Ask any poet and he will tell you Dylan Thomas was a pioneer of contemporary poetry, demonstrated his skills of excellence in the poem “Do not go gentle” which has become one of the most quintessential popular culture poems of the modern era. It is a master template for perfection in poetry as art form. Thomas intentionally uses the voice of a perplexed mind increasingly haunted by thoughts of mortality and the inevitability, regardless of rage and fear, of death. Respecting the basic paraphernalia of poetry, form (villanelle), style (first person singular), language (colloquial), imagery (darkness) and theme (death) to communicate what he deemed a perplexing message. He used his splendid word power, on this occasion, to jolt the dilettantes out of their monotonous thinking. The strategy worked and the poem made its way into popular culture.
Thomas connotes his own perplexity, as a poet, when he claims in his opening essay for “The poems of Dylan Thomas” that Joyce, God and Freud, in that order, ‘may or may not’ have been dominant influences. Yet, his writings overflow of literary genius, spirituality and deep thinking resulting in powerful inspirations. He reluctantly acknowledges these facts when in his essay he articulates; ‘I do not think Joyce had any hand at all in my writing…..I cannot deny that the shaping of my stories might owe something to Joyce. In reference to the word of God, The Bible, he declares; ‘The new testament is part of my life……..(I) never consciously echoed it’s language’, and in the same essay he asserts Freud’s, “The Interpretation Of Dreams” was not an influence. In the same sentence he contradicts himself by adding, “no honest writer today can possibly avoid being influenced by Freud.”
This perplexity naturally manifests itself in Thomas’ mischief-making technique but his ‘tools’ reveal his truth and his truths are often as complex as the metaphors he uses to conceal them. The reality, as he demonstrably perceives it, can be seen in all of his words but most specifically; „joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God‟.3 Is this an open confession to his perplexity being out of his control and in the hands of a superior power? Thomas acknowledges that God guides the hand of every poet.
Gods guidance worked to perfection in this, and many other poets from William Butler Yeats, Brendan Behan, Brendan Kennelly, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Bono, Paul Durcan, Austin Durack and, most importantly, the unpublished private writings of the ‘unheard poet’. Such as a woman from the backalleys of Limerick who calls herself ‘Polly the Poet’. She, as a true poet, like all ‘true’ poets sees the world as beautiful and funny, unnecessarily sad and best dealt with in good humour. Polly makes no claims to being God, she calls herself a poet. She is not an angel of God, but his humble servant, and she knows it. Dylan Thomas speaks for her and demonstrates with his words that we should bow as the words of the poets pass us by because these are the words of God. Possible or not, it remains a decent and self sacrificing aspiration. Those who claim it should be not only listened to but heard.
The words “do I deliberately…..want them to” is as close to reality as Thomas’ modesty allows him to get. A poet would surely not exchange a single solitary syllable of Gods words for the majestic words of any other poet. Joseph O’Connor, who reduces one to tears, not fears, with his powerful use of the Irish version of the English language articulates this when he speaks of the Irish artists; “Our stories and songs define us, our images reflect us…the arts bring us meaning, consolation, enlightenment, and that rare lovely thing, simple pleasure. The arts are our passport, our prayer book, our pillow, and we sleep on all the beauty we have inherited.” It is obvious that Dylan Thomas knew everything about this ‘true’ beauty that defines us as Godlike. The poets are too modest when they describe such poetry as anything but ‘sacred Hymns’ celebrating life in all its glory.
Here is an undeniable fact. The true spirituality of a poet manifests itself ‘naturally’ in the art form. ‘Do not go gentle’ is either a cleverly constructed ‘old Welsh sea-shanty’ or a beautiful poem best read at funerals. Dylan Thomas cared nothing of both uses and everything that it would be used. It is his immortal fingerprints.
The poets, as Thomas was, are composers and lovers of these sacred words and they have a simple but elegantly framed formula. A clever little ‘buzzword’ to call on when they feel the need to try to comprehend their art. This quaintly framed formula is abbreviated to the ‘f-slit’, namely, every poem should have form, style, language, imagery and theme. ‘Do not go gentle’ reveals itself as a truly beautiful poem because it has all these qualities, tragedy, villanelle, beseeching, sadness and resignation.
