The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why Write? Dylan Thomas' "In My Craft or Sullen Art"

In 2002, Kristian Gravenor wrote a piece comemorating Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' visit to Montreal in 1952. In it Gravenor describes Thomas at the time as a famous "37-year-old pudgy, rumpled, neurotic, impudent, threadbare, alcoholic, perpetually broke, deeply troubled, rude-limerick-telling, charming and flamboyant poet." The photo at left shows Dylan as a young man, before both dissipation and his trips to America ruined him. Gravenor says, "Although established as one of the greatest all-time English language poets...Thomas was neurotic and self-doubting beyond limit. While shy and inward, the curly-haired drunk was also a strutting showman; sensitive and romantic, Thomas could also be a loudmouthed lout."

Thomas married his fiery wife Caitlin in 1937. According to the BBC, "Dylan was drawn to Caitlin's experience and wild abandon; she to his literary talent. But their marriage was to become strained by lack of money, and was tainted by infidelity on both sides....Both Dylan and Caitlin had affairs throughout their marriage, and each resented the other's while excusing their own behaviour."

Thomas had very little financial ability and although he made three trips to America for the purpose of making money from speaking tours, he blew the cash on drunken binges before he returned. He loved the parties thrown in his honor and enjoyed being treated as a poet celebrity.

The BBC says:
His outrageous behaviour at these events suggests he was eager to prove himself as a poet and was excessive due to nervousness. [On his final American tour in 1953,] Dylan got drunk and fractured his arm after falling down some stairs on his way to the theatre. There, he was thrown out of a performance of The Crucible for causing a disturbance during the play. During a recording session soon after, fellow performers were alarmed by his bloated appearance and inability to read lines from a script.

The photo above is of a bloated Thomas near the end of his life. The BBC continues:
On Tuesday 3 November [1953] he spent most of the day in bed, drinking beer and whiskey in the company of friends. Later on he went out to keep two drinks appointments, but returned to the Chelsea in the mid-evening where he apparently had a breakdown. At two o'clock the following morning he left the hotel for an hour and a half, stating he needed a drink. On his return he uttered the words to [his female companion Elizabeth] Reitell which have become part of the Dylan Thomas legend: "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record".
He died six days later on November 9, 1953.

Eighteen straight whiskies. Had to be an exaggeration, don't you think? Poets, artists, novelists... they all lie about themselves. I'm not sure why. Dylan sometimes told people he had cirrhosis of the liver. His autopsy, however, showed little sign of that illness Whatever kind of person he was, Thomas was a great poet, some say the greatest of the 20th century. Does his art excuse his loutish behavior? It's a question that makes me uncomfortable. I always think of the ones whose lives are the wreckage left in the wake of such an artist. If I were one of the children, I probably would have preferred a normal Dad. Not a superstar poet/drunken lout.

One of my favorite Dylan poems is this one, "In My Craft or Sullen Art." It's an explanation of why poets do what they do. Or is it? Perhaps it's also a lament that the ones he writes for, "the lovers" (that would be pretty much all of us wouldn't it?) pay no heed to what he does. Most of us bloggers aren't poets, but I think we can understand his writing predicament.

Here's a youtube of the poem which uses Thomas' actual voice. It is a very special voice. Dramatic. Almost musical in its subtle rhythms. No one else reads poetry like Dylan Thomas.

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.


  1. I think of poets like Dylan Thomas as jazz musicians many of whom also seem to need lots of booze or drugs. He was probably insufferable in reality but his art is sublime.

  2. Does his art excuse his loutish behavior?

    There's no excuse for loutish behavior in anyone. Consistently loutish, that is. Everyone has an occasional lapse; the civilized man will make amends and try his best not to let it happen again, whatever "it" may be.

    That said... eccentric behavior seems to go hand in hand with people who have significant artistic talent, doesn't it? One could make a case for "deviant," too.

  3. "Most of us bloggers aren't poets, but I think we can understand his writing predicament."

    Good observation, Dan.

    I'm late to the party, and Barry & Buck already covered it. I'll just say, "amen."