I finished Donald Hall’s chapter on Dylan Thomas this morning in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. I think I learned more from it about Thomas and my admiration for him than all the other books I have read about Thomas combined. Hall doesn’t neglect the outrageous stories about Thomas.
But at the end of the chapter he gets more profound. He critiques the idea of a public suicide and includes Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and others in his discussion.
He quotes Lewis Hyde about Berryman: “In the future it would be nice if it were a little harder for the poet to come to town drunk and have everyone think it’s great fun.” Hall goes on to say this phrase should “be engraved over the desks of lecture agents, program chairs and poets.”
Hall is slightly guilty about his complicit behavior in his stories of Thomas. He sees himself as young and does a bit forgiving there.
But more importantly for me is the clarity with which he parses Thomas’s aesthetic. He see Thomas as a poet of pure poetry and nothing else. Ultimately, this is not enough to make great art. Being word mad and brilliant is not enough.
Hall writes “But what is pure poetry pure of? It is pure thought and pure of feeling, pure of vision; it’s largest emotion is love for itself.”
Some years ago I undertook to read the entire works of poets I admire. Thomas was inevitably one of them. He was a large influence on me. He was on my mind when in my misery about leaving my first wife and son I learned to drink whisky.
But at this age, I realize that one of the things I got from Thomas was his love of good poetry. I had a record of him reading poetry which I loved in my teens.
He introduced to me to many poets whose poetry I still love: Gerard Manly Hopkins and Thomas Hardy, for example.
For some reason I think that Hardy quit writing his wonderful novels because of the critical reception of them by the literary world. Instead he turned to poetry. His was the first collection I ever began to read straight through. This morning I see that I left off on page 790. The bookmark at this page is from a book store called The Book Loft in German Village in Columbus Ohio. This means I was reading Hardy at that time of my life when I was living in Ohio, before I left Marcia and David. I never finished reading the entire works which go on for 200 more pages.
Hardy’s poetry is not about pure poetry. His poems are concrete and often practically anecdotal in their material. I see why Thomas like him. At my age now, I find the stories in the poetry as engaging as Hardy’s craft in image, rhythm and rhyme.
I think I’ll finish reading him.
I’ll leave you with Hall’s definition of art’s task: “… to pursue vision, to discover motions of spirit and of human consciousness, which it is art’s task to enlarge.” This makes sense to me.