Such poems encourage the reader to confront the realities of the misery of the world, the futility of life, the prospect of death and the pain and suffering from birth to death and rejoice in them for they too are the experiences that define us in our Godlike form. ‘Life is beautiful’. A beauty seen and felt by Dylan Thomas to ‘Polly the Poet’ who, like all poets, like us, are children of God. They know this and are perplexed as to why we cannot hear them ‘rage’as they try to communicate their simple verses to any who will embrace the words by not only hearing but, more importantly, listening. The world listenedto Dylan Thomas, an ambassador of poetry, regretfully, few can lay claim to such an honour.
There is alternative food for thought. Dylan Thomas was a plagiarist, reality junkie and a poor clone. He was also a charlatan posing as a complex poet who left his guard down with his words. The reality, as he perceives it, can be seen in all of his words but most specifically ‘joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God‟. Which leads to one question, namely, says who? Has God paid a visit to Dylan Thomas and whispered this great secret into his ear and, if so, would the message have not been better served first hand to us through his poetry?
That strategy worked to perfection when he whispered in the ear of William Butler Yeats, Brendan Behan, Brendan Kennelly, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Bono, Paul Durcan, Austin Durack, Larry De Cleir and a woman from the backalleys of Limerick who calls herself Polly The Poet. She sees the world as beautiful and funny, unnecessarily sad and best dealt with in good humour with a cup of tea grasped in the hand. She makes no claims to being God, she calls herself a poet. She is not an angel of God, but his humble servant, and she knows it. Dylan Thomas, on the other hand, demonstrates with his words that we should bow as he passes because these are, in the poor delusional mans mind, Gods words. One has to wonder where was Sigmund Freud with his prescription pad when Dylan came up with that little piece of faction and did they not have good drugs back then? He adds insult to injury when he implies, perhaps camping like any self respecting Bohemian Homosexual, that he knows this is the Word of God because God told him while nobody else was listening. Somebody should have been following him with a pink straight jacket.
On to more serious matters. Here is an undeniable fact. The spirituality of a poet manifests itself naturally in the art form. ‘Do not go gentle‟ is a cleverly constructed old Welsh sea-shanty best read at funerals and asylums but most effective if it happens to be ‘dads death’. Maybe at some point in the future, the non Irish will slap the ditty on a postcard with a picture of the male corpse, preferably pre-decomposition, and fire it off to the local card shop to see can the Bankers ‘knock-up’ another few bob of profit out of us before we keel over.
The composers of these ‘pop songs’ claim to use formula. There is ‘formula’ in everything, or did they not know? They even have a little catch-phrase, a sort of buzzword to call on to pontificate about their art. It’s called the ‘f-slit’ and to see some of the greater examples of this just go grab a copy of the pop songbook ‘Staying Alive’ and tuck yourself up some night and have a good cry at the misery of the world and how you are it’s total victim. If that does not have you yawning in less than a half hour, consider yourself a poet.
For the sake of the intellectual, the non poets, we will never escape from the poetic message so, for their sake, to keep them smiling and waving as they go by, we better fire a bit of ‘poetic bullshit’ at them to make them feel special and we will have a quieter room to use to get on with the real problems of life. Let’s start with Linguistics, and say the following little poem:
Poets use Haikus
to form a Villanelle
to conceal a moral
to secretively reveal their odes.
That grasped we move forward and contend that ‘Dylan’s Ditty has been classed, primarily by the poets, as an epic example of the art form. A template for excellence in the art of poetic structure. Thomas’ open confession of endeavouring to ‘use his toolbox’ to communicate his, and as it happens, Gods message was as evasive as his poetry.
Literary critics will have us believe that Dylans Ditty are the words of a son, in his own voice, validating to his beloved father that, even in death, the old man remains his greatest teacher. The villanelle can be translated to prose as, ‘I have learned all you tried to teach me about courage, now show me that you believed your words to be true by ‘raging’ against your inevitable final demise. The son tries to inspire the ‘old man’ to continue to be the fierce force of a man the young man he once knew. He sees the demise of his youth personified in the death of his father. He rages for his youth and implores his father to rage for his strength. Five times he begs ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ (Lines 3, 9, 15, 19). Why is there nobody in the next room? We get it Dylan, complex but natural exchange from son to father and vice versa; namely, ‘one has no control over the evacuation of life (age) but one has control over the evacuation of strength (youth)’. Both men are at the ‘end of the road, a theme often used by poets, and the son implores the father not to surrender to the inevitable. To do so would mean that the latter would have to relent too.
