I know I'm not supposed to find graffiti amusing, because then the barbarians are at the gates or have already won or the barn door is still open or something, but there's an enterprising graffiti person (graffiter?) in my neighborhood who likes to scrawl lines of poetry on the privacy fences, billboards and garage doors. One of my best mornings involves rolling down the alley and seeing “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” in letters that started big and got smaller all over my neighbor's back fence. Later, I saw my neighbor scrubbing it off looking all bitter. I gave him my condolences and complained about the times I've had to paint over a bunch of stupid, illiterate gang graffiti on my garage doors, but I was thinking, “You lucky bastard. I would leave this up until the city cited me, and then I'd consider freaking out and fighting the Man and taking it to City Hall.”
I am not the graffiti person. Seriously. Man
, though. What a thing to see. What power and glory in those words. Dylan's lyrics buzzed in my brain for the rest of the day, like a song without a tune. (They're not called lyrics for nothing, what, hey?) I don't have many poems committed entirely to memory, just waiting on the tongue for breath to give them life, but Thomas' poems? There's a few of them in there: Fern Hill, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London. They're solid; they have weight. They coil around your hippocampus and squeeze out tears and sweat and love and nostalgia and disappointment, like that earwig thing from the Wrath of Khan.
Once, I had to write paper on “A Refusal” and I made a complete mess of it, in a spectacular manner. I ranted on, at length, about the interplay between Old and New Testament metaphors for death and rebirth, how Thomas ties a pagan notion of rebirth with a Christian idea of everlasting life. We die, become wormfood, seeds sprout in the dirt, we live forever, ah, the paradox. (This shows up again in “After the Funeral”: stuffed fox, the seeds of the fern on the window sill.) My professor thought, kindly, that I was full of crap, and let me rewrite the paper towards a more conventional vein.
I still think I'm right though, that I'm on to something with Thomas. Poets like Yeats, okay, the poet who is Yeats, has this theory about the world that he acts out in his great poems: the gyre of history, a millennial sense of time that cycles the birth and death of civilizations as they move from austerity to decadence and back again. Yeats has an idea, a framework, and while not everything fits exactly, his poems tend to bend to that gravity. (While not as bad as Wordsworth with the the revisions, Yeats did spend a good deal of time later in life revising his earlier work to make it jibe, especially the Michael Robarts stuff. Michael Robarts is Yeats' Richard Bachman, btw.)
Dylan Thomas doesn't have an idea, he has words. He takes them all, the stuff that got into his brain, the long, droning hours in a Welsh congregation, the hymns and daily conversations, the petty ruralisms and transcendent naturalism and rolls them into a ball of language and beauty that will sear your brain. The force behind his language is mimetic, not intellectual. He creates using the part of the mind that remember the childhood rhyme, but halfway. He fills in the rest with whatever's at hand.
Although his villanelle "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is the most well known of that specific kind of poem, (can you name another? I didn't think so) Dylan's not necessarily a formalist. Some of his best work dips into and out of form, like "In my Craft or Sullen Art". I remember once sitting with a copy of that poem trying to figure out wtf? with the rhyme scheme. I'd written the pattern out in the margins, like a n00b: abcdebdecca abcdeecca. They're not matching stanzas. Why the change from one set of lines to another? He's no Dickinson, so what's with the imperfect rhyme on "psalms" in the second verse? Ah, whatever, you have your own freshman English paper to write. Get to it and get off the Internet, punk.
The thing that makes it so beautiful is the reactive humanity. Thomas was, by some accounts, a bastard. He and his wife left their daughter alone in their apartment at night during the Blitz as they went out drinking. I suppose there's a fatalism to the V2s screaming across the sky, but still. His last words were, apocryphally, “I've had 27, and I think that's a record” as he fell off the stool in the White Horse Inn in the Village. He was referring to whiskeys, of course. A bastard, but a human bastard, singing songs about raging against the dying of the light while he danced in the dark, and the light, and the half-light, to mix my poetic references. (Can you spot the Andrew Marvell for bonus points?)
The graffiti person has been tending towards Blake recently. Right now, on the corner of Lake and Lyndale, you can see “Tyger, tyger, burning bright...” scrawled out over a billboard. The best part is that he (or she) has misspelled other words from the poem. I think this is hysterically funny and it makes the damn “LK5” I had to scrub off the garage look prosaic and lame in comparison.