It’s come to that time again on Poetry Friday—34 years ago today I was on my way (and disrupting any wedding anniversary plans my parents may have had), and 34 years ago tomorrow I was born. It’s an especially thought-provoking birthday since it’s my last before a new birthday is added to the list for my family—my wife and I are counting down the last few weeks to my daughter’s arrival—and so I’m mulling over all sorts of things. The passage of time, of course, and what it means to be born 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 inclination was to turn elsewhere this year, I just can’t do it. The Welsh Whitman’s effect on me is hypnotic at times, and this poem—the last he published before his untimely death—is almost impossibly rich and dense and intoxicating, and is, to boot, a poem he wrote facing a birthday in his mid-thirties. I hope I have a lot more years ahead of me than Dylan did when he wrote this, but his words always remind me to savor the days, regardless. So, with minor apologies (as this is the first poem “revisit” in over four years of Poetry Fridays), I turn to a passage from Dylan Thomas’s birthday poem—a slightly different one than last time—and will reflect on it below.
“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:
Four elements and five
Senses, and man a spirit in love
Tangling through this spun slime
To his nimbus bell cool kingdom come
And the lost, moonshine domes,
And the sea that hides his secret selves
Deep in its black, base bones,
Lulling of spheres in the seashell flesh,
And this last blessing most,
That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
With more triumphant faith
That ever was since the world was said,
Spins its morning of praise,
I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thunderclap spring, and how
More spanned with angels ride
The mansouled fiery islands!”
The only way to really appreciate Thomas is to read him aloud or to hear him read aloud. Maybe two or three poets, at most, have ever loved the sounds of words as much as he loved them, or treated them with such passion. Read these lines above again, aloud, if you can. Let your self-consciousness go and really dig into the sound patterns, the alliteration, the vowels that echo. It’s worth it.
This is a strange passage for me to ponder, I suppose, just as it was strange for him to write—a huge piece of a birthday poem devoted to mourning. But Thomas is keenly aware of what will linger and what will not, and he confronts it. He imbues the world around him with meaning—the herons standing like silent priests of a religion remote from him, the secret name of the sea lost, deep beneath the waves that are framed to hide itself from us—and addresses this powerfully symbolic earth. He laments what becomes of us as we age, this “voyage to ruin” that we cannot check or reverse, but as he does so, he blesses this same life. And it floods over him: the beauty of a world made of earth and water, fire and air. The beauty of fragile human bodies, the curves of the moon as it waxes and wanes, and then the last blessing, the one that still startles me with joy. That the same step that takes me, one by one, closer to my last day is a step closer into knowing the greatness of living—the sun whose light grows sweeter and the gale whose wind tusks and ramshackles the ocean waves. Life gives more than it takes: or if not, it should, and where we can find the way to believe it, we ought to.
As always, I am wordless by the end. What a mansouled fiery island is, I cannot tell, but I see them in my dreams. Maybe those are the lands where Elijah‘s chariot was built. What a dew lark is, and why its songs would grow taller in the thunderclap spring, I have no way of knowing, and yet as I read I feel I know exactly what he means. It’s like looking into Plato’s world of forms—the perfect images of things we can only see partially here on earth, all of our surroundings shades and echoes of some more intense and glory-filled plane. I am light-headed, almost transported, when I read his best work, this poem in particular. And that’s not figurative language: I literally feel as giddy as when I’ve had more than one beer (I know, what a scandalous fellow I am), the sensation is that physically real.
Every time I write about Thomas, part of me senses I’m writing just for me. He never starts much dialogue in the comments, or provokes much reaction. I think that, for many of you, what attracts me about him is what you find too obscure, too strange, too difficult to make sense of. And I can respect that—maybe Dylan and I are kidding ourselves. Maybe his work is less visionary and insightful than I credit it with being. All I can say is how it moves me, how it grabs me by the throat and drags words out of me, or shouts of joy as I read, or tears. If once a year I pick a poem just for me, not because I think it will appeal to others, necessarily, or because it comments on something worthwhile, or adds insight to the Pulitzer novel, I’m glad it’s him, and this time of year is as good a time as any to do that. Next week we’ll be back to something a little more accessible, I promise; and for those who got something good out of Thomas today, I’m glad, and I hope what we both see in him is as real as it feels.