Oct. 27, 2003

In My Craft or Sullen Art

by Dylan Thomas

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Poem: "In My Craft or Sullen Art," by Dylan Thomas, from Poems (New Directions).

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 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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston, born Maxine Hong in Stockton, California (1940) to Chinese immigrants. Growing up, she loved listening to her parents tell partly fictional stories about her ancestors. After studying at the University of California at Berkley, she decided that she wanted to write a book about her family, and she used the same mix of fact and imagination, telling the same stories from multiple angles. She published these stories about her family in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976), and China Men (1980). She has since been called the most influential Asian American writer of the twentieth century. Her most recent book is The Fifth Book of Peace (2003).

It's the birthday of Dylan Thomas, born in Swansea, Wales (1914). He described his home town as "an ugly, lovely town . . . crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and men from nowhere . . . watched the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions." His father was a failed poet who worked as a schoolmaster, and Dylan grew up terrified of his violent mood swings. The only time he seemed to calm down, and the only time Thomas enjoyed his company, was when he was reading Shakespeare aloud. After graduation, Thomas got a job at a newspaper, but he was an awful reporter. He spent all his time at pool halls and cafés, and when he did turn in stories, the facts were all wrong. One of his co-workers said, "[He was] a bombastic adolescent provincial Bohemian with a thick-knotted artist's tie made out of his sister's scarf . . . a gabbing, ambitious, mock-tough, pretentious young man." He became known as a rowdy drinker and late night storyteller, and eventually quit his newspaper job and gave up on trying to live like an ordinary man. He wrote, "[Poets are] men stepping on clouds, snaring a world of beauty from the trees and sky, half wild, half human."

Thomas published his first collection, 18 Poems, in 1933, but most people found his work too difficult to understand. He called himself "a freak user of words, not a poet." He made a name for himself as a drunk and a clown at the various pubs in London, and people loved to hear him recite poetry in his deep, sonorous voice. He lived in friends' apartments, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, surviving day to day by drinking beer and eating cake. He spent much of World War II in London, where he witnessed the bombing raids, and began to feel as though the world of his childhood in rural Wales had been lost forever. After the war was over, he published the collection Deaths and Entrances (1946), which contained one of his first great poems about lost childhood, "Fern Hill."

Thomas gave a series of readings in the United States at the beginning of the 1950s, and became notorious as a raving drunk. He told people, "[I have come to America] to continue my lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes." Despite his embarrassing behavior, he won everyone over with his compelling readings of his own poetry. In the last years of his life, Thomas worked on the verse play Under Milk Wood (1954), but he spent most of his time writing letters to ask friends for money and to apologize for being so irresponsible. In one letter, he wrote, "After all sorts of upheavals, evasions, promises, procrastinations, I write, very fondly, and fawning slightly, a short inaccurate summary of those events which caused my never writing a word." From 1946 to 1953, he wrote only nine poems, but he filled his letters to friends with poetry. In one letter, he wrote, "The heat! It comes round corners at you like an animal with windmill arms. As I enter my bedroom, it stuns, thuds, throttles, spins me round by my soaking hair, lays me flat as a mat and bat-blind on my boiled and steaming bed. We keep oozing from the ice-cream counters to the chemist's. Cold beer is bottled God."

In an effort to support his family, he went on a fourth reading tour of the United States in 1953, but he was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning just as the tour began. He told his doctor, "I've had eighteen straight whiskeys. I think that's the record." He died a few days later. One of the last poems he wrote before his death was a poem about his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1952). It begins, "Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

It's the birthday of poet Sylvia Plath, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932). Her father was a German-born professor of biology who specialized in bees. His health began to decline when Plath was a baby, but he refused to see a doctor because he was terrified that he might have cancer. He finally collapsed in 1940, and it turned out he had diabetes. He died that same year, when Plath was eight years old. Her family moved inland from the coast, and she always associated the loss of her father with the loss of the sea. She wrote, "Those first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth." In school, she became a straight-A student, got into Smith on a scholarship and won all the prizes for writing contests. She was beautiful and outgoing, and she wrote cheerful letters home to her mother about all her successes. At the same time, she started keeping a journal about her growing mood swings. She wrote, "It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it."

Plath spent the summer of 1953 working as a guest editor for the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine, and she found the competition among the other ambitious young women exhausting. That August, while staying at her mother's house, she took forty sleeping pills, and crawled into the cellar. Her brother found her two days later, when he heard her moaning through the floorboards. She survived, spent time in a mental hospital, and then went back to Smith and graduated summa cum laude.

She went to England, and it was there that she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes. She spent the years of their marriage helping support his career—typing his manuscripts and writing letters to editors for him. He encouraged her to write her own poetry, but she didn't have much time after caring for the children and working part-time as a teacher. When she published her first book of poems, The Colossus (1960), it got mixed reviews, and she fell into despair at the idea that she would never amount to anything. Her behavior grew increasingly erratic, and one day Hughes found that she had destroyed the manuscripts of his recent poems.

Her marriage with Hughes broke up in 1962. Living alone with her two children, she wrote every morning from 4:00 AM until the children woke up. She'd always been a slow, painstaking writer, but in the fall of 1962 she began to write furiously, in a kind of nursery rhyme style, finishing one or two poems every day. At the end of October, during which she had finished thirty new poems, she wrote to her mother, "I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name."

That winter in England was one of the coldest on record, and Plath kept coming down with fevers. She sent her new poems out for publication, but the editors of various magazines rejected them as too strange and disturbing. On the morning of February 11, she got up and sealed her children's bedroom door with tape. Then she sealed herself in the kitchen, stuffed a towel under the door, opened the oven and turned on the gas, killing herself. A collection of her late poems, including "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," was published as Ariel in 1965, and it became the model for a new kind of confessional poetry. When her Collected Poems was published in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

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