Dylan Thomas has to be read aloud. I’ve been campaigning on the platform that all poetry ought to be read aloud, but Thomas in particular operated at the gentle borderline between meaning and music, crossing it so frequently and systematically that the two are inextricable. He needs to be heard to be understood. In his earlier poems, where the meaning is more personal and remote, the music doesn’t really yield much cognitive sense. Of course you can read them as “language poetry,” but that label to me represents a failure of poetry, not an achievement. Thomas eventually discovered a way to root his lyric invention in lived sensory depth. This is done through the authority of narration. You believe him when he says things are happening, though what those things are will always at least partly puzzle you. But people who’ve heard Thomas’ rich dramatic voice will testify to his ability to wake printed words from sleep and make them squirm and live: not just his own words either, for he had a broad, discerning knowledge of modern poetry. As a twentysomething, I sat at a long table in the UNM Listening Library with headphones on and Thomas’ tipsy boom sweeping through my ears. An old friend, Bill Murphy, was a Thomas nut, and first turned me on to the poem which is still my favorite, and the only one in Otros, “A Winter’s Tale.” I also like “Vision and Prayer,” “Fern Hill,” “Lament” … most of the second half of his slim book. Listen to Thomas say “A Winter’s Tale,” or read it aloud to yourself, and don’t try to extract a prose story from the snowfall-whirling words. Though the words are often plain and blunt, what actually happens? A man seems to run outdoors and die of exposure, but he is chasing a “she bird” who somehow comes to life in his house and has the power to resurrect ancient sights and sounds in the landscape. The suicidal, delusional journey is presented as a kind of mystical union with an eternal bride. Huh? Well, did you forget this was poetry? The lesson is in the telling. Hear it and accept.
I mentioned Pound’s “Envoi (1919),” which refers to Lawes’ musical setting of this poem by Edmund Waller, a seventeenth-century English poet. I admire the original too.
Go, lovely rose!
Tell her that wastes her time and me
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
Tell her that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts, where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.
Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired;
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And blush not so to be admired.
Then die! that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!
And then there is Walt Whitman. What can I say? I came to him well into my middle age. He was “somewhere waiting for me.” Patiently. All the years I wasn’t interested and didn’t have time for him. It was like finding a treasure under a floorboard in my living room. I’d lugged around my parents’ copy of Leaves of Grass—a nineteenth-century printing—all my life, but hardly opened it till the eve of the new millenium. Stephen Mitchell’s redaction of “Song of Myself” (in my old book its title is “Walt Whitman”) helped me find my way into this elderly and young spew of insights and declarations. It’s really not to be missed, but you may have to wait, as I did, till you’ve lived some life before it can charm its way inside you. In the meantime, as with most of Whitman’s great works, it will remain fresh and still, waiting.
Besides “Song of Myself” I also have Whitman’s lofty elegy for Lincoln, “Where Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloomed,” his bitter denunciation of postwar America “Respondez!,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which he actually addresses us, the people of his future. After your indulgence last time, letting me inflict the whole of “Anactoria” on you, I don’t want to fill up this entry with these long poems, especially the book-length “Song of Myself.” Here is a shorter one that breathes essential Whitman to me.
There Was a Child Went Forth
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phœbe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there, and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads, all became part of him.
The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him,
Winter-grain sprouts and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road,
And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the tavern whence he had lately risen,
And the schoolmistress that pass’d on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass’d, and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls, and the barefoot Negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.
His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.
The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,
The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d, the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets, if they are not flashes and specks what are they?
The streets themselves and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves, the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village of the highland seen from afar at sunset, the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown two miles off,
The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud,
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.
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