The complexity of the message is matched by the intricacy of the poem. The poem uses the paraphernalia of villanelle, mix metaphors, puns, personification, exaggeration, oxymoron and similes. This theme is present in many of the poems featured in the phony ‘Staying Alive’, a book about staying alive, but best read in your death bed, but there are other examples of this iconic chant, verses often embraced by popular culture, because they provide spiritual nourishment in the face of conflict with it’s inevitable fruit of pain and healing. ‘The Road Not Taken‟ by Robert Frost (p55) is quick to garnish a tear and also appeals to popular culture for this reason. As does, other protean poetry, within this Volume, such as ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’ a real humdinger by Anonymous. Yet, it can be said that Do not go gentle is the quintessential example of the theme of the book, namely, the spiritual celebration of life in verse.
Seamus Heaney endorsed this belief that the poet was a spiritual witness and this was a view validated by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Oliver Goldsmith, Patrick Kavanagh and Jonathan Swift to name but a few, restricted Word availability prevents me from droning on with that endless list of Irish artists. They made no claim to being any more than having brief encounters, from time to time, in great moments of inspiration, with God whatever they perceived Him or Her to be. Dylan will have us believe that God lived permanently inside his mind rent free.
The true authors of the pulsing Villanelle, a word undefined by the Oxford English Dictionary, are sometimes accused of being complex. The ‘pulse’ can be interpreted as a metaphor for Life and Death. It can be further argued that the Villanelle is no more than a series of Kerouacian style Haikus, an adaptation of an ancient Eastern technique for modern Western Culture. The Villanelle is a commonly used form of poem for neurotic writers who misconstrue and manipulate reality to achieve their own wretched ends and thus justify their own neurosis. The true Villanelle writer is an allegoric writer who has opted for a difficult form of communication.
The sometimes defined neurotic poetry that is idiosyncratic of Dylan Thomas is disobedient to that school of allegoric rhymesters that used metaphor and euphemism to communicate unwelcome messages. Do not go gentle into that good night poses itself; rather obviously but arguably not intentionally, as an example of this testing form of rhythm while at the same time the opposite is proven the case. It allegorically uses this simple rhythm to demonstrate, not that the rhythm is challenging, but straightforward.
“Do you hear my dying breath of this life?
Yes, I hear every sound you make as you go,
Why then do you not listen to its truths?”
On the other hand when we look at Haiku by comparison to Villanelle we find in the former the very essence of truth and beauty. Some unsung anonymous poet once said ‘the language of the heart has no barriers’ which is more in keeping with Kerouac‟s arguable notion that Haiku does not have to follow any specific rules. Haiku creates barriers. All the barriers of the heart crumble in the presence of the poetic soul. Beautiful poetry is the language of the hearts of the beautiful poets. All who see the beauty are poets but few are gifted enough to recognise the poetry when they are in the presence of the beautiful soul. Regardless of the form used, and there are as many forms as there are fingerprints, and who can suggest otherwise when it is the contention of any poet to leave their immortal fingerprints. Do not go gentle into that good night has ensured that Thomas left his immortal fingerprints. And a ‘nice little earner’ for his family.
It is the beautiful poem that makes the others worth the torture of endurance they perpetually inflict. He saw the beautiful tree, life, on the face of his father in his deathbed and felt that the spirit of his father did not want to pass but the soul knew no choice. He further discerned that his father, a strong and powerful man was facing an inescapable fate. Bravery and love in pure forms manifesting themselves, in both son and father, and consequently the poem. He urged his father not to evacuate life just by dying. His final prank was to use the allegory of his father for himself. The poem was not only his father’s final life message to his son but also his son’s suicide note as he forcibly abandoned his own youth. The message is a simple one, “Keep a positive attitude in the face of the death”.
From this we can justifiably conclude that Thomas, like many poets, used a specific style of Villanelle as a tool to send his timeless message. With a basic understanding of the scientific language of Binary, the absence or presence of a pulse, the single syllable word is being the absent pulse (0), the double syllable being the presence of the pulse (1) we can decipher the Haiku. The binary number is easily converted to 19, significantly, the number of lines in the poem. In Japanese (origin of Haiku) the number 19 is preferably read as 10 (ju) and 9 (kyu) which is the nature or spirit of the ancient Japanese Creed of Karate (the art of self defense) and the theme of the creed is to keep a positive attitude in all adversity, which also is the moral which emerges from Thomas’ ditty in the shape of a Haiku:
In the face of death.
Retain a brave attitude,
Fight to the very end.
No finer message to the living who hears it from a poet who continues to deliver it from beyond the grave, from beyond life itself, through the power of verse that is immortal.
That should keep both sides of the argument satisfied.