Monday, April 30, 2007

Reader's Diary #260- Dylan Thomas: Everyman's Poetry (up to "in the beginning"),Elder Olson: The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (up to "Character and Action")

It's not often I come across another poetry buff, yet when I do the conversation goes a little something like this:

Them: Do you read much?

Me: Yeah! I love reading! I'm a junkie! (Notice the exclamation marks and my tendency to get off topic.)

Them: What do you read, fiction?

Me: Some fiction yeah, a lot of poetry too.

Them: Poetry? Yeah? Me too! (Notice that the exclamation marks have now switched hands).

Me: So who are some of your favourites?

Them: Dylan Thomas, Yeats, you know, the classics.

Me: Oh.

Them: And you?

Me: Mostly contemporary Canadian stuff.

Them: Oh...

And so ends that. But I'm slowly working on it.

Dylan Thomas. Remember that scene from Dangerous Minds in which another teacher turns to Michelle Pfeifer's character and says something along the lines of, "Dylan? You're teaching these kids about Dylan Thomas?!" and she smugly says, "No, Bob Dylan." Because we all know how Bob is so relevant to inner-city gang kids. Anyway...

A while ago the local library had a used book sale and my wife brought me home a book entitled, The Poetry of Dylan Thomas thinking for some reason that it was poetry of Dylan Thomas (much like that Boston Pops covers the hits of Radiohead cd that you thought was such a great bargain). Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be criticism of his poetry written in 1954 by a man named Elder Olson. (Can you believe the library was getting rid of this?) Still I was curious to give it a whirl. I'm often shooting my mouth off about poetry, maybe it was time to see what a real critic does. But I wanted to actually read some of his work first. So I picked up a copy of selected Dylan Thomas poems the last time I was in Ottawa. Now I'm trying to manage a juggling act of reading them concurrently.

I'm not finding it as mesmerizing as one might think. Olson has given me some nice insights into Thomas's use of symbolism and it's been good to have actual poems to illustrate his points rather than the occasional line here or there. Plus, I'm enjoying the balance in Olson's work. He considers Thomas a genius at times, a lazy poet at others. Most importantly, he judges Thomas's work on pretty clear terms, which so far revolve around Thomas's imagination. However, I don't agree necessarily when he says "We measure performance as against what it seems impossible anyone should have done, against what only a fine artist could have done" and so forth. While I appreciate that this would make Olson's critique consistent, I do not appreciate the "we" suggesting that these values would be the same for everyone. It's like arguing that the artistic merit of figure skating can be judged fairly. It cannot. It's still subjective. What I think is impossible for anyone else to have achieved, might seem like child's play to you.

Also giving me insight into the Dylan Thomas poems are the notes in the back of the selected works. I especially liked the notes for "My hero bares his nerves". At first it reads as if someone is writing, it's the surface level of the poem. But as the notes suggest, there are a more than a few metaphors linking it to masturbation as well. Reading it a second time, I giggled like an adolescent boy. Read it here.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Oh man, poetry critics are an odd bunch, which I guess is fitting. JK - but I was disappointed that you didn't play us some tunes off that Boston Pops cd.

Allison said...

I've always been fond of Dylan Thomas, wrote many an English paper on him and metaphysics. Reading the poems concurrently is a little bit of a task.

I sometimes enjoy reading criticism, but always after the fact. It does help provide a clearer picture but often times I like to go on believing what I think the poem, or work means myself. Perhaps not the right way to go, but, meh.

Fearless said...

I've only read a couple of poems by DT, but I liked them. I am a poetry buff too, even write some in my spare time, but I like Rimbaud, Lorca and Artaud. I don't think I know any contemporary Canadian stuff. Of course, I am pretty Canada ignorant as Allison or Barbara will surely tell you.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, Yes poetry critics march to the beat of a different drum alright. Poets themselves march like a silent gestapo.

As for the Boston Pops cd, that was pure fiction to illustrate a point. Sorry. Any other requests?

Allison, Up until now I've only known a few of his poems, "The force that through the green fuse" and "Do not go gentle into that good night". While I did admire those, couldn't say I'd been a fan.

You're right about reading criticism after the fact. I know I should. And usually I do. This time I guess I'm just being lazy.

Fearless, how about Ken Babstock, Sandy Shreve, or Carolyn Souaid? See? Once again, another dropped call. But I'll take a look at those that you mentioned, hopefully in the near future- then we'll talk!

Anonymous said...

I've never really been into poetry, but I've also not had much exposure to it, especially since high school. I have this idea that it's very abstract, too much so for my taste. But I could be totally wrong. I also wouldn't know where to start...

John Mutford said...

Matt, I think you're absolutely right about poetry being too abstract at times. Personally, I like to read stuff somewhere in the middle. I like a quote by Emily Dickinson, "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant." My favourites usually lie at a cool 45 degrees.

If you are interested in jumping into poetry, I probably wouldn't start with Dylan Thomas. Good as he might be, his poems are (from what I've been gathering) a little on the complex side. Maybe a good old Norton anthology might be the place. Or Al Purdy's "Rooms For Rent". This book is a favourite of mine and I think the poems can be enjoyed on a surface level as well as the underneath stuff.

John Mutford said...

Allison, Also in response to your comments about critics (when we should read them), I just came across this passage in Olson's book, "It is absurd to start out to read a poet and wind up reading a critic instead; but that is the sort of thing that paraphrase encourages. This book contains a number of paraphrases, for various reasons; but they should in no case be taken as terminating the process of reading the poems; they are merely beginnings. I don't want to give the reader crutches; I want to give him a push."

Allison said...

That's a good point. I've read a lot of Thomas, I think a book like this would help if I were to re visit his works, add something to the table.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendations, John. I'll have to skim some Norton and Purdy next time I'm at the bookstore.