Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Two Dylans

I keep pictures of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas on the bookcase in my office (along with a collection of antique inkwells and some other interesting little items). I keep the Dylans at hand to remind me about what it is that makes me keep writing. For me, these two Dylans represent what is good in poetry: image and music, heart and gut. I began my relationship with these two brilliant writers when I was in high school, reciting Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and listening to A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. Even now, when I get into a tough spot with my writing, I can put Bob Dylan on the iPod or computer (Nowadays I listen to Rainy Day Women or The Man in the Long Black Coat) and haul out my collection of Dylan Thomas and get back on course. I offer you here the poem I wrote about these two influences on my poetry:

My Dylans
       after Bob and Thomas
I’ve been ten thousand miles too,
hell and back in your hard rain,
been screaming into the good night 
a few times and wrote it down like you
just to keep from throwing it all away.
My hands were blazing, my face to the hard 
light of my own rainy days, smoking 
late but freed still from an obscure childhood.
Been wounded, been down the road
a few times and wrote it down. I needed to
look at your tweed face, your hair 
billowed like some fuckin’ angel. Look at me
here with a hard rain fallin’ on me, few
colors shining, ten thousand silver moments ringing. 
You knew the grave before it opened to you.
Times change, time stays toxic. Too full 
of blood to taste the way out, too much dust
to see where I’m going. Formed of sand, I too
will trickle away, one grain at a time, and change 
is the curse that’s been cast; first let me be last. 

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:

There is some strange power
that brought her to the reedy shallows,
girl in a punt, slipping her left hand
into the cold water to release
her wedding ring, to watch it sink slowly

where a fish circles, gold
eye catching sight of the prize settling,
wavering as the girl herself, 
hand hesitant above. Retrieve or row?

I am so very thankful
for all his tender mercies. She feels the flutter
of the ribbon under her chin, breathes
in her former life, exhales it slowly.

Homer might well have painted her husband
tomorrow, slitting the belly of his fish,
finding her decision there in the entrails,
a divining in what he scoops into the barrel.

And she, sailed out with the tide, casts
her new life upon it.
There is some strange power
that lets us leave sometime.

after Girl in a Punt, Winslow Homer


  1. Ahhhhhhh... I especially resonated with "There is some strange power"

    Thank you.

  2. The gestalt of your poetry is wonderful.