Poetry Friday: On the occasion of my birthday, I turn to Dylan Thomas…

That’s right, for the first time in the blog’s history, Poetry Friday falls on my birthday, and I thought it was high time I posted a birthday poem.  At first, I wanted to find a birthday poem about a poet turning 33, since that’s my number this year, but the only suitable candidate was by one of those whiny Romantic poets who seemed to be especially melancholy about hitting the big three-three (I kid, George, I kid—you’re not whiny, you’re….er, complicated? I’m sure that’s what they told you at the time).  So I decided to share with you tonight an excerpt from a lovely poem by the Welsh Whitman (that’s a nickname for Dylan Thomas I’ve just invented—tell your friends) called “Poem On His Birthday”, in the hopes that, although Dylan was celebrating “his driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age“, I’m close enough to that mark that I can take his words for my own use.  If you’re a big Thomas fan and have the time for a slightly longer poem, go read the whole thing, which is gorgeous.  I try to aim at a much shorter length here for PF features, figuring that you only have so much time on a Friday night (and some folk only want to work through a Dylan Thomas piece for so long), so here’s one excerpt from the middle of his birthday poem to himself that I was particularly struck by:

And freely he goes lost
In the unknown, famous light of great
And fabulous, dear God.
Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is always true,
And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

There he might wander bare
With the spirits of the horseshoe bay
Or the stars’ seashore dead,
Marrow of eagles, the roots of whales
And wishbones of wild geese,
With blessed, unborn God and His Ghost,
And every soul His priest,
Gulled and chanter in young Heaven’s fold
Be at cloud quaking peace,

But dark is a long way.
He, on the earth of the night, alone
With all the living, prays,
Who knows the rocketing wind will blow
The bones out of the hills,
And the scythed boulders bleed, and the last
Rage shattered waters kick
Masts and fishes to the still quick starts,
Faithlessly unto Him

Who is the light of old
And air shaped Heaven where souls grow wild
As horses in the foam:
Oh, let me midlife mourn by the shrined
And druid herons’ vows
The voyage to ruin I must run,
Dawn ships clouted aground,
Yet, though I cry with tumbledown tongue,
Count my blessings aloud:

When I read this poem, I feel like Caliban in the Tempest—clouds open and shower forth riches in a dream I hope will never end.  We are traveling into the inner space of the mind and heart as words combine in dazzling images that cannot exist (but do, dear Dylan, in that impossible imagination you help us discover).  I cannot tell you what it means that the dead grow for His joy like blackberries in the woods, except to say that Dylan Thomas, that rascally old alcoholic, is a man profoundly touched by hope.  I cannot tell you what it means to walk the long way of the dark, accompanied only by the stars’ seashore dead and the chanters of Heaven’s fold and the roots of whales, except to say that Dylan Thomas, the most boorish and overbearing guest at every party he ever attended, is the poet who writes the songs we sing on that dark path, and he believes those songs will lift us out of it again on the other side (in that unknown country).  The man was a study in contradictions (I call him the Welsh Whitman for a reason), but what he drags out of me is this deep sense of belonging on the earth—a powerful feeling of kinship with living things and dead things, with the tiny animals of the deep waters and with the most distant stars.  In Dylan’s verse, when I am able to immerse myself in it, I find my way to such astonishing gratitude that all I can do is cry out with him, my brother of the tumbledown tongue, and thank God for a world and a human voice and the idea of poetry.

This is all unhelpful as an analysis of a poem.  But on my birthday, like Dylan, I feel just a little liberty to be obscure, to be glad and to make merry—a liberty I maybe feel more often than is strictly proper, but one I have decided to indulge in today anyway.  If what you saw here touched you, go follow that link to the whole poem.  The list of blessings that follows this excerpt is daring and strange and exactly true.  And if Dylan doesn’t move you, I hope that somewhere in your weekend you will find joy, whether in word or image, whether in thought or act, and that you come back again for another good dose of poetry next Friday.  Until then, may you go lost in the unknown, famous light.

5 comments on “Poetry Friday: On the occasion of my birthday, I turn to Dylan Thomas…

  1. Nerija S. says:

    Or the stars’ seashore dead,
    Marrow of eagles, the roots of whales
    And wishbones of wild geese…

    I love that imagery, especially “the roots of whales” — it makes me imagine the universe as completely interconnected, all things blending into one another in a surreal way. I could imagine Salvador Dali painting whales with tree roots 🙂

    Happy Birthday!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Nerija! I definitely agree about the connotations of the image—Dali hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you say it, there’s something definitely true about the connection between what he did with image, and what Dylan Thomas does with words. Great insight!

  2. Sly Wit says:

    “Dark is a way and light is a place,” I love that.

    And happy birthday to a fellow Libra!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, on both counts! (That is, I love that phrase too, and thanks for the good wishes.) Happy birthday to you also, wherever in this balanced time your day falls. 🙂

  3. […] and to grow old, what it means to become who we become and what we lose and gain along the way.  Last year, I quoted from Dylan Thomas‘s incomparable “Poem On My Birthday”, and while my […]

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