Sunday, November 17, 2019

the Gift of Naked Communication

Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating the impact poetry has upon us. “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than “Do not go gentle into that good night” - a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).

Dylan Thomas described himself as a “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” - lived among us but 39 troubled years before he drank himself into a coma while on his fourth reading and lecture tour in America. Upon his death the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote “Thomas’s poetry is so narrow - just a straight conduit between birth & death, I suppose - with not much space for living along the way.” She went on further to write: “He had an amazing gift for a kind of naked communication that makes a lot of poetry look like translation.”

Between 1945 and 1948, Thomas agreed to write and record a series of more than one hundred radio broadcasts for the BBC, ranging from poetry readings to literary discussions and cultural critiques — work that precipitated a surge of opportunities for Thomas and adrenalized his career as a poet. His sonorous voice enchanted the radio public. Perhaps because his broadcasting experience had attuned his inner ear to his outer ear and instilled in him an even keener sense of the rhythmic sonority of the spoken word, he learned to write poetry ten times more powerful when channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mind’s eye.

It was during this time that Thomas began writing “Do not go gentle into that good night”, considered his best known and most beloved poem, as well as his most redemptive - both in its universal message and in the particular circumstances of how it came to be composed near the end of his life. In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life:

Do not go gentle into that good night”

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.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes of Thomas in the 2010 edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas:

Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It’s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there’s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas’s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.”

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