Saturday, 19 December 2009
Our Craft and Sullen Art - Katherine Langrish
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 labor 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.
There was a time when I read more poetry than I do now. I was younger, of course. I got drunk on words, I learned poems easily; I muttered them under my breath while waiting for buses; I repeated them at night – poem after poem - to send myself sliding away on a raft of poetry down a river of dreams. Actually I still do all these things, except that I don’t read so much new poetry anymore, and I find it harder to memorise.
Dylan Thomas’s poems lent themselves to being declaimed aloud. Incantatory. (I suppose being Welsh he knew all about being a bard.) Anyhow, I used to chant them to myself on walks, and even though some of them were pretty obscure – like unutterably amazing crossword puzzle clues – they filled the mouth and rolled out like thunder:
“Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.”
What did it mean? Who cared? It sounded bloody good. And to be fair, there was plenty of obscure poetry about in the 1970’s when I was reading these things. Almost every glam-rock album could do the mysteriously evocative stuff. Look at early Genesis! I kind of stopped bothering about the meaning: I was listening to the music. I suppose even then I preferred those poems I could also make sense of – the luminous ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem in October’: but meaning was – for me, then – secondary to music.
Nowadays, though I still love the music, I’m looking for meaning too. So revisiting ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ is a moving experience for me. Perhaps I couldn’t have understood it, back then – is it really so long ago? – when, although of course I wrote, I hadn’t even begun to understand the demands of writing as a discipline. Well, this poem shows that Dylan Thomas did - of course he did! - and maybe, just maybe, I’ve lived enough to begin genuinely to understand some of his poems.
"My craft, or sullen art.” How honest that adjective is: ‘sullen’: because writing can be so hard, so difficult – so damned uncooperative! You try and you try, and it’s not good enough, still not good enough, but you keep trying. You keep on trying because what you’re really aiming for, what you want most – and he’s right, he’s right – is not money, not ‘ambition or bread’, not fame: ‘the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages’. No.
Don’t write for the special cases, don't write for the critics. Don't write (as most of us don't dare, though Thomas might have dared) with an eye on posterity and the hope of joining the ranks of ‘the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms’. Don’t write for fame. Don’t write for money. You probably won’t get much of either. Write for the lovers, for living and breathing human beings getting on with life, who have no idea about the effort that goes into writing and who couldn’t care less.
Employ your difficult, sullen craft for the common wages of the secret heart.
Visit Katherine's website or her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles