Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
Jan. 30, 2022

A Dark Alchemy of Words


Living on a boat has meant that we have had to make some difficult decisions about which books come with us onboard. Tonight, I introduce to you one of my most favourite friends on our bookshelf – the collected poems of Dylan Thomas – and explore why he holds such an important place in my life.  

Journal entry:

“26h January, Wednesday.

A magpie on the top most branch rattles its greetings to the blurred dawn. 
 A blackbird calls. 
 The day begins with a bruised sky and bird song.”

Episode Information

If you are on Twitter, you can follow and watch ‘A Minutes Peace’ by clicking on https://twitter.com/minutes_peace. You can also watch them on Colin’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/colsey2003ify/videos  

In this episode I refer to:

Matt Gaw’s informative and touchingly evocative exploration of darkness and the night in his (2020) Under the Stars: A journey into light published by Elliott and Thompson.  

My copy of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas published by J&M Dent.

Cover of Collected Poems

I read excerpts from the following poems by Dylan Thomas:

The force that through green fuse drives the flower
Lament
Fern Hill
Poem in October

Lament by Dylan Thomas

The episode concludes with a complete reading of his ‘In my craft or sullen art’.

Collected works in the Everyman series

More information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

One of the hardest aspects about living in any limited space is that it restricts the amount of books that you can have with you. Kindles, go someway to alleviating the pain, but there is nothing like holding a book in your hands. Feeling the textures of paper, smelling the fragrence of paper and glue and cardboard covers and time, the solidness weighing in your hand, the colour, the beauty of the print and the freedom of flicking the friendly, familiar pages like a fan on a summer's afternoon. 

Both of us are used to lots of books. Books lined the walls of our living room, sometimes stacked two abreast on a shelf. Upstairs, in the study and our bedroom there were more. Books were, in every sense our habitat. But that was no different to my childhood home where books were in an abundance. Every evening, at the end of a day, we would all sit together and read. Dad in the big armchair, Mum sitting on the floor (Mum used to like sitting on the floor) tucked in beside him. Absent-mindedly holding hands. Every so often, one would stop and read out a passage that was interesting or funny or in someway noteworthy. Sis and I at opposite ends of the big long sofa, in our respective corners. Sis reading voraciously, paperbacks with broken spines and spilling pages. First pony books and then as she grew older, books about flying and aeroplanes. I sat in a crows-nest of comics - Whizzer and Chips, Giggle, TV 21, Countdown, Look and Learn, The treasury of Knowledge,  Speed and Power. Or a small pile of books plucked from the livingoom shelf, usually about the countryside, filled with drawings photographs. I too was a voracious reader. But unlike Wendy, I read pictures, losing myself for hours in them. Imagining how the picture continued just out of frame, roaming over the horizon, sneaking off over the style and across the fields,  or what I would see if I turned round. Some books sucked me in with their words, but it was pictures I loved. I made the story up by reading the pictures. Sometimes, when later I read the words, it came as quite a shock that this was an altogether different story from the one I knew!

I was, and still am, a slow reader. I read words like I read pictures. Stopping, pausing, seeking another angle in my head. It took me a long while to read fast. But there is something still inside me that feels it is wrong, unnatural to ruch at the words as if they are just instrumental conveyors of information. It is a pain and a frustration, but also a joy. I just accept it now.     

But books are even more than just that. Every book here on the shelf beside me, I can remember where we bought it or who gave it to me. I can remember how I read it - or didn't quite finish it, and it is patiently waiting for me still. We have thousands in store and they hold memories too. When we were penniless, but fell in love with it and decided to buy it anyway. The dusty second shop where it glowed on the shelf like cartoon treasure. Sometimes, treating ourselves for an after shop coffee and getting to know its cover, the print forms, reading extracts, teasing excitement of a new world beckoning. These books, the books here on the shelf are part of us, part of our lives. Whatever, their contents, it is also suffused with the history of the paths we have walked together. 

So how do you chose? How do you narrow down a library of several thousands to around 30 (if that)?

It's not easy. But let me show you one way.... 

Like this one. As soon as I touch it, kaleidoscopes of memories and emotions tilt and swirl, sending my world giddy. The cherry red cover, the perfection of its thickness and weight. Its cover which I have never liked - but strangely, I have never liked it for so long that I like it now and would not have it any different. But, oh, there's oh so much more...  

Book: Dylan Thomas. (1977) Collected Poems 1934-1952. London: Everyman's Library. JM Dent & Sons.


Bought in Paton Books, Holywell Hill, St Albans (an independent bookseller now, unfortunately, no longer in business) in the late 1970s.


Details:

  • Cherry red and inviting
  • Smooth, cartridge-paper thick pages
  • Its smell has almost disappeared, but there remains the faint memory of stationery office and ink
  • Part of a uniform collection carrying a picture of a Churchillian Thomas, pen in hand, smoking what I take to be a cigar, and touting Thomas' spidery signature in black ink.
  • Beautifully weighted so that it fills the hand and feels satisfyingly heavy
  • The volume is "An Everyman Paperback" with a picture of a pilgrim leaning on a staff and the words, "EVERYMAN, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side." Which lends it the feel of portability (I sometimes took it on walks, snug in my pocket).

Stopping off on my way home from work. These were my halcyon days and like all halcyon the depth and warmth of their gold would only be recognised later. I was teetering on the torn edge of adulthood. Too young to be old. Too old to be young. I would often stop off in Verulamium Park. Envying the ducks and geese for their assuredness in life. Once a week I would stop off at a bookshop... perhaps it may be more than just once a week - bicycle teetering and skarting against the large plate glass window - I re-found Dylan Thomas in Paton Books on the precipitous sweep of Holywell Hill. The poetry section was in the corner. It was a dark, liminal space where I could crouch and hold in my hands such wonderful new worlds. I felt like a trespasser encroaching on landscapes of which I had no right to enter. Poetry was dark alchemy attended by its own cabals of magi that pulled and repelled me with almost equal measure. I viewed it with a wary suspicion, as if I was transgressing into an indulgent sensuous underworld. My world leaned towards science. But looking back, I realise how hopeless I was at it and that what I was in love with was the language of science. The poetic beauty of equations which taunted me. The precision of its vocabulary. Some of the most articulate people I know are scientists. I could listen to them all day. Kneeling on the floor of this little corner in Paton books, lined with wafer thin volumes was a small indecent act of betrayal.
 


Ever since sitting down with my family, as a lad, to listen to Under Milk Wood on the radio. It was occasion. The old valve radio warming up into a hiss of static. The Radio Times folded open on the page of the day's listing with the cast list and the drawing of butcher Beynon with his little cleaver with which to chase after the corgis and flying gibblets, on the arm of Dad's chair. I remember being mesmerised by the words. They tumbled like music flaring with images painted with such unsettlingly startling colours. The words. .... ah those words! 

"To begin at the beginning: 
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black..." 
 

To be honest, I understood very little of it. I knew that it was funny because Mum and Dad laughed, but was not sure why (not that it mattered, I liked it when Dad laughed; it was a good, round sort of laugh with no sharp edges to it).

I loved Adventures in the Skin Trade and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, but it was Thomas' poems that lured and yet taunted me in equal measure. Their words drew me in and set my heart beating even though their sense evaded me (and often still does).

"Altarwise by owl-light in the half way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies..."
 
I had no idea what it meant and yet it filled me too with fury and I too walked among ancient altars in primaeval nightfall.

 

I read (and still read) poetry atrociously. I am a poet's nightmare. There are times when I've read poems completely back to front. I quite often start in the middle if my eye catches a word or a line. My eyes seem incapable of linear movement, sliding over words, lines, whole verses, even pages and then they will be captivated by a line, phrase, or word. I will read it over over and over and over again, letting the image and sounds roll around my mouth and mind. Too often I find myself staring into the sky (or at the ceiling) having read just a few lines...

