the heart of the discipline, the wild pagan past, the druid, the witch. Why not make a poem as broad as the night sky, why not make it an incantation, why not stretch back and forth over the arc of history?
“When he’s “off,” the result is a formless riff. When he’s “on,” it’s a revelation” says Austin Allen (“Lightning and Lullabies”) about Thomas’ sonic quality. My god is this ever true. Every poet has been “off” here and there, some more than others. When Thomas goes off the rails, it is indeed a mess – a pleasant sounding mess – but an inscrutable, uninviting mess. And I have certainly done that myself. When it comes to craft, I’ve spent these years trying to get my own music but not deflate into nonsense. Even if you don’t “get” an image, I want you to infer something from the whole experience: “There is no honey in this stone/ I will bear only the strange symptom of my need”, or “Riot and groan in the heat/ Love, love the brassy impulse”. I don’t need you to form a concrete picture of these images, I need you to hear the poetry, to understand the sensation and the emotion I am trying to convey.
Sound Over Sense Austin Allen and Curtis Fox discuss the genius of Thomas, specifically his sonic quality in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. As Allen notes, quite correctly, Thomas excelled when using strict forms. These constraints allowed the “the music carries them on and one….[the music] strain against the form of the villanelle”. My interest in the poem bridges content and mechanics. The passionate plea to a dying parent touches me personally and the images (“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight”) are grand in their scale, “private myth” as Allen calls them. But you have not experienced this poem until you have heard a good recording of Thomas’ reading.
The muscularity of the lines here, the hammer-blows are, as Allen calls them, “”bardic”, they share “a broad natural context” with universal themes. Even though the poem was written with one individual man in mind, most of the stanzas rush away into the heavens: “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors” and “…my father, there on the sad height,”. When one discovers the music of a poem, and builds the images to match, that is what transmutes the poem into art. That is what gets it to stick in peoples’ heads for years and years, becoming a touchstone rather than a reading.
*Do you notice that? In some circles, it’s fashionable to feign shyness or reluctance, to read like you have a high fever about to destroy you, and squeak out a stanza like a fart you pray no one notices. Blessedly, this is not the case all around. And lest you think I have nostalgia glasses on, there were plenty of crap poetry readings back in the day as well (I point to the misery of Cummings’ aural approach). The only difference is that we have so many more performances preserved whereas before the weakest ones fell away.