Not for ambition or bread
Why do poets write? We asked poets to offer a response to Dylan Thomas’s poem, ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’, recreated as an enormous hand-knitted poem to celebrate the Poetry Society’s centenary.
Poetry’s roots are bardic and go back to times when the poet was every tribe’s word-master, the appointed preserver of its history and celebrator of its heroes. Dylan Thomas came as near as a modern poet can to sounding the original bardic note, but in the course of centuries the poet’s role has undergone a significant change. With the advance of civilization (so-called) a host of specially trained academics and media providers have usurped the poet’s public office, driving the poet into regions of private conscience and personal confession. Like other poets of his time, Thomas wrote for ‘real’ people battered by a dehumanizing war and burdened by bureaucratic regulation and personal loss, yet his high, oratorical tone of what you might call public intimacy has largely lost its glamour today. Five or six of Thomas’s poems, however, have remained where lyrical poetry chiefly belongs, in people’s hearts. ‘In my Craft or Sullen Art’ is one of them; I can’t imagine it being forgotten. Memorable not only for the lovely music of its language but also for its wry integrity, it gives the lie to Thomas’s own appetite for bardic display. One night, sober and truthful, labouring alone by a gas (surely not fluorescent) lamp’s “singing light”, he encountered his true muse, and he knew it. Why and for whom was he writing? Not for money or fame, not for poetry prizes or out of ambition to become a pop star, not even to achieve a place in the ranks of the great poets, “But for the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages, / Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.” I like to think these last marvellous lines came to Thomas like gifts from heaven. They will teach their lesson to poets (whose chief vice is usually egotistical ambition) as long as poetry lasts.
Thomas’s dense knitting pattern of persuasive rhymes creates the archetypal romantic image, the big four elements in how and where and why people (usually poets) think a poem gets written.
- Alone in the dark. (‘Sullen’ used to mean ‘single, singular, solitary’.) To write a poem you need to be, in some sense, alone.
- When everyone else is asleep. Or not sentient. Or not capable of knowing the new thing you are making. Anyway that is what you need to feel.
- It’s a lot of hard work.
- And all done for people who are not going to value what you’ve done because they are busy living the very life you are writing about.
There are lots of other ways and places that poems get written but psychologically this ‘alone in the dark’ idea is usually around somewhere.
Thomas’s for, though, speaks to the mysterious Dative of a poem. Who are you writing for, offering this thing to? And readers – what do they need the poem for? A good poem can give an open-minded reader a new way of seeing the world and their own life. It is a generous offering, and trust is involved on both sides, so the word I jib at here is “sullen”. It seems to me to put a barrier between the poem and reader, the poem and life, which I don’t think is true.
That word “sullen” changed its meaning from ‘solitary’ to ‘morose’ six hundred years ago, in 1400. I don’t find poetry a grumpy and isolating art. Poems which feel sullen to people may deserve not to be heeded – not, anyway, by these rather odd lovers who keep their arms round the grief of ages. (Would that be lovers who are not with the person they love?) Many great poems, those of John Donne for instance, speak intimately to and for real lovers, with their arms round each other, even while they are in the middle of doing all that difficult, complicated living which good poems address.
Poems are for readers. They involve craft, art, the pleasures of cunning pattern, but they also speak for and to real life. They are in it along with their readers. That’s why we need them.
This poem is, of course, about the act of writing – the craft of making poetry. It is also about love – the act of lovemaking, and the craft – the joys and the difficulties of being a lover. There are probably far too many poems about the act of writing poetry, but this has always been one of the best! It has all the usual Dylan obsessions – poetry, sex, death, process – the natural (and unnatural ) processes of birth, growth, life and death, and with the usual religious references. It is, by Dylan’s standards, quite a short poem, but as usual it is dense, tightly packed. We know from what is recorded, and from the actual evidence of his worksheets, that Dylan agonised over every word, so we need to do the same.
