“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it however tragic it may be all that matters is the eternal movement behind it – the great undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation and ignorance – however unlofty the intention of the poem…” – Dylan Thomas
For well over a decade now I have been pushing Dylan Thomas’, “A Few Words of a Kind,¹” onto nearly every poet I meet and have even the faintest discussion about poetry with. I’ve never found a transcribed copy of this piece and so, sometime in the past 10 years, I dedicated myself to a transcription. I never posted it because there was much I felt I had wrong; Dylan’s accent got in the way often… Today I was consulting with Twitter user, “DylanThomasNews,” and feel I have, finally, had the opportunity to lay my confusions to rest.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 7th, 1952, Dylan Thomas discusses his poetry and his feelings towards poets and poetry as a whole. It is truly a monumental and, sadly, not well known staple in poetic discussion.
“A Few Words of a Kind.”
I am going to read aloud from -(cough)- the works of some modern British poets and also read a few poems of my own.
My own ones include some early ones, some fairly hurly-burly ones, very recent ones, recent decent ones, lamenting ones, lamentable ones. Together with a few comments whenever they may or may not be necessary.
I wondered what kind of words I should put down to introduce these laboriously churning poems of mine? Indeed I thought they want from me no introduction at all; let them stand on their own feet the little lyrical cripples.
But I felt true that there must be a few words of a kind before or between the rantings of the poem. A whole hour of loud and unrelieved verse speaking is, I imagine, hell to anyone except some brash antiseptic 42 toothed smilingly ardent young hunters of culture with net, notebook, poison bottle, pen and label.
Or to the dowager hunters of small seedy lions stalking the metropolitan bush with legs and rifles cocked. Or to the infernal androgynous literary ladies with three names who produce a kind of verbal ectoplasm to order as the waiter dishes up spaghetti.
But to an ordinary audience, not that there is any such thing but only like yourselves, bunches of eccentrics, there must be a hush between poems. And how was I going to fill that hush with harmless words, until the next poem came woodenly booming along like a carved bee?
I couldn’t, I knew, say much of anything about what the poems might mean, in a few cases of course I didn’t anyway know myself. Though that is true I hope only of certain of my earliest published poems; explosive blood bursts of a boily boy in love with the shape and sound of words, death, unknown love and the shadows on his pillow.
And for the rest of the poems they are what they mean however obscure, unsuccessful, sentimental, pretentious, ludicrous, rhetorical, wretched, ecstatic, plain bad.
Or could I shove in autobiographical snippets saying where I lived and how when I wrote this or that, indicating how I felt in heart and head at that particular time?
I could for instance talk about my education, which critics say I have not got. And that is true enough but I do wish I had learned some other languages apart from English, BBC third program, and saloon. Then perhaps I could understand what some people mean when they say I have been influenced by Rimbaud. My education was the liberty I had to read whatever I cared to, I read indiscriminately and all the time with my eyes hanging out. I never could have dreamt there were such goings on, such duels and argy-bargies, such ice blast of words, such love and sense and terror and humbug such and so many blinding bright lights breaking across the just awaking wits – and splashing all over the pages as they can never quite do again after the first revelation. In a million bits and pieces, all of which were words, words, words. And each of which seemed alive forever in its own delight and glory and right.
It was then in my fathers brown study before homework, usually the first botched scribbling of gauche and gawky heart choked poems about black bloomered nymphs, the jussive grave, and the tall improbable love of the sardine packed sky – poems never to be shown to anyone except on pain of death. But I began to know one kind of writing from another – one kind of badness and one kind of goodness. I wrote endless imitations. though I never at the time of writing them thought them to be imitations but rather colossally original things unheard of like eggs laid by tigers. Imitations of whatever I happened to be galloping then; Thomas Brown, Robert Douglas Service, Stevenson, De Quincy, Eskimo Nell, Newbolt, Blake, Marlowe, the imagists, the boys own paper, Keats, Poe, Burns, Dostoevsky, Anon and Shakespeare. I tried my little trotters at every poetical form – how could I know the tricks of this trade unless I tried to do them myself, for the poets wouldn’t soar from the grave and show me how their poems were done by mirrors. And I couldn’t trust the critics then… Or now.
I learned that the bad tricks come easy, and the good tricks which help you to say what you think you wish to say in the most meaningful moving way, naturally I’m still learning. Though in earnest company I must call these tricks by other technical names.
Nothing in those days was to much for me to try… If Paradise Lost had not already been written I would have had a shot at it.
My early days dear god, I never thought that one day – I might be here, or anywhere filling up time before, I’m afraid, a drone of poems by talking about my early days just as though I were a man of letters. I use to think that once a writer became a man of letters if only for ten minutes he was done for, but I feel all right. I suppose I am suffering from one of the first pleasant injections of insidious corruption. My early days seem to me to suggest that I am responsible and established, that all of the old doubts and worries are over, now I need bother my head about nothing except birth, death, sex, money, politics and religion.
That jowled and wigged, aloof and brandied as a bloodhound and sober as a judge in my bit of vermin – I can summon my juvenile literary delinquents before me and give it a long periodic sentence.
