I thought I would like the poetry of Dylan Thomas more than I did. I found much of his work nonsensical, as if he’s playing around with the world’s first game of refrigerator magnet poetry. Many a Thomas verse consists of a shotgun smattering of simple words juxtaposed together in an unfortunately counterproductive way.
Thomas often brings up sex, but never directly– always obliquely. Thomas side-swipes sex. He doesn’t seize the theme of sexuality– he merely harrows it, worries it. Reading Dylan Thomas on sex is like attending a vivisection.
Besides sorta-maybe sexual references, Thomas also frequently references the sea, as well as Christian mythology. I would suppose both of these latter references have to do with the how and the where of the poet’s upbringing (though actually, not being a poet-centric reader of poetry, I haven’t bothered to look-up if he actually spent much time oceanside).
For an example of Thomas’s nonsense poetry, I could cite numerous lines, but I especially loathed these lines from How Soon The Servant Sun… “Sir Morrow at his sponge,/ (the wound records),/ the nurse of giants by the cut sea basin,/ (fog by his spring/ soaks up the sewing tide).” I’m sure there’s many a critic who could tell me that knowing something OUTSIDE the poem would cause the poem to become the epitome of clarity for me… However, when a poet causes his audience to have to go traipsing around outside its natural experience to understand his work, then he has failed — unless of course, the only audience he aims for– and how egotistical this would be!– is the one composed of scholars of his own life.
Or there’s this muddle from To-Day This Insect… “Before the fall from love the flying heartbone,/ winged like a sabbath ass this children’s piece/ uncredited blows Jericho and Eden.” Oh yes, all the Old Testament touchstones– you could make deep philosophy of this, indeed!… but YOU’d be making it, the reader… it’s not intrinsic. Instead of poetry, Dylan Thomas often offers us Play-Doh… let the reader take its goopy bright colors and make of it what he will. And when it comes to the cult of Dylan Thomas, such a finisher wouldn’t have plenty of willing company… Many a reader of the poetry of Dylan Thomas has taken this garish childish clay and fashioned themselves a hero.
I have a very strong suspicion that Thomas employed the rather cheap trick of word substitution in his poetry, meaning that… it is my conjecture that Thomas would write a line making conventional sense enough, then change a word or two, replacing them with whatever words struck his whimsy– likely something charged with religion or sexuality– and voila!– artifice turns art.
I will say that I think Thomas becomes a better poet over time.
One of his best poems is his last, ELEGY (one of several possible names for it). Sadly, the work was still unfinished at his death, and different drafts can be found depending on the editor/publisher, with no version being definitive.
I will be posting a short series of posts on the work of Dylan Thomas, but for this post I would like lastly to note that Thomas’s famous late-period poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is, stylistically speaking, his odd man out, and it is as different from his other works as Whitman’s Oh Captain, My Captain is from his other works. The romantic in me likes to think that both instances were cases of sheer inspiration so overpowering the poet that his typical style was simply swamped.
More posts from Hammering Shield on Dylan Thomas…