Dylan loved contradictions, and setting up oppositions, and so many of the words here can seem apt, and at the same time, many not so. “Sullen” for instance is the major sound word in the first line, but does Dylan want the reader to believe that the writer is resentful of his stubborn, ill-humoured, unresponsive craft? In life, sometimes he was, but conversely, he loved it. Same with his marriage to Caitlin – it was problematic, strife-ridden, full of rows and infidelities, but still a very stong, enduring love affair. So, one can read these personal contradictions into the poem if one wants to take that approach! Conversely, the word sullen also means ‘solitary’! The poem also is certainly not truthful, i.e. factual – as far as we can tell Dylan rarely if ever wrote late at night, there is certainly “strut” to Dylan’s performances, and he certainly wrote plenty for “bread”, AND trod plenty of stages! “Raging moon” – is there anything raging about the moon itself? It’s really the writer who is raging (echoes of course of ‘Do Not Go Gentle’) and the moon illuminates his rage. The “craft” is made out to be hard work – “exercised”, “labour”, but at the same time in “singing light”. The love too is hard, “grief” ridden, “secret” – solitary. So again, it’s both about the craft of writing and the business of love. The craft, it is claimed, is not done for “charms”, ie delight or admiration, but the use of that word also hints at an occult or magic power in the process. Why “ivory” stages? An echo of ‘ivory towers’ perhaps, chiming with “towering” a few lines later, but also of a game or gamble – ivory dice or billiard balls, or of the musicality of the craft (piano keys). The “proud man apart” – the writer himself, or the ‘man in the moon’ or God? “Spindrift” pages? Well of course, Dylan’s poetry is always full of images of the sea, but spindrift means the spray blown along the surface of the sea – the pages themselves, the books, just surface, the words, the craft, something deeper and longer lasting? The “towering dead”? – High, lofty – in a higher place, above us, in heaven? But also violent – raging again? The nightingale – a traditional trope used by poets (Keats of course) – the male of the species sings at night – an echo of what the poet is doing here. “Psalms” – well not only a nice delayed rhyme for charms but a direct echo – sacred songs. Let’s look at the construction – it’s syllabic rather than strictly metrical, with every line apart from the last having seven syllables, the last, sullenly, has only a fading six. Symbolic number seven – seven ages of man, seven deadly sins…It’s packed with rhymes – lots of end rhymes although in no regular order – and also half-rhymes and internal vowel and consonant chimes. It’s this that gives the poem its insistent, tightly packed drive. And of course, being Dylan, it’s musical – I can hear Leonard Cohen singing this! So, it’s a beautiful artefact, full of contradictions, but also full of truthful echoes.
The title and first line, ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’, initially and immediately proposes the author’s artifice in the poem, which he decides to be either craft or art and may therefore propose both. Craft is displayed through the arithmetical order of line endings and line scans derived from nineteenth century and earlier practice and uses the thud and repetition of the definite article. Art is demonstrated through the word choices and the meanings their juxtapositions encourage.
“Exercised in the still night” permits the writer to continue to propose an autobiographical account, indicating that the work is written in the night time, “When only the moon rages” and this time-of-day then leads the writer to indicate the quiet, using Expressionist vocabulary, redolent of early twentieth century German and later continental conceits. I imagine Thomas, more than 46 years before he wrote it, submitting the poem to Arnold Shoenberg in the late 1890s suggesting the poem be set to music. The association to archaic Expressionist work is real, the letter to Shoenberg not. Thomas goes on to emphasise the imagined lovers and their plight, “And the lovers lie abed / With all their griefs in their arms”. The writer returns to himself, stating his activity as labour and singing, “I labour by singing light”. He then describes his motive, first through what it is not, adding here that this is not a matter of ascending through or to the illusion of an “ivory tower”, “Not for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages”, then in terms of what it is for, which he states metaphorically, the lovers’ wages, “But for the common wages / Of their most secret heart”.
“Not for the proud man apart / From the raging moon I write” again continues autobiographically, partly through what he is not and does not do, again using the cost through the means of a metaphor with, “On these spindrift pages”. And then again in the negative, not for the writers precedents or mentors, “Nor for the towering dead / With their nightingales and psalms”. This all becomes positive again when he announces for whom he writes, the lovers, “But for the lovers, their arms” and in a consistent return to his earlier Expressionism, “Round the griefs of the ages”. He ends with the monetary motive that the lovers do not have, “Who pay no praise or wages”, giving an emphasis to the lovers’ motives, which like the author’s, are for their own satisfaction and emphasised through the lovers’ “griefs” and part of the author’s title, “Sullen”, which the OED notes to be “gloomy ill-humour or moody silence”.
‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ uses a personal, autobiographic mode typical of its time in 1946, particular in the late 1940s and early 1950s and comparable with the early work of Hugh MacDiarmid and work by W.S. Graham, but in a style that many subsequent poets have not used well. Thomas’s combination of the autobiographical mode with archaic Expressionism makes his contribution to British lyric poetry, both out of step with his contemporaries, but also and inevitably unique.
t-o-w-e-r-i-n-g: that’s the word I stitched together for the poem blanket. A few “of”s and “for”s too, during an afternoon at the Poetry Society combining my two favourite methods of materialisation: writing and sewing. Sewing came first for me, taught by my grandma who was a patient tailor of dolls’ clothes and generous with the wrong scale but cut glass buttons from her button box. Writing came later, and was inspired by craft. I used to work in an arts centre which had craftworkers’ studios on site – weavers, basketmakers, wireworkers, embroiderers – and I wanted to spend my days like they did, tinkering beautiful things into existence. If I’d have been born in a muddy field, I’d have become a potter; but I grew up bookish, and words were what were lying around to play with. However, the creative processes of sewing and writing are entangled in my mind, I think about the poems I’m writing in textile terms. I’ve said this before, on Natty Knitter’s blog (a friend who knitted the pink and purple ‘C’), but will this poem turn out tartan, with straight lines and very strict patterns? Or will it be more like felt, fibres held together with heat and friction? Where do the sequins go, and the zips? I made it for you, but will it fit you?
Dylan Thomas is describing brilliantly what it FEELS like to shape a poem. I love that word “sullen” – which suggests the resistance of the material he is working with, almost as if the stuff were a naughty child that won’t do what you want. The magic lies in the sense of a poet working alone at night as if under a spell. And because he is honest about the labour involved and the pleasure of it, you can believe he is not thinking of Awards and Prizes – or celebrity. It is one of my favourite poems.
“Sullen” seems to be the key word in this poem: it’s the word which the poem edits from its world view: it is there at the beginning, lost at the end. If you look up sullen in an etymological dictionary, what’s interesting is that there is a shift that takes place between 1380 to 1400, so from originally meaning “unique or singular”, sullen starts to mean something that is “morose”. This poem builds itself up beautifully around negatives: a lovely rhetorical device that enacts the very process of poetry’s urge to recover something it also somehow can’t hold. Is poetry a sullen art? So much poetry begins with a desire to recover something lost. It also demands that the poet gets lonely with that loss in order to share an experience, make better an experience for her or himself and to share that cathartically with readers. There’s a tangible relief by the end of Thomas’ poem. In the dropping of the word sullen, which is both solitary and morose, we are left perhaps with something poetry cannot change but only try to communicate, whether or not it is listened to: the consolation of unsolitariness, and human love.
I have a personal connection with this poem: when I was in my mid-twenties and first sent my manuscript in to Bloodaxe, I got a lovely letter back from the editor, in which he enthused about a poem I’d written and said the form reminded him of ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’. He later added that he’d misremembered the poem (and in fact the two poems didn’t have a great deal in common!) but I’ve been fond of it ever since because I associate it with breaking through into the publishing world.
The poem captures the sense of remove and focus that’s necessary to write poetry that sounds clearly and rings true. I think most poets will recognise the idea of the “still night” and the “raging moon” (which is this poem’s own focal point) under whose light the difficult job of writing is done. Many poets have their own ways of reaching this place, whatever the time of day: Ted Hughes famously used hypnosis and meditation exercises to put him in the right state of mind (and passed them on to his wife, Sylvia Plath, when she was struggling with writer’s block); some poets like to be surrounded by sound when they write; others wear earplugs. The aim is not to effect a separation between writer and world (represented here by the lovers with “their arms / Round the griefs of the ages”) but to bring about the kind of concentration needed to get closer to it, to really get under its skin.
Because the internet is awash with poetry these days – published and otherwise – I think many people have the impression that poems simply materialise out of the ether. It’s easy to forget that there’s a person behind the poem who in all likelihood has spent many hours in the “still night”, writing, drafting and revising.
Most of the poems in my first book were “Exercised in the still night”, sitting up in bed, by the light of an angle-poise. Back home after university, I had no job to get up for in the morning. I would have started writing in the evening and continued into the early hours, or else woken with an idea needing to be written down. My parents asleep, no traffic, sometimes the moon. 3 a.m. (when that part of my brain which edited/criticized/said “no” was dozing) lent my imagination a freedom I’ve never experienced since.
The trouble with this poem is that it is too well-known for its own good. I’m trying, without much success, to remember the first time I read it. It seems always to have been among the poetry furniture in my head, and so I can’t really ever recapture the first electrifying effect of my first encounter with it. But electrifying it was, that I recall, and it is good now to have the challenge of re-assessing this over-familiar poem and experience it as the new.
Its highly-wrought and bardic tone is one very few poets would contemplate nowadays, but the assurance and confidence of the poem, the power and intimidating allure with which the words bolt themselves together means that the reader can only submit to its spellbinding music. And is this good? Well, yes and no…
For me this poem is one of those imaginative treasures given to me in the cradle of my reading life. And to this day it remains good fairy-godmother and bad fairy-godmother, both witches leaning ambiguously over the crib, blessing and cursing.
Dylan Thomas’s lyric credo had me wondering about the motivation or calling that might make anyone want to write poems. Poets come in all shapes and sizes, but for me two common qualities that mark them out are shamelessness and ignorance. The former, because poets have to be willing and able to make a show of themselves, to craft something that mightn’t be viewed as terribly important or useful or shaggable and sing it with an authority, skill and ardour that belies the indifference people might often feel. And the latter, because poets have to turn uncertainty or unknowing into an enormous advantage, to work in areas mysterious but compelling to them and not feel thwarted by what they don’t fully understand. As a sweeping generalization, I think of the poet as a generalist who is able to instinctively draw on many different dimensions of their experience and reading, and that the best poems literally embody in words a juncture of upbringing, living speech, book learning, and sense of time and place, as Thomas’s themselves so often do. In fusing these things, poems become memorable by releasing the inherent musicality of words and phrases: look (or listen to) how sonorous ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ is, for example. We don’t have to confuse them with their makers, because they really have to make their own way in the minds and mouths of readers, but behind each poem somebody – a poet – risked the kind of shot in the dark Thomas is talking about.
Song on Making: Making Song
In my craft or sullen art
that springs from separation
of world from word, of life from mind,
where stars and atoms speed apart
leaving their haunted station
to loves and ghosts of humankind,
I sit with no thought, just one eye
turning in and out
to see where words might filter in
to shape their you and it and I
to form the flesh to fill the skin
to pave the street that hears the shout
that passes, as Joyce said, for God,
the song of certainty as doubt
where sign is thing and ink is blood.
So words appear and move in line,
looking for likeness, object, sound.
The night is cold where poem begins,
its feet move over mortal ground,
the earth says nothing, simply spins.
The song arrives as sigh and sign
that song refuses to define.
Things haven’t changed that much, in that poetry’s often still a solitary, late-night undertaking that rarely, as Thomas knew, earns recognition or recompense: but his belief in writing only for heedless lovers hugging “the griefs of the ages” could sound to us now like a re-read of the old cliché that poetry’s all ‘sex and death’, whereas the truth is that most of us write in the hope of knowing fully – and making art out of – what it is to be alive; and in the hope, perhaps, of shining that “singing light” of his into some of the darker places of the heart.
Having been summoned out of knitting retirement for the Poetry Society’s knitted poem and rediscovered the sheer joy of the craft, I can empathise with Thomas exercising his in the still night. But is knitting anything like poetry? It certainly seems to attract poets – there’s a Facebook group called ‘Poets who knit’ – one of those quirky poetic traits, apparently, like not driving. Superficially, there are similarities, most obviously that knitting and poetry are composed on lines. A straight piece of knitting looks something like a poem, either in a form, with a regular stitch pattern, or more irregular, like free verse. There’s a terminology and skill to knitting, as there is to writing poetry. But no, knitting isn’t much like writing poetry. For me, the pleasure of knitting is in the making, the almost transcendent rhythm of the stitches, the kinaesthetic, tactile motions, that it’s possible to knit, watch television and read a book at the same time. The product is the least interesting part, often hardly usable or wearable; I’ve been known to undo my work and knit it up again, just for the enjoyment. Knitting isn’t a “sullen art” but poetry is. There’s a different pleasure in writing, the joy of something achieved through struggle, of ideas coming, occasionally, in such a rush you need all your poetic craft to pin them down. The lines don’t form themselves as easily or even rhythmically as knitted rows. You can’t write poetry with your hands while your mind’s watching Eastenders. Thomas captures not the comfort of a craft mastered but the agony of creation, of being driven to write poetry, labour without expectation of reward or even praise, but with a powerful eye to the outcome, the struggle of the craft aimed at its audience, elusive as they are, the lovers in their universal grief, who don’t care how the work was made, don’t ‘heed [the poet’s] craft or art’. And that’s how it should be; poetry’s about the language it speaks, not in admiring the craftsman’s skill.
Though many will insist on the Yeatsian sound, to me there are echoes of Welsh metrics – the seven syllable ‘cywydd’ (pronounced ‘cow’ and ‘with’) which Dylan must have heard and been aware of, and “craft” is something those masters of ‘cynghanedd’ (strict metre), really believed and still believe in. Although blessed with two languages, writing in one, quenching thirst with all my might in the other, it’s to the Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner that I turn daily for my mantra, in a poem called ‘Day’, especially the words, “Let nothing distract you / A poem emerges so young and so old / You can’t know how long it has lived in you.”
Here’s a scribbling of the strict metre I mentioned above – in an ‘englyn’ (stanza), that’s all about the touch and go of writing:
To start without you starting— in the muse
In the music playing;
To belong to song — I’ll sing
A thank you, without thinking.
Of course —
An englyn made in English,— is silly,
is shallow and rubbish!
But one can’t write in Welsh without the backdrop of that kind of writing creeping in — though I’ve spent the last thirty years rebelling against it by wanting my own voice in my own way. I sense something of a tension too in Dylan’s piece, the ‘or’ always a reminder of ‘the other’.
How could anyone who’s ever struggled with the resistances and concealments peculiar to unfinished poems – sometimes, let’s be honest, they haunt finished work too – not smile with recognition at Thomas’s “sullen art”? His theatrical rhetoric takes me back to Cwmpadarn Primary, where we listened with incomprehension to Under Milk Wood. Mysterious and adult, Thomas’s lines seemed to be saying that resistance and concealment were key to this whole ‘poetry’ deal.
“Sullen art / Exercised in the still night”? It sounds as if he’s exercising bad-tempered horses! I would say to that: you don’t have to write it. And you don’t have to read it. And you don’t have to like it. Nor do I think it is clever to work hard just for the sake of working hard. On the contrary, if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it, but if you do enjoy it, well then it will be easy – however hard it is! For me, it is easier to do it than not to do it, so I do it, and the more laborious the better I like it. (Goodness knows what would have become of me if there was no such thing as poetry…) It’s like having a suitcase, luckily a magic suitcase, because it is easy to carry, with endless different compartments for collecting and arranging things in – anything and everything! – and although it is big enough to hold the dead, the moon, herds of bad-tempered horses, it is so small they have to be folded with great care.
One notices the Byronic upcurling of the lip in that first line, “In my craft or sullen art”. There was a time no doubt when, had I the phrase-making genius of Thomas, I would have been eager to go on from there – though even I might have squirmed at “the raging moon”. But he is being very crafty here, in that the prose direction of the lines sets up a contra-flow to their derived romantic register and rhetoric. The common and humane sense of the poem wins out, just about, in the unforgettable image of lovers with “their arms / Round the griefs of the ages”. He keeps the full stanzaic plenitude of Yeats, while cannily offloading the posture of the “proud man apart”. My own hormones have long settled down. And my art, such as it is, is more desultory than sullen. It’s to do with using a conversational baseline – Frost rather than Yeats – which then modulates into and accommodates more resonant chords. Just finding that initial pitch is the trick: it should be natural, and even throwaway, but also have some unexpected voltage. And, then, I can still hope for a poem that retains the impression of a lover’s heat.
