Notes from the allotment (Part 5)
Dylan Thomas, October 27th1914 – November 9th 1953
DT: Bloody hell, call this a shed?
DF: Let me just give the corner a shove and I can open the door. We’ll be in in a moment. This tree does a good job of keeping the rain off anyway. There we are. Come in.
DT: God in heaven man! It rocks like a rotted boat. Horticultural artefacts are falling from the shelves. What is all the string for? And how do you write in this … this creosoted priesthole?
DF: Well, no you can’t. It is mainly horticultural, as you’ve noticed. Nice of you to come though. I seem to remember you like cider. No snacks I’m afraid, but I’ll get some peas in a moment.
DT: Have you visited my beautiful shed? It’s still there in Laugharne. They’ve done it up,you see, as it was before my last visit to America. Visitors come to breathe in the words coming out of the walls.
While Dylan Thomas settled himself into a grubby plastic garden chair and opened a bottle of cider, the historically younger man went a short distance to a tangle of sticks, netting, and foliage, and half filled a paper bag with pea pods. Rain dripped off his cowshit-green waxed cap and into the bag, and the dead poet lit a cigarette.
DT: Nice drop. Have some yourself.
DF: Cheers. It’s a single variety – Katy.
DT: Bless my soul, I’m on Christian name terms with the apples in a bottle.
DF: Have a few peas as well.
DT: Aren’t you going to introduce us first?
DF: Yes, alright, Alderman mostly. The early Meteor are over.
DT: Gone under the green horizon of this season’s spring.
DF: Pretty much.
They munched peas and drank cider for a while in silence.
DF: Have you … um… had to come far?
DT: Neither heaven nor hell is far.
DF: Which do you inhabit?
DT: Both. Hell resembles New York, heaven South Wales. Do you like jazz?
DF: Very much.
DT: Then you’ll enjoy Hell. Did I tell you I drank eighteen straight whiskies there? Just before I sailed out to die.
DF: I had heard that. I’m afraid some dispute it.
DT: That I died, that I sailed out, or the whiskies? Larkin, no doubt, or that weasel Amis. Miserable drunks the pair, them and their coteries with rules and regulations, their nonsense about sense. Snobbish too. But how am I doing today? Let me guess: huge public, still derided by High Modernists, Surrealists, and movements meeting in basements round half a dozen chairs and filthy wine. And I’m overdue a re-evaluation.
DF: Spot on, pretty much. I was at a poetry group a few years ago and one member said you were a drunkard who made no sense, and half of the others there nodded sagely. I’m afraid … I said nothing. Then I wrote a poem about it, which hasn’t survived.
DT: Thank Christ! Here, open another before this time I die laughing.
They chugged some more single variety cider and finished the peas while they watched the rain dripping from the goat-willow leaves and listened to it hushing the runner beans and pumpkin flowers.
DF: I would have liked to have had the wit and presence of mind to have answered them with a riddle.
DT: How would it have gone?
DF: How would you say you write only for lovers though they rightly pay us no attention? Answer: in eighteen lines of seven syllables apiece divided into two verses of eleven and nine lines and one sentence each, following the same complex pattern of rhyme and half-rhyme but containing one crucial irregularity and many unexpected collocations Yet none of this is what the poem does although that it is how the poem moves us, which it does perhaps because we are those lovers too.
DT: There have been snappier riddles. But I think you mean this:
In My Craft or Sullen Art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
DF: That’s the one.
DT: I realise you are a horticultural heathen bastard, but do you like George Herbert?
DF: Yes, I do.
DT: They always said I was influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. More nonsense of course, but I did have a go at imitating Herbert.
[from] Vision And Prayer
Bone writhes down
And the first dawn
Furied by his stream
Swarms on the kingdom come
Of the dazzler of heaven
And the splashed mothering maiden
Who bore him with a bonfire in
His mouth and rocked him like a storm
I shall run lost in sudden
Terror and shining from
The once hooded room
Crying in vain
In the cauldron
Of the sun
In the spuming
Cyclone of his wing
For I was lost who am
Crying at the man drenched throne
In the first fury of his stream
And the lightnings of adoration
Back to black silence melt and mourn
For I was lost who have come
To dumbfounding haven
And the finding one
And the high noon
Of his wound
DT: You see, forms give us freedom, but where form or sense seem to break, something we had not known before can come through.
A fox rummaged beneath the listing shed and a hand-fork fell. Stooped and swaying under a roof brown as owls, they got to their feet. And once they had secured the door with its brick, they sloshed through the grass past the flowering pumpkins to a padlocked gate.
Bibliography and links:
Poems above from Dylan Thomas The Poems, JM Dent, 1971, © Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas
https://youtu.be/Tiw3uOT2eUc (recording of Dylan Thomas reading In my Craft or Sullen Art)
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/dylan-thomas (brief overview of life and work)
https://www.discoverdylanthomas.com/ (‘the official Dylan Thomas website’)
https://www.dylanthomasboathouse.com/ (tourist and other info for visitors to Thomas’s boathouse and Laugharne)
https://www.dylanthomasboathouse.com/media/d4djkxeq/bibliography.pdf (extensive resource bibliography from the above, compiled by by Dr John Goodby)
Dominic Fisher has been widely published in magazines and his poems have been broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2018 he was the winner of the Bristol Poetry Prize, and his collection The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dead was published by The Blue Nib in March 2019.