Chapters and Verses

“Fern Hill”
Dylan Thomas

Chapters and Verses

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John

My first memory of college is of a professor who when he found out I liked poetry took me to the audio-visual center of the college and set me up with a record player and a two disk recording of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. The poem, “Fern Hill”, that opened things up was on this recording; in fact the record included most of Thomas’ known recordings to that date. I went out afterwards and bought my own copy of the record. It was produced by Caedmon Records, a company that specialized in spoken word recordings.

Years later when I went to England I rode my bicycle from London to Swansea, Wales on a kind of pilgrimage to Thomas’s hometown. I was nearly run over by a student driver in Windsor and had a horrendous climb up a mountain in a coal mining section of South Wales just above Cardiff (I was told later that I should have visited the north of Wales, that the north was much more beautiful). It was an arduous uphill climb but the ride down the other side was a pleasant coast much of the way. But I finally made it to Swansea and the seashore. I went into the local bookshop and bought a copy of Thomas’s poetry so that I would have an edition that came from his hometown.

T. S. Eliot

Wyndham Lewis

This same professor later checked out recordings of T. S. Eliot reading his poetry and he also gave me my first copy of Eliot’s poetry, a paperback book with a yellow cover that included most of Eliot’s major poems. The critic Edmund Wilson was quoted on the cover of the record as saying no one read poetry better than Eliot. After listening to the recording I thought Edmund Wilson could not have listened to many poets. In any event the recording did not impress me, though I have always enjoyed Eliot’s poetry. What did impressed me was the time the professor took with me and how he cultivated and fed my interest in poetry. I still have the yellow paperback copy of the poems.

I remember the first poem that I read that captured me. I do not know if it is a very good poem, it is often anthologized and it was in my twelfth grade English textbook. It is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. I still teach it when I get a class of seniors and I tell them that it is Masefield’s fault I devote as much time to poetry as I do in the classes I teach. I also tell them that I am often moved by poems I do not understand, that the poem makes me feel something but it is difficult to pin down why it makes me feel as it does. I often cannot point to specific passages and explain the meaning of the words in a way that clarifies the feelings evoked by the poem. This is not always a bad thing.

So what is it about poetry that moves people? It never sells as well as fiction, but it does maintain an audience over the years. Bookstores still set aside a section for poetry. People still write poetry. Most of it may come to us through other channels like radio and popular music, but it is always present. And even when it is not highly valued there seems to be an aura about it that leads some to cultivate the “image” of being a poet. There are some that say Yeats wanted to be thought of as a poet before he worked seriously at becoming a poet.

W. B. Yeats

Augustus John

Yeats also represents the power that poetry can wield over a culture. His poems captured the turmoil that produced the emergence of an Irish state. But he did it in a way that speaks to cultures in tumult to this day. He also speaks to those trying to age gracefully and to those who are in love, as well as to the mythology of his culture and of others cultures and what that mythology has to say us about how to live our lives. This is what poets do. In his poem “Lapis Lazuli” he talks about the poets capacity for gaiety. He speaks of Hamlet and of Lear who suffered greatly but whose suffering was transfigured by the gaiety of the poems they recite in their few hours upon the stage.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce. (lines 9-24)

Even when the poet is sad there is a celebration somewhere in the language that they use. No matter how tragic the scene, the tragedies growth is stunted by something the poet brings to the event.

Poetry often does not translate well because there is in it a marriage of a specific language to a specific cultural or human experience that often gets lost in translation. The music of the poems is in the words that are used and it is in part the music that awakens the emotions. The ideas that are contained in a poem are often easily captured in translation but the ways the words talk to each other in the poem are often difficult to capture. There was an article in the New York Times Review of Books a few weeks back that looked at how different translators put the words of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides into English. It was a review of a translation of A House of Atreus done by the poet Anne Carson.

In comparing Carson’s translation with that of other poets and translators there is a discussion of translation and how it is most effectively done. The translators of these plays struggled with the language employed by the original and the language that would most effectively reach a 21st century English speaking audience. All versions had their strengths and shortcomings and none fully succeeds. Perhaps the poetry is a bit like an incantation and it is not enough to get the meanings right but for the spell to work the charm must be spoken in its original language. It is not the ideas that awaken the spirits but something that sings from within the original words.

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

This image of Thomas Chatterton is the stereotype that many carry of the Romantic poet, a bit of tragedy and a noble gesture in the face of a world that does not understand. But one of 20th century America’s finest poets was an insurance salesman, as was one of its finest composers. In the poems of Wallace Stevens it is impossible to read for meaning the way we read an essay or a story. There are images of snowmen, of boats in a harbor in Key West, of cigar rollers and emperors of ice cream. It is very difficult to read the words and find a meaning. But often a poem moves us long before we understand it.

I was moved by The Waste Land the first time I read it, but to this day I do not know precisely what it means. I know mostly how it makes me feel and how the images and symbols and other tricks of language help to shape that emotion. But it is not like “The Gettysburg Address” where a word can be seen to mean a specific thing and to contribute a specific idea to an overarching argument. The mind plays a part in untangling the mystery in a poem but in most cases the mind must listen to the heart if it is to find meaning.

“Night Driving”
Ad by Volkswagen
Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milkwood

That poetry can move people to do things that they would not do if they were thinking clearly is attested to by this ad. It uses the poetry of Dylan Thomas to sell automobiles. I do not know how successful the ad campaign was, but the ad itself has a beauty to it that is enhanced by the power of Dylan Thomas’ language. Poetry often wins people over and the poet has a power. The skaldic poet Egil Skallagrimsson wrote a poem in praise of a king he despised in order to escape execution. The poem was so finely done the king had no choice but to let Egil go. Once free Egil created a different kind of poem, a curse, that expressed his actual feelings.

This week’s New York Times Review of Books, no doubt because April is poetry month, ran an article on memorizing poetry. The article is titled “Got Poetry” and was written by Jim Holt. At the end of the day the only reason to memorize poetry, according to the author, is because of how it changes the memorizer and brings the poetry to life inside the mind. Reciting a poem from memory is vastly different from reading it off the page. He mentions the suffering that English teachers of his generation inflicted upon students by requiring them to memorize large chunks of poems the students did not really understand. This sort of memorization is rarely fruitful and is often no more successful than requiring students to memorize words for a vocabulary test, once the exercise is finished the memory begins to go blank.

For a poem to live in the imagination it does not really need to be understood, but it needs to be valued and attention needs to be paid to how the poem is working on the imagination. Poetry ought to be an essential part of any curriculum, or so I believe. I think poetry trains the mind and the imagination to work in ways that prose fiction or non-fiction cannot. There are many English teachers who do not agree; that think studying a poem kills the poem. There is truth to this, but it is a statement that is equally true when applied to the teaching of any text and there are some that think the English classroom should focus only on writing and leave the teaching of literature to others.

I think that poetry touches us in ways that other writing does not. Whether the magic resides in the rhythms and meters, in the rhyme, or in the sound of the words themselves I do not know, it probably involves all these things. I think this love of poetry, though, is a relationship that needs to be cultivated; it does not happen of itself. There need to be introductions, a period of liking and friendship and getting acquainted, and then perhaps a betrothal. It is very like a courtship.


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14 thoughts on “Chapters and Verses

  1. As a child, I always thought poetry was about rhyming, and the poems I read had a clear message. Now that I am older and have read much more poetry, I find it to be much more interesting to read poems that have a deeper meaning, and you have to look harder to understand the emotions the poet is trying to convey. I like poems that have feeling, and are passionate about the subject, or poems that capture a culture of a place that I don’t know alot about. I think poems that have a rhythm when you read them, like a song, are often the most enjoyable to read.

  2. I think some poetry has the capability of touching the audience in ways that prose fiction and non fiction cannot but I also have not found many poems that touch me. When I read a poem that has perfect rhyme and rhythm I tend to think that the author had to try too hard to conform to the organization that they could not really focus on the perfect words to use. I have found that free verse poetry speaks to me the most because the author can lets their emotions flow, unhindered by the rules of organized poetry. Due to the fact that not many poems speak to me I find that I enjoy prose fiction and non fiction more. Some of the essays by Martin Luther King Jr are filled with more emotion then I have found in any poem. I am also in the class that believes poems should not be studied so frequently in school. This is not because I am a student and do not enjoy poetry, but because I do not get the chance to enjoy a poem when I have to read it looking for all the tactics used.

  3. I disagree that by studying a poem, it kills the poem. By deciphering the hidden message inside the poem that the author is trying to convey actually makes the poem seem more captivating to me once I understand what it is acutally trying to say. When I first read a poem, it seems like a bunch of gibberish to me that I don’t understand, which makes me dislike the poem and the poetry because I cannot figure what it is trying to say to me. Once I know what the author is trying to say with all the metaphors and parallels, I can reread the poem and understand the text and appreaciate how the author could say something so ordinary and make it sound so beautiful to the reader.

  4. I particularly enjoyed this passage. Your experience with a certain college professor reminded me of experiences I have shared with a favorite teacher of mine. I think it is wonderful when a teacher caters especially to the interests of an individual student. Aside from this though, and more importantly, I have taken the time to reflect upon the meaning of poetry. Poetry truly is unlike any other type of writing. It has special advantages and special beauties. While a description of something, for example, can be written in plain words, that same description becomes much more enjoyable written in a poetic meter. Poetry tends to possess a unique smoothness in its flow, as well as a sing-song melody. I think that poetry allows what is said ordinarily to be said in a much more captivating and enriching manner. Very rarely, I think, do people take the time to realize poetry’s talents.

  5. I can remember when i was in the sixth grade and we had to write a book of poems. Instead of writing poems of meaning I would wirte ones that rhymed. After all when you are young that is what a poem is; rhyming. However, when we grow more mature we find that if you look deeper into a poems words they have meaning. It is not just about if they rhyme, its about what the author is trying to tell you. When you take the time to actually read a poem and understand the message the poem takes on a different meaning. A poem may look like just words set up in silly stanzas, but there is so much more than that. There is emotion. Love, passion, anger, sadness. Look between the lines to discover the true nature and purpose of the poem. Its not about the rhyme of the number of lines, its about a life message.

  6. Poems are meant to be studied, in a way. I think the reason why so many people connect with poetry is because it lets each reader draw their own conclusions. By leaving the meaning vague, poets can write literature that everyone can relate to in their own way. Poetry cannot be passively read; the reader has to think for themselves. This is also the reason, I think, that poetry is not more mainstream. Anything that requires the audience to consider what they are experiencing will likely trigger a bad response in some people. You said in class that if one actively reads ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ they will get a much greater understanding of the book and of the time period it is set in. The same thing applies to most poetry. By actively reading a poem, the reader can interpret it whichever way they please, and make it personal to them. This is why poetry is so special.

  7. I fine set of memories, but Camden records? Like you, I recall the Dylan Thomas, and others, but these were on Caedmon records, named after the Anglo Saxon poet from Whitby, UK.

  8. I find reading poems to be extremely enjoyable. Too often I think people believe that poetry must rhyme or contain some type of pattern. I believe as long as the poem has the ability to move the reader with captivating descriptions then it has served its purpose. I think through poetry one can see the beauty of language, which is very interesting to me.
    I also believe that deciphering poems is worthwhile. To some people this may seem tedious but many times the meaning of the poem is lost if it is not searched for. What i love about poetry is that it doesn’t just come right out and say what the writer is feeling. You must hunt for the true meaning, which sometimes can be very hard, which makes studying poems beneficial.

  9. I think it is a really good feeling when a teacher surpasses education to talk to a student. Like when a math teacher comes over and starts talking about sports with you, it makes a student feel like they can connect with the teacher. And as for the poem i didnt’ have time to read it, sitting in class at a different school. In that case, I usually read the other responses and give my little opinion on the responses.

    Thanks again J.Dubb

  10. Always a pleasure. Have a jolly rest of the day. I agree that it is important that students and teachers talk to each other. That is the only way the one comes to realize the other is a real human being.

    J. D.

  11. I think that poetry is a way someone expresses themselves. People put a lot of emotion into writing poetry. I enjoy poetry, I like trying to find the meaning and reading between the lines. Also this makes it easy to relate to poems.
    Sometimes you have to read a poem more than once to really understand the meaning.

  12. It’s really great when you find a poem or a piece of writing that you can connect with. It’s even better when you find that someone else can connect with that piece as much as you can. I always find that I understand and can relate to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I find it true that poetry is useful in the curriculum because it helps to be studied. If you can imagine what the poem is talking about then you can study it and understand it, and there is beauty in that.

  13. Poetry has different affects on people. I myself, find poetry to be hard to read. It just does not seem to be able to captivate me as much as a novel can. Poems do not seem as personal because there are usually no characters that a reader can relate to. I have always thought that it takes a very well rounded person to be able to appreciate poetry because it is a form of art. Poetry can take many different forms and when it comes to poetry that is abstract, it is very hard for some people to have an appreciation of it. Though I have no use for it, it is very understandable why some people are so drawn to poetry. Poetry is a portal to get inside the minds of others and it helps the writter sort out the ideas that they have and to express themselves.

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