I have found that “best of” collections frequently really do include, among all the other lesser works chosen to fill out the volume or album, the few enduring works that the artist has achieved (if he was fortunate enough to have achieved any at all). Mind you, that still leaves plenty of so-called “best of” collections lacking some of the truly most outstanding works of the artist, but of course all this is subjective, and even from my one subjective viewpoint, I have re-evaluated works so that now I prefer this work to that one, when before it was the other-way-round.
What I’m getting at is this… Whenever I approach a “best of” anthology, I go in skeptically, not completely trusting that I am really experiencing the greatest work of the artist. For me this translates into a worry that I am not giving the artist his best shot to impress me. It pains me to think that, after all the years of toil and, often-times, life-spans of hardship and sacrifice for his art, that I would dismiss an artist’s output unjustly. Honestly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve went back to re-visit the work of an artist because the name keeps coming up with such respect or adoration that I think that perhaps I missed something last I looked, perhaps I skipped the wrong page, or the wrong song, or the wrong gallery showing.
That’s why it always comes as a relief to me when experiencing a sampling of an artist’s work when I find that the artist, himself, has chosen or approved of these very works in the collection. If I still find his art not to my tastes, then at least I have the comfort of knowing that I examined the very work that the artist, himself, held-up to be judged by.
At the beginning of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, the poet tells us himself that “this book contains most of the poems I have written, and all, up to the present year, that I wish to preserve.” For a (perhaps surprisingly to some) sympathetic reader such as myself, that’s a relief to know.
Thomas goes in to say, in the same introductory “Note,” that this does not mean that he thinks the poems are perfect, or even that he is happy with them… “If I went on revising everything that I now do not like in this book, I should be so busy that I would have no time try to write new poems.”
I also like that Thomas tells us at the end of his Note– in a humorous yet (I take it) serious manner– WHY he writes. Dylan Thomas claims he has written his poetry, “for the love of Man and in praise of God” (of course, this is too sentimental for comfort and he has to undercut himself with the jokey addition, “and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t”).
When Dylan, speaking pleasantly modestly in his introduction, chooses three descriptors to criticize his final output, he describes his work as being full of “crudities, doubts, and confusions.” For whatever reason, in at least this reading of his work, I was not struck so much by the “doubts” as I was by the “crudities” and “confusions,” of which Dylan’s work is, indeed, replete.
Speaking further upon his own writing, in the poem called In My Craft Of Sullen Art, Thomas writes of staying up late into the night writing his verse– not for money or glory– but to touch the hearts of his fellow men. And I, largely, believe him. Though I’ve quoted this same poem in another post for another reason (it’s bizarre rhyme-scheme), I quickly re-quote from it here…
“In my craft or sullen art
exercised in the still night
when only the moon rages
and the loves lie abed
with all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
not for ambition or bread
or the strut and trade of charms
on the ivory stages
but for the common wages
of their most secret heart”
I enjoy reading passages wherein writers talk about their own struggles with the language and the problem of adequately expressing themselves. Thomas, in (I believe) the poem given the title, Especially When The October Wind, writes that he “learnt man’s tongue, to twist the shapes of thoughts” and to “knot anew the patch of words left by the dead.” I find this one of the shortest, best summations of the writer’s struggle I’ve ever come across. These words that we are given to express ourselves… they are found things, imperfect, left behind by the dead. Most professions, the tools are especially crafted to do the job at hand, but not so for the– and this is partly why writing is a sublimely miserable profession.
More posts from Hammering Shield on Dylan Thomas…