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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dylan Thomas' Poetic Manifesto

During my junior year of college, several of my classmates started a creative writing group. While I was delighted to join in the bi-weekly critical sessions (it felt like we were the next generation Inklings), I must confess that I thought the name of the chapbook we put out each semester was a little pretentious: The Irving Renaissance: Do Not Go Gentle. The inspiration for the name is Dylan Thomas' villanelle in which the speaker vehemently urges his father not to fade quietly away without putting up a good fight. Dylan Thomas was then, for obvious reasons, subconsciously very present to me, as I realized after having a vivid dream about wandering the misty, cold moors of Great Britain, being invited by the poet himself to come in out of the damp, and sitting before a warm fire in deep wing chairs while he smoked a pipe, I drank hot tea, and we talked for hours about writing and poetry. I was a little confused when I woke up, and thought, "Huh, Dylan Thomas, eh? Never really gave him much thought before..." I'm a firm believer in the importance of dreams, so I dutifully went to the bookstore and bought his biography and some of his poetry. I am sorry to say I ended up being disgusted by his personal life, and deeming him entirely mediocre, not at all measuring up to his dream-self.


All of that being said, I still love some of what he says. The following is excerpted from his responses to five questions that a student asked him while he was on tour in the United States. It was recorded and published posthumously under the name Poetic Manifesto. While this is not complete, it not only gives great insight to what Dylan Thomas thought of poetry, but is representative of the thoughts of many poets and scholars. Many, but not all, as I'm sure there are some who disagree with the almost reckless passion with which he throws away the meanings of words for the sake of their sounds. Beyond this introduction, I'll let you all form your own opinions of what he has to say. I've italicized my favorite parts, if you just want to read the quick version. Enjoy!

You want to know why and how I first began to write poetry, and which poets or kind of poetry I was first moved and influenced by. 

To answer the first part of this question, I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words...What the words stood for, symbolised, or meant, was of very secondary importance; what mattered was the sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And these words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milkcarts, the clopping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone, deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing. I did not care what the words said, overmuch, nor what happened to Jack & Jill & the Mother Goose rest of them; I cared for the shapes of sound that their names, and the words describing their actions, made in my ears; I cared for the colours the words cast on my eyes...I fell in love – that is the only expression I can think of – at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy... There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth; and though what the words meant was, in its own way, often deliciously funny enough, so much funnier seemed to me, at that almost forgotten time, the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jigged and galloped along... And as I read more and more, and it was not all verse, by any means, my love for the real life of words increased until I knew that I must live with them and in them, always. I knew, in fact, that I must be a writer of words and nothing else... I knew I had to know them most intimately in all their forms and moods, their ups and downs, their chops and changes, their needs and demands. (Here, I am afraid, I am beginning to talk too vaguely. I do not like writing about words, because then I often use bad and wrong and stale and wooly words. What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly realized truth I must try to reach and realize.) It was when I was very young...I wrote endless imitations, though I never thought them to be imitations but, rather, wonderfully original things, like eggs laid by tigers. They were imitations of anything I happened to be reading at the time...

The writers, then, who influenced my earliest poems and stories were, quite simply, and truthfully, all the writers I was reading at the time...They ranged from writers of school-boy adventure yarns to incomparable and inimitable masters like Blake. That is, when I began, bad writing had as much influence on my stuff as good. The bad influences I tried to remove and renounce bit by bit, shadow by shadow, echo by echo, through trial and error, thought delight and disgust and misgiving, as I came to love word more and to hate the heavy hands that knocked them about, the thick tongues that had not feel for their multitudinous tastes, the dull and botching hacks who flattened them out into a colourless and insipid paste, the pedants who made them moribund and pompous as themselves. Let me say that the things that first made me love language and want to work in it and for it were nursery rhymes and folk tales, the Scottish Ballads, a few lines of hymns, the most famous Bible stories and the rhythms of the Bible, Blake's Songs of Innocence, and the quite incomprehensible magical majesty and nonsense of Shakespeare heard, read, and near-murdered in the first forms of my school....

To your third question – Do I deliberately utilise devices of rhyme, rhythm, and word-formation in my writing – I must, of course, answer with an immediate, Yes. I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved and devious craftsman in all words, however unsuccessful the result so often appears, and to whatever wrong uses I may apply my technical paraphernalia, I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paranomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twistings and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.

Your next question asks whether my use of combinations of words to create something new, 'in the Surrealist way', is according to a set formula or is spontaneous.... [ I profoundly disagree with the Credo of the Surrealists ]. I do not mind from where the images of a poem are dragged up: drag them up, if you like, from the nethermost sea of the hidden self; but before they reach paper, they must go through all the rational processes of the intellect. The Surrealists, on the other hand, put their words down together on paper exactly as they emerge from chaos; they do not shape these words or put them in order; to them, chaos is the shape and order. This seems to me to be exceedingly presumptuous; the Surrealists imagine that whatever the dredge from their subconscious selves and put down in paint or in words must, essentially, be of some interest or value. I deny this. One of the arts of the poet is to make comprehensible and articulate what might emerge from subconscious sources; one of the great main uses of the intellect is to select from the amorphous mass of subconscious images, those that will best further his imaginative purpose, which is to write the best poem he can.

And question five is, God help us, what is my definition of poetry?

I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like. This means, of course, that I have to read a lot of poems I don't like before I find the ones I do, but, when I do find the one I do, then all I can say is “Here they are”, and read them to myself for pleasure. Read the poems you like reading. Don't bother whether they're important or if they'll live. What does it matter what poetry is, after all? If you want a definition of poetry, say: “Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing”, and let it go at that...

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, “Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.”... You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in. 
 
The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.


1 comment:

  1. Nice reading from Dylan Thomas, who seems to say "Go gentle into that good poem."

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