Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas
With introduction by Paul Muldoon
(New Directions, New York, 2010)
Two or three years ago, I attended the Winnipeg New Music Festival. One of that festival’s draws was a group called Scrap Arts Music. The house was packed. Four males and a female brought what appeared to be stainless steel kettle drums and other assorted home-made percussion devices onto the stage to the accompaniment of flashing laser lighting. They proceeded to create a barrage of sound. Once in a while, they would go off stage to whirl a new instrument on. The music was loud. The lights were bright. The audience was mesmerized never once realizing that what they were witnessing was your average taiko group souped up with glitz and glitter and very little substance.
Dylan Thomas is like that. He just may be the most overrated poet in poetic history. Sound, not substance, was his forte. And the popular poetic audience ate it up never once concerned with what he was supposedly saying, just that he said it in his Gaelic barrage of alliteration and rhyme. As Wikipedia says: “His public readings, particularly in America, won him great acclaim; his sonorous voice with a subtle Welsh lilt became almost as famous as his works.”
This is not to say that everything he wrote fell into this category. Some of it was, in fact, quite excellent such as his famous villanelle, ‘Do not go Gentle into that Good Night’ which has become the standard against which every other English villanelle is measured. But there is a great deal of chaff (another word for ‘crap’) mixed in with the wheat.
Born, in 1914, into a fairly well-off family in the Uplands area of Swansea, South Wales, it was as if he was born to be a writer. His father was an English master who taught English literature at the local grammar school. Although his father gave Welsh lessons in the home to other children and although both parents were bilingual, they never encouraged Dylan and his sister, Nancy, to learn it speaking only English to them. Leaving school at 16, he became a journalist with the South Wales Daily Post from which position he was quickly ushered out. He became a freelance journalist for awhile. Shortly after leaving Wales for London, he published, on December 18, 1934, his first volume of poems 18 Poems. It was during this time that he became an alcoholic which would lead to his death in New York on December 9, 1953, not yet forty years of age. Shortly before his death, he wrote perhaps what he is best remembered for - his play, Under Milkwood.
Thomas’s ‘Prologue’, which opens the poems, is a prime example of his overt overextension of sound:
O my ruffled ring dove
In the hooting, nearly dark
With Welsh and reverent stock,
Coo rooing the woods’ praise,
Who moons her blue notes from her nest(xxiii)
This may have been the darling of the New Critics who would have been fascinated by all the double-‘O’ sounds mixed in with the single ‘O’s but hindsight prevents us from revelling in this morass of cacophony.
But it is not just the sound. The images are also over-the-top. Take the second stanza of the first poem ‘I see the Boys of Summer’:
These boys of light are curdlers in their folly,
Sour the boiling honey;
The jacks of frost they finger in the hives;
There in the sun the frigid threads
Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves;
The signal moon is zero in their voids.(1)
‘jacks of frost’ is about as corny a line as one can get. I suppose we should be fascinated by the near rhymes of ‘hives’ and ‘nerves’ or ‘threads’ and ‘voids’ but, really, are we? Syntax groans under the torture of Thomas’s twisting. And, again, with those ‘O’ sounds. If you have to strive so hard to create an iambic pentameter, as Thomas did in that penultimate line “Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves”, then why bother? Clearly what is called for is a little restraint – something which Thomas lacks. Compare this with Frost, Thomas’s contemporary who also trades in sound, and you’ll hear what I mean. Frost is controlled, subtle. He recognizes that sound should not overpower sense; and, although he also engages in the twisting of syntax, it is generally for the sake of sense, not sound. Again, I don’t wish to leave the impression that Thomas is all bad. In fact, in the very same poem, he is capable of creating lines like “We are the dark deniers, let us summon / Death from a summer woman”(2). This is an incredibly evocative line; the play between ‘summon’ and ‘summer woman’, the way it splits the sound of one word between two in the following line, is poetic genius. But then, in that same stanza, he internally half-rhymes the words ‘worm’ and ‘womb’ - “The bright-eyed worm on Davy’s lamp, / And from that planted womb the man of straw” - which again demonstrates a lack of restraint, again that sound has assumed prominence.
Perhaps the argument can be made that I’ve not given Thomas sufficient credit. Indeed, I’ve only considered the first two poems of this volume. However, if we consider for the sake of argument that the second is an early effort (although we are not provided with dates), this is not the case with the first, written by Thomas to accompany his Collected, which is the worst of the two. Yes, you will find works of genius within these pages. But the best that can be said for Thomas was that he was a mediocre poet who blinded many with his terpsichorean turn of phrase forgetting that, once the glitz and glitter has dissipated, something more than sound must be left upon the page.
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.