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 labor 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.
I used to memorise poems. I got drunk on words: I muttered them under my breath while waiting for buses; I repeated them at night – poem after poem - to send myself sliding away on a raft of poetry down a river of dreams. Actually I still do.
Dylan Thomas’s poems ask to be chanted aloud. They fill the mouth and roll off the tongue like thunder:
“Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.”
Whatever does it mean? I have no idea. I simply know it sounds good. Better than good. Grand - restorative - like wonderful spells. And when I first came across this poem, back in the 1970's, to be fair, there was a fashion for obscure poetry; almost every glam-rock album could do the mysteriously evocative stuff. Look at early Genesis! I wasn't that bothered about the meaning: I was listening to the music. Even then I think I did prefer those poems I could also make sense of – the luminous ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem in October’: but meaning was – for me, then – secondary to music.
Nowadays, though I still love the music, I look for meaning too. And behold, it's there, and now I understand it a little bit better.
"My craft, or sullen art.” How honest that adjective is: ‘sullen’: because writing can be so hard, so difficult – so damned uncooperative! You try and you try, and it’s not good enough, still not good enough, but you keep trying. You keep on trying because what you’re really aiming for, what you want the most – and he’s right, he’s so right – is not money, not ‘ambition or bread’, not fame: ‘the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages’. No.
We don't write for the critics. We don't write (how could we dare - though maybe Thomas dared?) with an eye on posterity and the hope of joining the ranks of ‘the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms’. We don’t write for fame. We don’t write because we dream of getting rich, and most of us certainly don't. We write for the love of the craft - and we're grateful to anyone who reads us from the crowds of all those heedless, living and breathing human beings getting on with life. We write for 'the common wages of the secret heart.'