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[This is another review essay that never made it into Canadian Literature. I delivered a version of part of this text as a paper to the Dylan Thomas Society of Vancouver in October 2003, I think.]
A Windy Boy and a Bit: Dylan Thomas at Full Volume
When I was fifteen — in tenth grade in Truro, Nova Scotia — poetry started to matter to me. What held me was the built-in abstraction of any poem, what I took to be its inherent difficulty — something that appealed to my pretenses of alienated sophistication, one of the worst of teenage vanities. Small town adolescence creates a dire need to believe in your own young genius. You end up driven by palpable faith in your unheralded yet overwhelming significance, and you’re pushed by cosmic injustice to be, for a flash, “famous among the barns,” singing tragically in your local chains.
Late in that school year I horned in on a song by Pete Townshend, longstanding bard of teenage wastelands, a song I thought nailed my predicament dead-on (from Rough Mix, a record he made with Ronnie Lanein 1977): “I want to be misunderstood, / Want to be feared in my neighbourhood. / I want to be a moody man, / Say things that nobody can understand.” Well, maybe I didn’t want to be feared, but at least found out, remarked for my cryptic and appallingly contrived bitterness. The poetry I liked — and I was very particular about it from the get-go, although I’d barely read enough of anything — resonated with what I thought I absolutely knew, the crux of my goofy, half-baked intellectual machismo. I craved poems with a kind of latter-day masculine bravura, perhaps to offset what I wrongly assumed were the frailties of artistic work, and I wanted hard and strident voices to make their way into my breaking, pubescent croak.
So, there were three writers to whom I gravitated immediately. Robert Frost’s formal elegies, his temporary stays against confusion, bespoke an untenable paternity setting its teeth against its own inevitable collapse: it was heavily Oedipal, and I heard in Frost’s arch lines a way to wrestle with the laws laid down by all the fathers, my own or anyone’s. (For Christmas that year, my mom and dad gave me A Tribute to the Source, a Frost selected with misty New England photographs by Dewitt Jones; I couldn’t ever get past “Buried Child,” and still can’t.) The second of my triumvirate was John Newlove. I had found his selected poems, The Fat Man, in the high school library, and their chiseled ironic edges cut at the world the way I thought I wished I could, grimacing through the hellish existential manhood of his Samuel Hearne. (I had also asked for a copy of Newlove for Christmas, but the cashier at the bookstore sold my mother Irving Layton as a substitute, telling her it was “the same sort of thing.” Not exactly. Although Layton’s “Cain” — a poem of restrained father-son violence — is still one of my favourites, for some reason.) And then there was Dylan Thomas.
I bought a used copy of Thomas’s Dent Collected Poems from the “Nu to Yu” shop. I’d also saved some money from my summer job as a boxboy at the IGA, and bought Quite Early One Morning — a scrapbook of reminiscence, poetry and radio scripts — and, probably the first book I can say I really valued as a book, as an object: a sandy-colouredNew Directions hardback of the 1930s Notebooks, edited by Ralph Maud. This rough and unready Dylan had a sprawling immediacy that seemed especially ripe in my own meager time and place. He had remained suspended on the page young enough to be relocated to small town Nova Scotia, I think, because of the way those obscure and elitist performances, an adolescent brashness finding and wagging its tongue, tended and still tend to lift themselves out of history, out of context — even, or especially, as the material aspect of those unfinished holographs in scribblers, tends to reassert those very limits. These books unknotted and then retied their lacings, and became Truro poems, teenage poems: mine.
For me, as for many readers, Thomas’s recorded voice offered a form of verbal religiosity, of spirit possession; the man himself long dead, his speech could nonetheless carry forward from the spiral scratch of a phonograph track to animate and stir our tenuous present. I found a Caedmon double-album of Thomas readings in the Truro public library, and kept renewing it. (I had recently progressed from the Junior to the Adult card, a major shift in borrowing possibilities.) From this compilation, however, I found I leaned toward the later poems of ecstatic resignation, flush with fractured verbiage and hobbled by overripe nostalgia; the spittle-cloyed choruses of “Lament,” the hawk- and curlew-heavy upheaval of “Over Sir John’s Hill,” and the chiming, verdant bluster of “Fern Hill.” Harper Audio has issued Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection, an 11-CD set gathering all of Thomas’s spoken-word recordings released by Caedmon. Thomas’s records, as many will know, were both the foundation and the mainstay of Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney’s Caedmon label, which went on to release some of the most significant recordings of poetry and prose in the mid-twentieth century. Thomas also recorded a number of poems included in this set both live and in the studio for the CBC at Vancouver in “late May 1952,” as the notes to the collection point out, when he was on the second and last of his two reading tours of the West Coast. (This date, however, remains problematic; according to some sources, Thomas read and recorded — in conversation with Earle Birney — on 6 April 1950; his second appearance in Vancouver was on 8 April 1952, and he was not likely here in May of that year. Surviving letters and postcards place him and Caitlin on a ship at sea that month.) The transplanting that I managed to effect as a teenager, carrying Thomas across time and the Atlantic into my own embrace, retooling “Wales in my arms” for Canadian reception, was already ghosted into the recordings themselves; his voice had already arrived here, only to take flight again into the false eternal present of the stereo lp.