The “still night” is an obsessive time in poems as in life. Night thoughts become circular, altered by the dark and its mythology of magic and transformation. Whether you are a good sleeper and prolific dreamer or you lie awake most nights, that circularity and search for meaning is a night thing. For Thomas, it is the lovers in bed, with their private concerns, that are his chosen audience for his moon-rage inspired writing.
Personally, I have nothing against the “towering dead”, some of them are my best friends, but I can see his point. I write to find out what I mean, and at some point, when I’ve figured it – or something close to it, I want to tell it; and sometimes the story is simple and about the things we all fear or grieve or love. The intimacy of lovers is perhaps the tone of voice to tell these things in.
My own night writing is also coloured by some of the real magic of night. Anything unseen can be mysterious – I know someone who works as a Night Replenishment Worker – stacking supermarket shelves. It’s not just her job title that holds mystery but also the ways in which supermarkets re-stock themselves, unseen by those who live by day. I too, have had jobs were I worked at night, in the print industry. Although, it was at the time, my reality, I never really got used to the strange sleep patterns of shift work and night shifts always took me to a strange place. It is this disturbing place that poetry is made and I think Thomas knows this well.
The basic humanity in this poem appeals to me. It tells me that poets write for love about those who love – ordinary people, who aren’t rich or famous, and who don’t even know what the poet is doing and probably wouldn’t praise him if they did. His poems are for them because they understand “the griefs of the ages” by living their lives with their arms around those griefs. There is a wonderful sense of human connection through his “craft or sullen art”. “Sullen” is an unusual choice: it can mean ‘dark’, ‘gloomy’, ‘angry’ and ‘silent’ but, importantly, it apparently derives through Old French from the Latin ‘solus’, meaning ‘alone’. While poets write for everyone, they mostly work alone – and the idea of creating a poem by the two lights of the raging moon outside and the ‘singing light’ indoors (which, to me, is a hissing lamp, like a gas light), when everyone else is asleep – captures those special moments, outside time, when the poet’s mind wrestles passionate feeling into words in the quiet of a room and ‘spindrift pages’ become scattered with the makings of a poem.
Poet at an open window: Meditation on a theme of Dylan Thomas
It goes without saying that “art” & “apart” are brothers, “night” & “write” sisters, and to speak of “rages” & “pages” – how many of the latter has the scribbling hand covered? Only the obligation to mutilate them remains, killing them one by one. “Abed” & “dead”? It’s not quite as bad as that, but it’s not good. Let’s call it a matter of strategic retreat to the pillows for comfort and contemplation. A survivor on the desktop – a single sheet of A4 – lifts up and subsides in a gust through the window. Immediately, of course, the thought springs to mind of “white arms” & “psalms”, embraces and whispered prayers. The candle-flame dances to breath-puffs from the breeze. Flickery light falls where black letters on white paper have made a stanza shape. You have written a poem. That cannot be gainsaid. As for “bread…” – ‘There’ll be no money in it, mark my words!’ Who said that? Almost everybody you ever met. Is it to be dry crusts, then, forever? No, no, there will be patrons who will take you, very, very occasionally, to dinner. And “charms” & “arms”? Your job is to indite; others, embrace. A poet looks out of the window at a couple by the beech tree on the corner, under the lamp. This relationship, the behind-the-window and the outside-the-window, should be maintained wherever possible. Inadvertent reversal of roles will only hasten what lies ahead, “stages” & “ages”, the time of groaning planks whereon the poet must strut out poems to a grey audience. These are the accomplishments of authorship. After a certain point life declines into commentary – yet that is where you began. What can you do about it? Nothing. So there you stand, addressing the greybeard assembly that unwittingly “wages” & “wages” its war of mortality against “heart” & “art”. Wouldn’t you rather stand by the tree on the corner under the lamp and await the rendezvous? Of course. What you desire above all else is the attention of the young, but they have better things to do.
So now to bring up to date the record of unchanging facts.