5 minutes reading time (1039 words)

WHAT KINDLE CAN'T DO

I was in Wigtown, Scotand’s National Book Town. And I have something to confess.

I went for the Writer’s Gathering – a great privilege and a perfectly splendid occasion. Lively, talented, spirited people, raring to go. Marvellous interaction. It could not have been more welcoming. But for an hour, I slipped away into the town.

There are as many as a dozen second hand bookshops there. As I wrote that sentence, a shiver went through me from my scalp to my toes.

I only had time for one – the biggest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, on the main street. It is called The Bookshop. It is divine.

As is my wont (though I love all books), I went straight to the poetry section. I ascended a white ladder to the high shelves and knelt beside the low shelves. I extracted a little bundle of desirable volumes. Then I sat in a deep comfy chair beside the stove and read.

Needless to say, I made purchases. The walls here are groaning with books, most of them filled with poetry and poets. My Significant Other, who would never read poetry by choice, tells me one day – not too far away – the ceilings will collapse.

Nevertheless, I bought several books, one of which was a hardback copy of the Daniel Jones edition of Dylan Thomas’s poems. I already have it in paperback. (I had it with me in paperback.) But I could not leave this book behind.

It was not expensive, probably because it is full of pencil scribblings. Some of the scribblings are not pencil. They are in red pen, or red crayon. Inside the front cover, there are eight yellow/orange newspaper cuttings about the bard, and a bookmaker’s note from the Mecca Bookmakers. But it doesn’t record a bet.

On the bookmaker’s note the owner of the book, David W F Brown, has copied a poem stolen by Dylan Thomas as a boy for his school magazine (plagiarism is not a modern art). Such an irony in the poem he stole! Its sentiments are true to much of DT’s later writing.

The plagiarised poem was by Thomas S Jones and DT found it in 1000 Poems of all Times and Countries: Children’s Encyclopaedia, ed Arthur Mee. I know this because David Brown has carefully copied the detail onto the bookmaker’s slip, as well as the whole poem. Thomas S Jones sounds like another Welshman but he was in fact American (‘Sometimes’ can be found in Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry in 1919). Here is the stolen poem:

Sometimes

Across the fields of yesterday
He sometimes comes to me
A little boy just back from play
The boy I used to be.

And yet he smiles so wistfully
Once he has crept within
I wonder if he hopes to see
The man I might have been.

In the blank front sheet of the book, Mr Brown has written It’s like eating caviare, only. Above the crossed-out ‘only’ he has substituted ‘alone’. Underneath that is another inscription in pencil, with crossings out and substitutions.

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Can you read the inscription clearly? Why did Nico stop being ‘dear’? What hastened the ‘disillusion’? Was David Brown himself a poet? I think he might have been. He was certainly an analytical, obsessive reader. He had a mark-up system with a capital E for Erotic, M for Metaphysical and R for ‘Regeneration theory’.

Like me, Brown began meticulously in his study but the pencil markings dry up as the poems get later (and mainly stronger). Above ‘The Neophyte, Baptized in Smiles’ he has written Drunk at the time. He has crossed through some poems as completely worthless. Above ‘High on a Hill’ he has written Tumescence and detumescence which, yes, sums it up.

Under ‘Being But Men’, he has written – a plea to the poet himself regarding his determination to subvert ordinary word order – Couldn’t you, just for once have changed it? But BEING MEN . . . .

But what got me – the reason I had to have the book – was the markup on ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. This is an early poem, you know. Most of the best of Dylan Thomas arrives later. It is dated April 1933. (The poet wasn’t even twenty when he wrote it.)

I have wrestled with ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ for as long as I can remember. Where other readers find reassurance (it is both apocalypse and resurrection), I find nightmare. But David Brown’s comment took me into a reading of two lines so absolutely compelling that I sat and stared. I was astonished. Turned (temporarily) to stone. Heads of the characters hammer through daisies? They certainly do.