The Caedmon Collection reproduces in CD-sized miniature the covers of Thomas’s albums. As anyone who collects records knows, their particular material presence, their 12-inch square glossy cardboard, matters a lot, and the Caedmon compilation gestures at this nostalgia, in a conveniently reduced format; you can hold all the transcriptions of Thomas’s voice, his digitized remains, in your hand. This wan materiality emerges in Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Bookcase,” from Electric Light. In his lyric, Heaney eyes the coloured spines of his books, and remembers not merely voices but encounters, intersections, coursings; the thickness of paper and binding melds with the poems themselves, their verbal textures:
Bluey-white of the Chatto Selected
Elizabeth Bishop. Murex of Macmillan’s
Collected Yeats. And their Collected Hardy.
Yeats of “Memory.” Hardy of “The Voice.”
Voices too of Frost and Wallace Stevens
Off a Caedmon double album, off
Dylan at full volume, the Bushmills killed.
“Do Not Go Gentle.” “Don’t be going yet.”
Unlike the Heaney of this reminiscence, or Thomas, I was never much of a drinker — in fact, when I was wearing a groove into “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” I remember being more often than not strangely prudish; poetry seemed to fill the same selfish gaps as Heaney’s Irish whiskey might, that indulgent loneliness every boy wants to pickle in — but I know exactly what he’s writing about here: the poem that wants not to fade away, to keep going, even as it manages to sustain nothing but, nothing much more than, its own bald longing.
In “Dylan the Durable?” — the interrogative title is significant, and suggests much of the unresolved duplicity of “The Bookcase,” where the invitation to stay that remains largely unanswered — a 1991 lecture reprinted in part in his Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, Heaney reads in Thomas’s villanelle a formal reflex “turning upon itself, advancing and retiring to and from a resolution”:
The villanelle, in fact, both participates in the flux of natural existence and scans and abstracts existence in order to register its pattern. It is a living cross-section, a simultaneously open and closed form, one in which the cycles of youth and age, of rise and fall, growth and decay find their analogues in the fixed cycle of rhymes and repetitions.
While Heaney seems keen to fall into step with mid-century mythopoeic interpretations of Thomas — the Biblical archetypes, books of nature and Blakean contraries that saturated the first flush Thomas criticism — he nonetheless finds the vital instability at the core of this thoroughly formalized not-yet-an-elegy. But where Heaney abstracts and generalizes this uncertainty into a thematic of “youth and age,” the poem is actually more specifically gendered: it is about fathers and sons, a refusal to relinquish the bond to his father, even as it takes up the poetic work of fathering, of parthenogenesis: the poem itself, rather than merely producing formal analogues, rages against a deathly, stultifying parental stricture even as it affirms, in that contradiction, a fierce and fatherly imperative. And it performs that rage, most famously, in the contradicted doublet of its penultimate verbs: “Curse, bless, me now.” The child, as Wordsworth says, is now father to the man; Jacob and Isaac exchange places, and then trade again, in the urgent pleading of Thomas’s blasted prayer. This demand, as simultaneous question and plea that refuse not to be put, seems to me best grasped as adolescence. It cannot accept its dutiful forms, and chooses defiance of the paternal in order to affirm its surging and unruly life-force that drives its green age, even as it wants only to inhabit those forms for itself, and discovers itself blasted and made dumb by childishness. It wants, like all adolescents, to be both adult and child at once. If we scan Heaney’s selected essays, we discover too what is obviously a need for poetic maturity and respect — he tends to write only about the poetry of Nobel laureates, Harvard lecturers and old friends, to position himself within a kind of transnational academy — coupled with a pervasive nationalist pastoralism, all those Irish vowel-meadows where he ran and the peat-bogs where he dug in his youth. I don’t mean to deride Heaney, but instead to point to the necessary and vital adolescence of what he does. And to use such a claim to look back, and forward, at my own willfully unresolved reading practices.