 

As I grew into adulthood, Thomas' words rang in my head. I never tried to learn them, they just seemed to migrate organically into my being. However, I knew one thing, I wanted to stand tall and let the words that roared in the belly of my soul loose upon the world. I ached to find a voice for my spirit that so ill-fitted my adolescent body. His writing somehow emboldened me. The world was so large and so frightening, but reading Thomas' poetry filled my heart with fire and I felt that I could throw myself into the howling waves of life and live. Here were words to woo angels and shame devils.
 
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Oh what intoxicting dark currents these words distrurbed in my awaking consciousness and their music  cut deep within me, straight to the marrow of my inner hiding self that was only then finding the courage to emerge..

 And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.


Reciting poetry while I walked was an obsession for me. I walked and walked as if driven by demons. I remember one snowy day, taking the dog for walk. The cruel wind flayed the small copses scattered across the fields. We walked and walked and walked until my legs turned to lead. I can remember turning my face to the heavens and hurling at the top of my voice Thomas' bold, audacious words up to a sky as white and as hard as the flints that splintered the chalky fields upon which I strode. Lament, I particularly loved.

"When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,"

Of course I couldn't understand it, for I WAS still that 'windy boy and a bit' and for whom I had yet to grieve. And my blood churned with hormones as I stood on the brink of my own gooseberry woods that made me ache so much and filled me with such sweet and desperate sadness. Strange fire was kindled upon my altar and cast a dangerous and unholy glow upon my world, but it would be many years before I felt its flame touch my body. Understanding would come later as would the grieving - but, perhaps, not quite for the same things that Thomas grieved.

The skies remained silent as the snow continued to fall and down in the dell was the sound of a pigeon weeping.
 

Or what about this - the opening to his Fern Hill

 
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.
 
 
Or this extract from his Poem in October. Again, I was entranced by the images conjoured by the smoky alchemy of words - I was yet to understand the deep pain that bled through each line. But that was only right. 
 
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
   And the mussel pooled and the heron
           Priested shore
       The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
       Myself to set foot
           That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
 
   My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
   Above the farms and the white horses
           And I rose
       In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
       Over the border
           And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.
 
   A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
   Blackbirds and the sun of October
           Summery
       On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
       To the rain wringing
           Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.
 
   Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
   With its horns through mist and the castle
           Brown as owls
       But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
       There could I marvel
           My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.
 
I could go on and on. I haven't even got to his other writings - his prose, his talks, his short stories (and of course Under Milk Wood). They are all here too, carefully collected in the uniformity of the Everyman series (apart from Adventures in the Skin Trade which for some reason sported a different look). 
 
 
Over the years I have fallen in and out of love with Dylan Thomas many, many, times - but his use of words always remain to captivate me. Even though I now recoil from the sentiments expressed in some of his poems, I am entranced by his passion and playfulness and the roar of his heart.
 
It was Thomas who coaxed me back into writing for fun and for sanity. It was coming to the end of my writing up my doctoral thesis. Initially I was drawn and was so much in love with the precision and succinctness of academic language. I loved how complex ideas could be beautifully portrayed in one or two words. Really good academic literature can be poetry - masterclass in precision. 
However, I was becoming increasingly aware how frustrated and restricted I was beginning to feel in trying to express the things inside my head. I needed a pallette as bright with adjectives as Thomas' and a large poster paintbrush to write large in fire across the horizons of my world. To alleviate those feelings of constraint, I wrote and wrote, throwing fistfuls of adjectives upon the page. Not caring of their sense, enraptured by their sounds, their look, the feelings and emotions they evoked. Not much remains, but that which does, read like a parody of Thomas. Soon after, we parted company again, First for another Thomas, Edward. The way he captured the landscapes in which he lived so perfectly and then yet another Thomas (RS) - I did worry that I would never read anything other than by someone called Thomas!! Of course, along the way, I met up with Mary Oliver, Caroline Whitehead, Tim Hennen, Wendell Berry, oh and so many others. Dylan Thomas and I carry on our journey together.   
 
In My Craft or Sullen Art
 
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.