John Goodby is an English Literature & Creative Writing Professor at Swansea University. He is a prize-winning poet and translator of poetry, having been published in most leading British Poetry journals including Poetry Review, London Magazine, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Wales and The Independent. He is a world authority on Dylan Thomas, a PHD supervisor and the author of A Birmingham Yank (Arc Publications 2008), uncaged sea (Waterloo Press 2008), Wine Night White (Hafan Press 2010), Illenium (Shearsman Books 2010) and The True Prize (Cinammon Press 2011).
He is also the external examiner for our MA in Creative Writing at Lincoln University, so of course when he paid us a visit, we rolled out the metaphorical red carpet for him. This included taking him to our local student bar and asking him thought-provoking questions, in an attempt to appear vaguely intelligent. I discovered that we had several things in common. He was from Birmingham; my mum is from Wolverhampton. He lived and worked in Cork, Ireland for four years; I was there for one year. He now lives in Wales; I did my first degree in Pontypridd. I live in hope that these similarities will sway him when deciding what overall grade to award me, but I doubt it. Anyway, less about me and more about his poetry…
Goodby won the Cardiff International Poetry Award in 2006 with his poem `The Uncles`, which is still finding its way into current poetry anthologies. He shared this poem with us during his visit and I was not only captivated by the layers of meaning, but the sound of the language used. Read the following extract from The Uncles aloud and you will see what I mean:
to a slowly oscillating crank. The Uncles Brickell,
measled with gunmetal but glistening faintly, loud
in the smoke.
It is almost as if the cogs and wheels of the machinery are moving along with the text as it is read. Real life is taking place here, and within this life there is musicality and motion.
Goodby likes to play around with form and language and this was evident in his book, uncaged sea, which he described as a mesostic reading-through of Dylan Thomas’ Collected Poems 1934-53. This approach was inspired by the John Cage’s Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979) . In uncaged sea, Goodby takes the familiar poetry of Dylan Thomas and `mixes it up`, taking words and lines from existing poems and meshing them together to make a new sequence, using the name Dylan Marlais Thomas as medial letters in each verse (instead of at the beginning, like an acrostic poem). A rigorous and well-planned pattern has been applied to the text and thought has also been given to how the stanzas are arranged on the page. Goodby recognises that this approach may be provocative but explains that it is a `reverential provocation` and it is offered as a homage to experimental poetry, to Welsh poetry, and to Dylan Thomas himself. It allows the reader to re-imagine Dylan Thomas, and make their own way through the various paths of meaning his words can offer.
uncaged sea page 15 ( Waterloo Press 2008).
(unformatted text of above
golD tithings barren
winter floodS of
faded yard, Teach Me
threAds Of doubt
Is zero on
That flashed the hedgeS
STature by seedy
lAme the air
they with the Simple)
When asked how important it was to know what meaning the writer of the poem intended, he replied, “The poems Dylan Thomas wrote don’t always make sense immediately, but he will have had something in mind when he wrote them. Remember – good poetry resists the rational universe!”
I think this approach is very clever, and I had never really thought of using another poet’s work in this way to create something new. I wondered if I would feel comfortable doing so, but Goodby referred us to the advice of T.S. Elliot, who wrote, “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
After listening to Goodby read, we asked him how we would know if a poem was finished or not:
“W.H. Auden commented that a good poem is never finished, only abandoned. I think, however, that you know instinctively if you have said what you want to say. You don’t need to fuss or fiddle over it, or say too much.”
My final question was what sort of thing he would be looking for in our own recent submissions:
“Has it got spirit? Light? Energy? A direction? The X Factor? Is it more than just your own personal diary entry? Don’t make it all about you. Don’t show off with too many tricks; less is more – simplify”.
Food for thought, as I continue to explore differing ideas about what makes a good poem. And perhaps one day, I might write one that has the `X Factor`. A girl can dream!
 A bar in an engine.
 A pivoted support that allows the rotation of an attached object.
 Some high strength hand wash!
 Small filings.
 Waste material from the metal.
 uncaged sea page 77
 uncaged sea page 77
 Eliot, T.S. Philip Massinger, The Sacred Wood, New York, Bartleby.com, 2000.