Friday 16 March 2012

Our 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.

Dylan Thomas

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.'


  1. What a beautiful post! Thank you - and I shall bear it in mind this weekend as I struggle and struggle to finish my book for the March 31st deadline, knowing that whatever I write can never be quite good enough. It's great to know you're not alone in the solitary torture!

  2. "the common wages of the secret heart"

    I'm going to chant it to myself today (in my head) while the work I have to do takes me away from the writing I would rather do, though I wish I didn't care.

  3. Thankyou both! Kit, I totally share that sense of the solitary torture. It never gets easier!

    Cathrin, happy to share this wonderful poem with you and know someone else is going around chanting it...

  4. I remember hearing Ted Hughes recite this at a conference on children's literature I attended many years ago. It was latish in the evening and the group had, inevitably, been talking about "the craft". He suddenly recited the entire thing - with passion. I suspect it had special meaning for him. It certainly had special meaning for me from then on.

  5. An absolutely fantastic piece of wordcraft, I love it... why haven't I read more Dylan Thomas? I shall have to put that to rights!

    ( I would have loved to hear Ted Hughes recite that catdownunder, one of my favourite writers with a voice as rich and dark as his written words...)

  6. Dear Kath
    This post reminds me why I love your blog so much. Dylan Thomas is one of my all-time favourite poets, and that is one of my all-time favourite Dylan Thomas poems. When I was at school, I won the Creative Writing prize and chose a leather-bound book of Dylan Thomas poems as my prize. I used to try and learn them off my heart - I loved the mystery of some of the lines as well as the beauty. When I was in my early 20s, I wrote out this poem in the front of my journal (it was before printers!) and carrid it aroudn with me always. It was almost like a religious passage to me. I'm so glad you love it too, and so glad you posted it today - it reminds me of that young woman wanting so desperately to serve the sullen craft

  7. This is one of my favorites, and I memorized it long ago! Of course, I love Dylan the poet (would have had reservations about the man) with fervency.

    Thanks for such an enjoyable post.

    Ok now for my third try on word verification...

  8. Wonderful poem. You're absolutely right - his poetry must be read aloud. It is so physical, so sensuous, a real pleasure to speak.

    "The common wages of the secret heart." That is beautiful line and idea.

  9. Oh Kate, you gave me a lump in my throat! Ouch, JenClair - sorry about the word verification and thanks for persisting! Thanks Lynn- and to all!

  10. Dylan Thomas' "The hand that signed the paper" was one of the first English poems (maybe the first) I ever memorised, and I remember how I fell in love with both music and meaning.