Heaney mentions no Canadian (and very few commonwealth) writers, and we could hardly expect him to. Or maybe we could. But he does provide a hinge into a more localized nationalism, one that inheres not in artificially stabilized cultural thematics, a Canadian-this or Canadian-that, but in its own ardent instabilities, an adolescent discomfort that is not to be overcome but embraced. This sweetly duplicitous craving permeates Albertan (now Mexican-resident) Murray Kimber’s illustrationsfor Fern Hill (from Red Deer College Press), the middle volume — from 1997 — in what now appears to be a trilogy of work commencing with his brilliant 1994 collaboration with Jim McGuigan, Josepha: a prairie boy’s story, for which Kimber won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration , and concluding with The Wolf of Gubbio, a retelling of a legend of St. Francis of Assisi by Michael Bedard, published in 2000. But where both of these texts are narrative, and lend themselves to a kind of captioning, as events from story are depicted by brush, Thomas’s “Fern Hill” has, at most, only shards of plot, and coheres musically rather than descriptively, in the relative abstraction and obliqueness of time remembered, a blurring of present recollection and past recollected in incantatory pastoral surges: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . . .” Temporal modalities collide in this famous opening gambit, interlocking the immediacy of the poem’s writing, the jetztzeit of that conventional “now,” with its historically orchestrated and orchestrating subject, “I was.” Kimber intensifies this interlace of here and there, now and then, both in the arrangement of his sixteen illustrations and in their subject matter.
Kimber’s work focuses on two principal figures, represented in two small watercolour cameos that frame the main text: on the title-page, he offers us the head and shoulders of a prepubescent boy, rendered in reddish fleshtones against a purple wash; on the recto of the last page, facing a page-sized reprint of the complete text of “Fern Hill,” he sets his counterpart, a patriarch in tweeds and cap, whose open eyes and quiet pinkish smile suggest a knowing serenity. This final image echoes the first illustration, apposite to the first three lines of the poem, which shows the same old man, now rendered in light blues with oils on canvas, but now with his eyes closed and mouth gently crimped. Kimber’s intention is to suggest the poem’s tenor of reverie in age, despite the fact that Thomas was in his early thirties when he wrote it, and to link memory both to aestheticized wonderment — the “darling illusion” of recollection as Charles G. D. Roberts once put it — and to pastoral vitality; the green apples that decorate the old man’s red scarf (their tones in sharp contrast to his pallid complexion) displace the real apples of those sagging boughs onto textile pictorial, past life sustained as lovely wearable art. In the second illustration, we see this capped figure walking, but now the boy and a horse run forward from him, surging right toward the next page of the book. The palette, too, shifts from blue to peach, yellow and deep green, as the present is revived in “the heyday of his eyes,” that splendid driven vision.
Kimber’s fourteen oils (not including the watercolour miniatures) form a visual sonnet, structured in a nested frame. The image for the first three lines, the solitary face of the dreaming man, are recapitulated in the image for the last three, the same figure, now shown head to toe in the middle ground walking alone with his bare feet in the surf; the second image — man, boy and horse — is replayed in the second to last illustration, where these three figures are rejoined, although now to close the loop as we go “riding to sleep” under an equine constellation, the forward push of the former image moderated by dark purples, as man and boy, his old and young selves, walk homeward hand in hand, their backs to us as they depart across the pasture into a shadowed, moonlit farmhouse. Thomas’s poem, though highly formalized, bears little resemblance to a sonnet, but Kimber’s visuals nonetheless uncover a version of the form, dividing the first and last stanzas in three, and the remaining four stanzas in two (grouped mostly in clusters of three or four lines, with no illustration crossing between the existing stanzas). In effect, Kimber’s illustrations surround a core octave, made up of four pictorial pairs, with two tercets or triptychs, creating a recursive envelope (3-[2-2-2-2]-3) that, as I’ve already tried to indicate in my description of the opening and closing illustrations, affirms a fixed architecture. The strong outlines and lapidary textures of Kimber’s figures confirm this essentially sculptural, even monumental tendency to his style, an effort I think to stay the mutable, and to arrest the ragged arc of time. Recurrent motifs — farmhouse, ladders and fences, a married couple holding hands or standing kissing, burnished barns, even the vertical trunks of trees — solidify this stasis, a circularity that emerges from the almost obsessive repetitions of motifs and even whole phrases in Thomas’s poem: “green and golden,” “nothing I cared.”
