Poets should only be allowed to publish as many poems as they can learn by heart.
Scoff, if you will. But sometimes I think it should be so.
When I travel, I take a poem with me to learn, one that’s already half under my skin. My memory is not the best, but I try. There are poems that follow you around – and what if all the books were gone, and all the Kindles curdled?
Perhaps this sort of thinking is a result of getting older. Old enough to wonder what I would remember in a hotel room on my own in Paris, or a hospital bed, or even in my head if my body didn’t work.
This time it was Dylan Thomas, who died the year I was born, when he wasn’t even forty. The excellent thing about learning him, retracing his lines over and over, is the way you get inside the world of the poem. You put it on like a garment:
.........In my craft or sullen art
.........Exercised in the still night
.........When only the moon rages
.........And the lovers lie abed
.........With all their griefs in their arms
.........I labour by singing light
.........Not for ambition or bread
.........Or the strut and trade of charms
.........But for the common wages
.........Of their most secret heart.
That’s only the first stanza. This poem was not my favourite in the past. I spent many moons marveling at ‘And Death shall have no dominion’ and ‘Fern Hill’ and even ‘Twenty-Four Years’. But now the crafty syntax of ‘In my craft’ has got me – the way the first line, even just the little preposition ‘in’, drives the momentum, pushes the energy of the syntax right through to the line six – ‘I labour by singing light’. Sit on a train or a plane or a bus and learn this. It is wonderful.
Dylan Thomas drives the swell of the sentence through the poem like a wave which gains further momentum from the lovely construction (repeated twice): ‘Not for . . . But for’. He paces it beautifully. The brief lines, each with an end rhyme, establish a careful, gradual tread. There’s plenty of time to think as you go, and that first stanza is curiously romantic – it makes you want to be labouring by singing light, immune to the trashy business of squabbles and prizes.
Most of Thomas’s poems sound wonderful, sometimes to their cost. But this one combines sound and sense perfectly, and simplicity too, though you ponder over it for hours – what he meant, what he didn’t mean, and in what sense the meaning feels true for you, me, all of us.
Then the second stanza ceases to be romantic and becomes troubling, and sadder by far:
.........Not for the proud man apart
.........From the raging moon I write
.........On these spindrift pages
.........Nor for the towering dead
.........With their nightingales and psalms
.........But for the lovers, their arms
.........Round the griefs of the ages,
.........Who pay no praise or wages
.........Nor heed my craft or art.
Why do the lovers have their arms “round the griefs of the ages”? Why are the stages “ivory”? Why does the moon ‘rage’? What is the difference between “craft” and “art”?
And how I love the way the common phrase runs: “pay no heed” and yet he resists that. He goes for “pay no praise . . . / Nor heed”. But this is like a painting by Chagall. It asserts its own world, within which everything is strangely fitting. The rhythm and rhyme make an incantation to feed your secret heart.
After you are done, the spindrift pages can go their way. The poem is inside you, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as ye both shall live.
And I do believe that Dylan Thomas, when he wrote this poem, was not writing for praise or wages. Hear his own voice here.