Due to popular demand, and as a concession to common sense, we've decided to put poems here on our website — one poet per week.
Now that Valentine's Day has passed, and now that it's turned cold and rainy, at least here in New York, why not hunker down with some poetry by Dylan Thomas.
Literary haunts, real and fictional, are everywhere in New York. I think of DeLillo when I pass Great Jones Street; Millay when I pass what used to be St. Vincent's hospital; Selby whenever I'm in Red Hook or near the Navy Yard; Pynchon whenever fleet week comes around; and so on and so forth. But the closest "landmark" is the White Horse Tavern, which sits only a few blocks from our offices at the intersection of the West Village, Chelsea, and the Meatpacking District. And each and every time I pass it I try to envision Dylan Thomas sitting at the bar, sipping a drink, alone, his eyes narrowing as the night wears on. I'm perhaps guilty or romanticizing the notion of the tortured, drunken writer, but the legend is simply too powerful. I also, every time, think of a verse by Tom Waits, in the song "Lucinda": "I was standing outside the White Hourse, but I was afraid to go in." Is he referring to the White Horse on Hudson Street in New York, or some other bar, somewhere else, somewhere imaginary. Does it matter, really?
The entry in The Way It Wasn't — a collection of memories and memorabilia — on Dylan Thomas includes a heartbreaking memory from New Directions founder James Laughlin. He explains that when Thomas died, Laughlin and John Brinnin, Thomas' American tour agent, flipped a coin to determine who would have to go to Bellevue to identify the body. Laughlin lost, identified the body, and then answered questions for a form. They wanted to know his profession, and so Laughlin told the young woman ("She was about four feet high, and I don't think she had even finished high school yet.") that he was a poet, to which she replied, "What's that?"
"He wrote poetry," he replied. The form ended up saying "Dylan Thomas. He wrote poetry."
So, yes. I associate the White Horse Tavern with Dylan Thomas, with alcohol as the overarching theme. It's how he's remembered, sadly, but we bother to remember it because we still love his poetry. And it endures; gets me every time I read it. Take the two poems below, for example. The first is as spare as he gets, and yet the imagery of the poet at work, and of life going on around him while he works, is remarkably poignant without being even remotely saccharine or self-indulgent. And the second, which is about half of an unfinished poem given the title "Elegy" (printed in The Collected Poems), evokes those quintessentially Thomas themes: unflagging humanism, strength in the face of loss and defeat, confusion at the inability to live forever.
"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.
* * *
From "Elegy," an unfinished poem
Being innocent, he dreaded that he died
Hating his God, but what he was was plain:
An old kind man brave in his burning pride.
The sticks of the house were his; his books he owned.
Even as a baby he had never cried;
Nor did he now, save to his secret wound.
Out of his eyes I saw the last light glide.
Here among the light of the lording sky
An old blind man is with me where I go
Walking in the meadows of his son’s eye
On whom a world of ills came down like snow.
He cried as he died, fearing at last the spheres’
Last sound, the world going out without a breath:
Too proud to cry, too frail to check the tears,
And caught between two nights, blindness and death.
O deepest wound of all that he should die
On that darkest day. Oh, he could hide
The tears out of his eyes, too proud to cry.
Until I die he will not leave my side.
ND editor Michael Barron interviewed Elaine Lustig for Bomb's blog. Read it here.
May 2013 News from New Directions
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