Dylan Thomas wrote only 6 poems in the final 6 years of his life. He had done what poets everywhere do: taken on other work to support himself and his family. He had gone to war as a tail-gunner and had taken on the job of writing for the BBC. His poetry was never far from his mind, but he lived life outside of that mind too. Of course POETRY is the lifeblood of Wales. I understand that recitation of poetry is common as fish and chips. One of these days I will do a poetry residency somewhere in Wales and immerse myself in the sensibilities of Thomas' countrymen and their love for poetry. It's on my bucket list, close to the top.
Thomas once said that his poems were written "for the love of man and in praise of God." He was a man clearly in love with language, with all its crudities and confessions. His imagery shines with freshness and vivid light. His poems are a celebration of the divine purpose he saw in human and natural processes. He took on the cycle of birth and flowering, death and dying, love and brutality. He was pastoral in a sense, celebrating the sea, the fields and hills and towns of his country. He often (in later poems) tried to highlight a childlike innocence of the the world. One of my favorite pieces of his is A Child's Christmas in Wales, which I read every Yule.
He was fiercely dedicated to his art, making over 200 versions of Fern Hill before being satisfied with it. His earliest poems are somewhat mysterious in sense, but simple and straightforward in form as contrasted to later poems which are complex in sound and simple in sense. What I find very interesting is that he felt a need to create for himself an image, a public persona. He called this image "instant Dylan" and felt that it gave him mystery or attraction, that of the hard-drinking messed-up poet. It is said that his image became who he was at the end. In fact that image prevails to this day in the notion that he drank himself to death. It may well have been that he suffered from brain encephalopathy. But it is more intriguing to have the death of instant Dylan that the death of a man with a brain malfunction.
I am also interested in his ideas of poetry as a way to comment on the human condition. He was influenced by Freud and saw the inner mind as a place from whence poetry comes to heal or reveal. He stated: Poetry is the rhythmic, inevitable narrative, movement from an over-clothed blindness to a naked vision... Poetry must drag further into the clear nakedness of light more even of the hidden causes than Freud could realize. Certainly his poetry is that: dragging into clear nakedness of which he spoke. His images and rhythms are clearly explorative of the inner struggles of the human dilemma and the aftertaste is at once sweet and acrid. In Do Not Go Gentle... we see his admonition to his own father to stay the course and not give up. He is didactic while being the loving son. Rage, rage against the dying of the light is how I want to exist as a poet. When I am up late working on a poem, that line runs through my head. It is okay to keep on when others sleep. Also the line says what I feel in terms of ever giving up on poetry: I want to keep writing until the pen falls from my hand. I never want anyone to say "she only wrote ____ poems in the last ____ years of her life."
And what of my other Dylan: Bob Dylan? He is as big an influence on my writing as Dylan Thomas because they are so much alike in what their words do. Of course Bob Dylan is more of a political animal than Dylan Thomas. His lyrics not only comment on the human condition, the psyche, but also on the political and social condition. He is unafraid to make blunt observation and to tinge his words with a sultry and acerbic flavor. He will take on topics others mock or avoid. He will lace tender stories with irony and salt any wound. I listen to his music frequently. It takes me into an honesty and bluntness that every poet ought to seek. I feel empowered to say what needs saying and to say it plainly, with images that cut to the chase. Like Thomas, Bob Dylan is somewhat a persona of his own making. His lyrics and the time frame in which he came to the public eye lead us to see him through the lens of substance abuse. His "everybody must get stoned" lyric (Rainy Day Women 12 and 35) perpetuates this. However, there is so much more substance to Dylan than that. I find his lyrics to be rather timeless (and isn't that what we want our poems to be?). They are a commentary on our nature, flawed yet sympathetic. I offer you here the lyrics to Man in the Long Black Coat. You'll see what I mean:
Crickets are chirpin' the water is high
There's a soft cotton dress on the line hangin' dry
Window wide open African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of goodbye not even a note
She gone with the man in the long black coat.
Somebody seen him hangin' around
As the old dance hall on the outskirts of town
He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance he had a face like a mask
Somebody said from the bible he'd quote
There was dust on the man in the long black coat.
Preacher was talking there's a sermon he gave
He said every man's conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must keep it satisfied
It ain't easy to swallow it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man in the long black coat.
There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way
But people don't live or die people just float
She went with the man in the long black coat.
There's smoke on the water it's been there since June
Tree trunks unprooted beneath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse
She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man in the long black coat.
I find especially poignant the first three lines of the penultimate stanza. I see these words as a distillation of the "Dylan attitude" as I call it. In this very simple lyric about a woman who's had enough, he gets to the meat of the human condition. When he says, Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force, he is honoring the forces of nature that exist in us all, whether we actuate the connections or not. When I listen to Dylan sing this in his scratchy voice, I get goosebumps. I can see clearly the harsh emotional and physical landscape and the dress on the line left behind without so much as a good-bye note. What was she leaving that she bolted like that? I can imagine and I can feel the leaving in my gut. This lyric definitely influenced my poem of 3 years ago, written in response to Girl in a Punt (Winslow Homer). I looked at the painting on display in the Farnsworth Art Museum here in Rockland and the words to this song began playing in my head. Don't you just love when that happens, when visual and auditory art forms get together to feed poetry? At any rate, I can trace the roots of that poem backwards from Homer's painting to Dylan's lyrics and voice. It is a gift. I am blessed by it. I cannot think of my world of poetry without both my Dylans.
Here is the poem I wrote fed by Homer and Dylan: