Sunday, 9 February 2020

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 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.

                                          Dylan Thomas

When I was a girl I used to memorise poems. I could get drunk on words, mutter them under my breath while waiting for buses, chant them aloud in woods or on windy hills where no one would hear me, murmur 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 are incantations that 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, but it sounds good. Better than good! Grand – restorative – like the crashing chords of a cathedral organ; like wonderful spells. I remember suddenly reciting ‘And death shall have no dominion’ to my ten year-old nephew:

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon,
Though the bones be picked clean and the clean bones gone
They shall have stars at elbow and foot:
Though they go mad, they shall be sane;
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost, love shall not:
And death shall have no dominion.

His eyes opened wide and he said, ‘Wow!’

Back in the 1970's, there was quite a fashion for obscure poetry; almost every glam-rock album could do the mysteriously evocative stuff. Look at the lyrics of early Genesis under the aegis of Peter Gabriel:

Coming closer with our eyes, a distance falls around our bodies,
Out in the garden, the moon shines very bright,
Six saintly shrouded men walk across the lawn slowly
The seventh walks in front, with a cross held high in hand…

In either case – Thomas’s poems or Gabriel’s lyrics – I wasn't bothered about the literal meaning: often there wasn’t one, but the  imagery evoked magical inward visions, emotions and feelings. Not that every song by Genesis or poem by Thomas was quite so obscure, but even in those poems I could make some sense of, like the luminous ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem in October’ –  it was the music which enchanted me.

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 trying because what you’re really aiming for, what you want the most – and he’s right, he’s so right – isn’t money, isn’t ‘ambition or bread’, nor fame: ‘the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages’. No!

We don't write for the critics. We don't write (we wouldn’t 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 and most of us don’t get it
or even make a living out of it. We're grateful to those who find and read our words, for no one owes us any attention and most will pay no heed. I think we write because this sullen, difficult art won't let us go. We write to honour ‘the lovers, their arms round the griefs of the ages’, because each person in this world is such a lover. We write to share, as best as we are able, the common wages of the secret heart.

'The Lovers' by John Everell Millais, British Museum


  1. My English teacher in the equivalent of my "O" level year introduced me to Thomas - among others. Some years later she admitted to me, "You were the only student I had with any interest in poetry, indeed English. It would have been a sin not to introduce you." Yes, it would have been.

  2. Thanks for sharing this poetically written piece on poetry Kath. My children love poetry (sometimes in picture book form), for its rhythm and musicality I'm sure, whether they understand it or not. I so enjoy hearing them play around with words, rhythms and rhymes themselves. Sally Polson x

  3. Great blog -- and you always find such beautiful illustrations!