Saturday 19 December 2009

Our Craft and Sullen Art - Katherine Langrish

'In My Craft or Sullen Art'  by Dylan Thomas

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


Unknown said...

Yes, I too have been drunk on words, drunk on poetry, spending a whole decade immersed in the musicality, the fire, the power of it - poetry that gets to the truth, expresses life experience more succinctly than any story ever could.
Poetry was, and still is, my first love, and now that I write children's novels I still long to return to the writing from the soul.
Now pleased my university course includes a compulsory poetry section. It's poetry for children, but no less powerful and fascinating for that, and I'm once more lost in its magic spell.

steeleweed said...

The magic of poetry transends age. It just has a different effect on a 4-year-old than on a 70-year-old. Like most of life, the wider and deeper your experience the more meaning you get from any art - poetry, prose, music, painting.
I dont' write a lot of poetry these days - don't have time to develop the mindset it requires (it's all I can manage to develop the mindset for writing prose). I do still read a lot of it - and if it's good, I find new meanings each time.
Someone remarked that good poetry reads as smoothly as prose and good prose is often poetic. Every reader and every writer should start out with poetry.

Leslie Wilson said...

Great post, Kath! And Steeleweed, I agree with you one hundred pussent about stqrting with poetry, it teaches one economy and how to get a lot of meaning into a few words - which if you're writing for young people and trying to get the atmosphere right, is crucial.

adele said...

Lovely post, Kath! I'd just like to say that if you go to the Poetry Society website, and follow links to the Knit a poem or some such, this is the poem that lots of people knitted a letter for. The individual letters and white background squares were stitched together by volunteers and the huge poetry quilt affair is going round the country on exhibition. I was asked to come to the celebratory reading in Manchester because I'd knitted one of the background white squares but I couldn't, as I was away. Most annoying. It was fun to be part of this project!

Katherine Langrish said...

Adele, good heavens! It must be enormous!

..WW.. said...

wow...what a site..