What have we learned from Dylan Thomas?

Dylan Thomas in Swansea at the age of 23
















When I started reading Dylan Thomas, the only real poetry I knew was Shakespeare's. I was a teenager who loved the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner and the Beatles, and my girl friend had just introduced me to the songs of Bob Dylan. I thought maybe a look at the Welsh poet's work would help me understand some of Dylan's more opaque images. So I found Thomas's Collected Poems at the public library and went straight to the beginning:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen love they fetch their girls,
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.

I had never seen language like his before. Thomas's elliptical statements made his lines sound contemporary, but his reliance on words with Germanic roots ("cargoed" the sole exception here) made his work ancient, bardic, elemental. I flipped through the book, searching for more lines with the same resonance--that feeling of inevitability-- and quickly found them:

The force that drives the green fuse through the flower . . .


If I were tickled by the rub of love . . .


The hand that signed the paper felled a city . . .

I couldn't know it then, but I had already encountered Thomas's poetic DNA in those first half-dozen lines: sex, the sea, the seasons, the abundance of life and the nearness of death. But aren't these the topics of most poets? Yes, but here they seemed more immediate, and their music was irresistible.

Like many young Americans of my generation, I didn't think poetry could speak to us anymore--certainly not with the force of fiction and cinema. Thomas showed me that it could, and I was driven by a curiosity to find out where his poetry sprang from. I read his prose, his plays, his letters and the many biographies and memoirs.

At the same time, his extraordinary recordings introduced me to the poets Thomas most admired: Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats and others. They were writers who used lively rhythms, but they had something moral unusual in common: they savored the finest nuances of the spoken word, and they reached for rhymes with all the inventiveness of a dreamer. So Thomas was more than an inspiration; he was an education.

When I began writing poetry myself, my work was too much like his. Eventually I found a voice of my own, but I never forgot the central lesson Thomas's poems had taught me: the ear and the subconscious can light the way to imagery that the conscious mind cannot conceive on its own. 

Looking at Thomas's work again this weekend, I'm as certain as ever that any anthology of English poetry a century from now will include some poems of his. I'd expect to see "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "Fern Hill." But, if they only have room for one, I hope it would be this: 

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
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

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.


This poem may not have the delicately orchestrated music of "Poem on his birthday" or the heart-shaking pathos of "A Refusal to Mourn," but I'm confident its quiet beauty will appeal so strongly to those future readers that it will lead them on to all the rest.


The shed in Laugharne where Thomas wrote some of his best-known poems


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