For me to think of prefacing my poems by talking about my early days is to invite myself to indulge myself in a hundred tongue picked chopped and chiseled evocative shock phrases, in a flamboyant rememberation of past, and almost entirely fictitious, peccadilloes of interest to no body but me and my guardian angel, who was I believe an unsuccessful psychoanalyst in his life and who is lolloping about me now case book in claw, a little seedy and down in winged heal in the guttural consulting rooms of space.
I am the kind of human dredger that digs up the wordy mud of his own dead sea; the kind of pig who roots for unconsidered truffles in the reeky wood of his past. Still I gladly accept the fact that I first saw the light and screamed at it in a loud lump of Wales. “I’m only human” as the man says who deep inside him refuses to believe it. And of course my writing would not be what it is – always experimental and always completely unsatisfactory if it had not been for the immortal fry of the town in which I simmered up.
Naturally my early poems and stories two sides of an unresolved argument came out of a person who came willy-nilly out of one particular atmosphere and environment; and a part and parcel, park and castle, lark and seashell, dark and school bell, muck and entrails, cock rock and bubble, accent and sea lap, root and rhythm of them – and that so far as I am concerned is all there is to it. If I had born and brought up in an igloo and lived on Whales and not in it, about the same would be true, except that then it would have been extremely unlikely had I become a writer – and, “goody,” cry my justified detractors.
Or I can preface this small reading, by talking about poets – I think they are pretty dull. It is a common failing to underestimate the sheer ordinariness of the lives and characters of many dead poets and to overestimate that of living poets who one might come across. Indeed it is not unusual for people after they have met a, more or less, living poet to wonder with hardly concealed amazement how he could ever have produced the work he has. I accept certain oldish poets alive today who are made solemn and unapproachable not so much by their poetry or their strict religious observance, as by their judicial position on the boards of eminent publishers – who may even then at one’s time of meeting be considering one’s own first experimental novel of innocence lost and wisdom catastrophically gained by the age of 19.
The same kind of amazement, the idol destroyed, how could such a man have written such marvelous devotional poetry? I saw him fall down stairs yesterday in his suspenders. It might well have occurred to us had we met the poets now dead. I think it was Logan Pearsall Smith who remembered how, as a small boy, he saw, of all people, Mathew Arnold in a restaurant and Mathew Arnold talked and laughed much to loud.
I could talk about poets but I do wish I was reading only the work of other modern poets now and not my own at all. That is I wish I were reading the work of modern poets I like for I like to read only the poets 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 ones I do all I can say is here they are and read them aloud to myself or to anyone, like yourselves, voluntarily cornered. And when I read aloud the poems of modern poets I like very much I try make them alive from inside – I try to get across what I feel however wrongly to be the original impetus of the poem. I am a practicing interpreter, however much of a flannel tongued one-night stander.
But in my own poems I’ve had my say and when I read them aloud I can only repeat it. When I read, for instance, my earliest poems aloud my interpretation of them – though that is far to weighty of a word just for reading them aloud – can’t be considered as the final or original interpretation of performance of bleh. I do not remember now the first impulse that pumped and drove those lines along and that which is in them is for you more than for me or for anyone or of course for no one, to make what you or he will of them. In these poems I have had my say, now I am only saying it again.
But what does it matter?
Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it – the great undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation and ignorance – however unlofty the intention of the poem.
Now I am going to read some poems straight, without hindrance for this isn’t a lecture at all this isn’t about trends or impacts of the influence on someone or someone else – it is not trying to prove anything by quotation – to groove one hypothetical school of poetry oilily into another, to jigsaw all the pieces which are poems into one improbable picture and say, “here it is, this is modern poetry,” I am no grey and tepid don smelling of water biscuits.
Only posterity can see the picture of the poetry of today as a whole, and the function of posterity is to look after itself. 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 rhythms, “yes this is it this is why it moves me so it is because of it’s craftsmanship,” but you are back again where you began; 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.
Everything Yeats said though he was talking about the highest moments of the most exalted art, “everything happens in a blaze of light.”
Only the printed page or the interior monologue of a private discussion, can give to each separate poem the full concentrated time that the poem is justified in asking for the assessment of its success or failure to demonstrate its own hypothesis.
In public all I think that can be presented is the poem itself – and all that can be experienced in public is the realization of immediacy, or lack of immediacy, though which the hypothesis, the central motive of the poem, affects the reader through his ear. The printed page is the place in which to examine the works of a poem, and the platform the place on which to give the poem the work.
You won’t ask me any questions afterwards will you? I don’t mind answering a bit, only I can’t. Even for such simple question as “what is the relationship a poet to society in the hydrogenous age?”
I can only cough and stammer.
And some of the questions I remember from the nightmare past –
“tell me, are the young English intellectuals really psychological?”
“Is it absolutely essential, do you think, to be homosexual to write love poems to women?”
“I always carry Kierkegaard in my pocket, what do you carry?”
¹ If you are a member at Spotify then you can listen to the full, the entire, recording here. But I do recommend purchasing the, some, 50+ hours of his recordings from Caedmon Records, all of it is brilliance.