Simultaneously, Kimber energizes this visual torpor, the viscosity of his oils, with diagonal flashes and unresolved tangents: river flow, shooting stars, floating drapes, running horses that refuse to be contained by borders or grids. This kinesis, too, comes from Thomas’s poem, in the ungraspable syntax of the third stanza, for example: “All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ And playing, lovely and watery/ And fire green as grass.” The run-on, thematized in the poem itself, distends and stretches Thomas’s closed, formal architecture like so much verbal taffy. Time, though chained and bound, sings excessively, testing the tensile bonds of poetic enchainment. Kimber’s paintings embrace what Thomas appears to understand as the creative push of memory, the force that drives his green age, in their lovely dehiscence, as they catch at the fraying of time itself, at the doubled assembling and dismantling that inheres in the sustained “now” of the image.
So, this is much more than a children’s book; perhaps the music of this sometimes confused and difficult poem would attract a child’s ear, though the nostalgia of the text itself is fully that of an adult. It is best thought, perhaps, as an adolescent work, the text and visuals hovering between the child-like wonder the writer craves and the deathly adulthood he wants to refuse. It is a fine and engrossing work of male desire, of longing.
Kimber’s work is also mindful of its history; his landscape style echoes primarily the post-impressionists, especially Paul Cézanne’s rectangles and triangles, although his green forests clearly draw on Emily Carr’s vortices and his fields on the horizontal plains of Illingworth Kerr (perhaps something of a carry-over from his work on Josepha ). His portraits fuse the blue ovals of early Picasso with the ripe colours of Frederick Varley, I think. I’m not suggesting that Kimber’s work is derivative, nor do I wish to claim that he has merely Canadianized early European modernism. Rather, like my own youthful transport of and by Thomas, Kimber’s paintings position themselves in a kind of negotiated middle, resolutely of this place and yet thoroughly conscious of their own displacement. Thomas’s poem, Welsh though Fern Hill itself may appear, actually takes place nowhere, or rather in the many imagined nowheres of memory from afar. It can’t quite be grasped, but can only be, to take Pete Townshend out of context, misunderstood, misprised and, as Heaney suggests, respoken at full volume, reintroduced into your own place and time. Just as the poem would have time stretched into the present, and across it like a screen, so too can Thomas be reimagined, remade in the crucibles of eye and ear, as he and you and I go running together “out of grace” and into a world where, however much unheard, we can still somehow sing.
What follows is pretty much the text of a 12-minute presentation I gave on 19 October 2011 at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference. I thought I was supposed to talk about poetics, but most of the other presenters gave short readings. As if to compensate, I very presciently included two poems in the talk: “Embouchure” and “The Clash Takes Kerrisdale.” An audio file of the presentation can be heard if you’re so inclined on my website, www.kevinmcneilly.ca. And here is the presentation.
So, there is a lot to be said and very little time to say it. Which seems to me, to start with, to be one of the prime virtues of poetry, or at least of the poetry that I think I want to practice: its intensity.
Vertu (not its near-homonym virtu) once meant, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s urbane Middle English, something like strength or intensity, or maybe life-force. (Machiavelli even takes up a latter-day, more cynically urbane sense of the term in The Prince.) April rainshowers, say the famous opening lines of Chaucer’s big prologue, have “bathed every veine in swich licour / of which vertu engendred is the flour.” Closer to us, Dylan Thomas translates and refigures vertu, almost as famously, as “force”: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower . . . .” When I first heard Thomas reading that exact poem on LP – checked out from the public library in Truro, Nova Scotia, for two weeks when I was fifteen, in the midst of my own green age – I began I am sure now to feel that force, that intensity, not simply as a kind of pubescent, sappy, erotically-charged nature, but as something more essentially verbal, as a particular sort of audible wetness, a mouth music. I liked how he sounded.
I have a story. I was once in a bar with Don McKay. This sounds like a repurposed Al Purdy story, but it isn’t. Don was my teacher, and I was a graduate student at Western; the bar was an ersatz English pub called Chaucer’s, in London, Ontario. This was a while ago, at a point in my life when I know I was consistently trying too hard. I was trying to impress Don by telling him spiffy things about poetry, and he was politely listening to whatever it was I was saying. I somehow got on to Dylan Thomas, about whom I knew Don had written. I thought I might impress him with my newfound graduate student dismissiveness, which I believed he might take for a sign of burgeoning critical acumen. I made some offhand remark about “all that Dylan Thomas shit.” I actually meant it as a kind of complement to Thomas, in a sort of punk-jazz streetwise argot, which for some reason utterly lost on me now I thought seemed appropriate. Now that I reiterate it, though, it’s more or less just plain shameful, but that’s pretty much how I said it. And as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I had miscalculated. So. Don set his beer down, gently, and, still looking at his glass, said calmly, “Well, I wouldn’t say that.” At that moment, I think I learned two important things. First, you shouldn’t pretend to say things you don’t mean. And, second, the poets I admire take poetry, all poetry, seriously. It’s something like an article of faith to them. (I want to say, to us. But I can`t quite.) Those poets tend to mean what they say.
