Why Poetry Matters: The Poetry of Dylan Thomas —– December 2010/January 2011.
Last year, I joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.
The State Theatre put on a production of the play “Under Milk Wood” on New Year’s Eve. The play was written by Dylan Thomas, a poet from Wales, an often forgotten region of Britain. The play tells the story of a small town – its hypocrisies, its victories, its small kindnesses, its gossip. Based on a real Welsh town, the play offers a universal narrative that details the beauty and folly of everyday human life.
Thomas is one of the most inventive poets to have ever written in the English language. Take for example “Altarwise by Owl-light”, a poem that retells the life of Jesus Christ:
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream.
An unsavory tabloid journalist – the atlas-eater – reports the news of Christ’s birth, but there is also the mandrake root, which, in mythology, was said to have a terrifying scream that would kill all those who heard it. Thomas describes “tomorrow’s scream” envisioning the uncertainty of the future, and perhaps the fact of our mortality.
Thomas is an expert at crafting and grafting language, yet he is also a poet of emotion, compassion and nostalgia, and at the end of a long year, I am reminded of the final lines from his prose-poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.
I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.