This is what David Brown wrote, among other things (and perhaps I should mention he has scribbled A v. great poem under the title). His longest remark, in pencil at the end of the poem, is attached by an arrow to this couplet in the poem’s final stanza:

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain

Note (writes David Brown) This ‘may’ is not an imperative. One of most evocative couplets in Eng. Lang. I can’t speak it without tears. Such a sad impression of buffeted beauty bravely striving.

Of course I had to have this book. What is more – as I travelled back to Fife with it, carefully scrutinising the annotations, I was absolved of a terrible and secret sin. If you only knew the guilt I have accumulated for writing in books! I have been doing it since I was three. Some of the volumes I have scribbled in are rare and old. I love them but I have desecrated them. What would a librarian say?

But it’s a conversation. David Brown is the real reader. This is his response to the poems, which are, after all, a communication, and here is that response: alive in the very moment it was written. And now I am the reader of David Brown reading Dylan Thomas, and so are you. We are reading David Brown, who possessed Dylan Thomas: The Poems in more than one sense.

You don’t get this on Kindle.

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AGE, DEATH AND TULIPS
THE FLEAS THAT TEASE
 

Comments 4

Andy Allan on Sunday, 04 May 2014 10:38

Loved it. Thank you.

Loved it. Thank you.
Guest - Joan Byrne on Sunday, 04 May 2014 10:57

A poet writing about a poet's response to a poet to be read by other poets. Splendid. Thank you! Thanks, too, to David Brown.

A poet writing about a poet's response to a poet to be read by other poets. Splendid. Thank you! Thanks, too, to David Brown.
Guest - Davina on Sunday, 04 May 2014 12:49

Annotations fascinate me. I went to King Lear last night (a film of the live relay from the National Theatre shown on Thursday) clutching the Signet edition I used in 1967, re-reading my own annotations, wincing at several and surprised how legible my handwriting was back then. Any books with annotations - and old travel guides are particularly rich - engage me more than those with perfectly clean pages. But back to 'Sometimes'. Yes, it's in Vol.8 (p.5669) of The Children's Encyclopaedia: Arthur Mee interspersed the factual entries with groups of poems, six little clusters per volume, with his own comments on the poem beneath the title. For 'Sometimes' he wrote: Are we the men we might have been? That is a solemn question which all grown-ups may wisely ask. In these lines Thomas S. Jones, the American poet, asks it very daintily.

I won't part with my copy of this encyclopaedia: it's where I first read most of the poems I know by heart. I wish I'd annotated them then.

Annotations fascinate me. I went to King Lear last night (a film of the live relay from the National Theatre shown on Thursday) clutching the Signet edition I used in 1967, re-reading my own annotations, wincing at several and surprised how legible my handwriting was back then. Any books with annotations - and old travel guides are particularly rich - engage me more than those with perfectly clean pages. But back to 'Sometimes'. Yes, it's in Vol.8 (p.5669) of The Children's Encyclopaedia: Arthur Mee interspersed the factual entries with groups of poems, six little clusters per volume, with his own comments on the poem beneath the title. For 'Sometimes' he wrote: Are we the men we might have been? That is a solemn question which all grown-ups may wisely ask. In these lines Thomas S. Jones, the American poet, asks it very daintily. I won't part with my copy of this encyclopaedia: it's where I first read most of the poems I know by heart. I wish I'd annotated them then.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Sunday, 04 May 2014 14:08

Davina, thanks for that wonderful addition! I'm going to print it and add it to the various bits of paper inserted in this edition. I remember reading The Children's Encyclopaedia myself, though not encyclopaedically, as it were. And none of it has survived in this house... And to Joan and Andy, also thanks.

Davina, thanks for that wonderful addition! I'm going to print it and add it to the various bits of paper inserted in this edition. I remember reading The Children's Encyclopaedia myself, though not encyclopaedically, as it were. And none of it has survived in this house... And to Joan and Andy, also thanks. :)
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Monday, 26 August 2019