Each winter, our English Department requires students to memorize a poem that’s at least the length and girth of a sonnet. We select whom we consider the best, and they compete on grade levels to represent the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes in front of three judges and an auditorium packed with their peers. We call the competition Porter-Gaud Outloud, and once students reach the finals, they’re spot on. Believe me, choosing the ultimate winner is difficult.
I, too, memorize a poem out of solidarity, and even though I’m renowned (yes renowned, dammit!) for having put to memory veritable library shelves of verse, I’ve discovered this year that if I’m not all that familiar with a poem, I have trouble memorizing it.
Now, if it’s a poem I know well, like Yeats’s lament “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” I can memorize it in no time and spit it out like a Gatling Gun:
Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
Last year, I did “Adam’s Curse,” a poem of forty lines, and had it down in a day.
This year, however, I’ve chosen a poem I’ve read only a dozen or so times, Dylan Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” a hyper-Romantic ditty suitable for someone bound to drink himself to death at the Chelsea Hotel at the age of thirty-nine. I chose it because I’ve always dug the lines
Nor for the towering Dead
With their nightingales and psalms.
I’ll go ahead and provide the text:
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.
You can hear Dylan doing it himself here.
The thing is, I keep mucking something up, like substituting “practiced” for “exercised” or swapping out a “nor” for an “or” or dropping the line “On the ivory stages.”
The good news is that I’ll have it down by the due date of February 25, but the bad news is that now I have Thomas’s rhythms and peculiar diction looping non-stop in the tape deck of my mind.
There’s only way to exorcise these voices, and that’s to write some doggerel, and because misery loves company, I’m sharing it with you:
From the Juke Box of Dylan Thomas
In my scratched and dented car,
With a broken right tail light,
I drive to and fro from bar to bar
Squandering a day that turns to night.
Not for the dead left in my wake I drink,
Nor for the lasses who have broken my heart,
But for the tunk-a-tunk-tunk, rinky dink dink