Hanging Out with Bob Dylan’s Namesake (or the Dangers of Memorizing Dylan Thomas)

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

That is most difficult.[1]

 

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

Of lovely pints on a luscious lark.[2]


[1]How apt a poem for the Age of Trump.

[2]If I weren’t channeling Thomas, the last line would be “Of yeasty brews on a beer-slopped bar.”

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