Jayne Cortez says that saying what you mean, that voice, is a matter of putting your mouth on paper, which is an idea I like plenty. But I also think that voice is a matter of lifting your mouth off the paper again, and of maybe having left a bit of yourself – a little slaver, say – behind: phonic fibrils, a dissolute, salivary ink. Voice is a species of contact or exchange, fleshed out liminally and even awkwardly across the page. Swapped spit, an embouchure. This poem, “Embouchure,” opens a collection of the same name, which is a sequence of historically-minded impersonations of jazz trumpeters from the early twentieth century. For me, the poem lays claim to a kind of embodied poetic.
You get as good lip
service as you give.
Chops will ever out the fake:
line never cut grace
notes from a sloppy
wad of clams. Trued up,
a well flubbed phrase ought
to betray nothing
more than lacquered horn,
the schwa blat of hand-
polished, open brass.
Style takes care of its own;
chops make the rep.
An off mouthpiece can cut
you like shrapnel.
Know the hard limits
of your instrument,
and work its righteous edges.
Be the pro.
Then come the call,
let rip a proper lick.
It seems like this poem might just be about the difficulty of playing a trumpet, which is a notoriously hard instrument from which to get a deliberate, workable sound, and on which to find something like a voice. But this poem is actually more or less about how I think I want to write. It feels to me like, whether or not you can finish it out, the poetic gesture begins, as this poem ends, with a specific commitment. As Charles Wright puts it in his elegy to another trumpet player, Miles Davis, we need to confront “those two dark syllables, begin,” as syllables, and commit to the verbal arc of line, of strophe, of page. Mouth to mouth.
Commitment often has its politics, hazy though they may sometimes be. My other main source of poetic drive, and of its cultural politics, when I was adolescent, was Joe Strummer, was The Clash. I like music. When Jacqueline Turner was convening this panel, over e-mail, she suggested we read new work. Here is an unpublished, narrative piece called “The Clash Takes Kerrisdale,” which is – as you might be able to hear – also a response to some other forebears, whom I try to take seriously, and at their word.
The Clash Takes Kerrisdale – 26 June 1982
Du mußt dein Leben ändern. —Rainer Maria Rilke
Will the dead poets notice our lines appearing among them,
Or are their ears filled with their own music?
—George Bowering, Kerrisdale Elegies, 2
With Topper sacked, Paul and Mick wouldn’t stop
bickering backstage like a pair of married wanks.
The whole set pretty much sucked now. When Joe
snarled “Career Opportunities”
into his taped-up mike
nobody in the makeshift mosh pit looked
as if they’d ever get wise to the in-joke: four
self-styled punk rock warlords
who’d eviscerate all comers
from naff dandies to mohawked hypocrites, slagging
the replicant rock stars they couldn’t help
becoming even if they’d wanted to. They talked
the roadies and stagehands into scrawling
the band’s last will and testament in red spray-paint
on a backdrop of quilted flags they had
suspended from the arena rafters (beside
the minor-league pennants and a mock-up
of local hockey jock
Cyclone Taylor’s retired jersey):
a graffiti patchwork of song titles
like “Clash City Rockers,” “Safe European Home,”
“Jail Guitar Doors” and “Police on My Back” —
the greatest hits they never had
and never thought they would.
When Mick asked, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,”
they all knew the answer. A Kerrisdale skating rink,
somewhere in white-bread west coast Canada,
was no substitute for the Hammersmith Palais.
True to form, Joe finished by mouthing off
about the art of politics,
the politics of art.
Each show like this left them less sure
they’d ever changed the world.
The point, for me, isn’t the despair of quietism, but to confront, poetically, the very possibility of commitment, this time as a poetic article of faith, but of a very particular kind. “Art and the planet tell us,” P. K. Page writes in her Simon Fraser convocation address, “change your life.” She’s translating Rilke’s archaic torso, as he attends to his own artistic imperative, but if you look to the original German – Du mußt dein Leben ändern – the poem’s demand is not only that we change, poetically, but also more literally that we live otherwise. You must make yourself other than who you are. And it’s that otherwise, the discomfiting of self and of voice, that haunts me, both as an earful of gentle shame and as a mouthy plenitude. It’s what makes me want to write.