Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions, 2010; originally published in 1953. 240 pp)
The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) compiled his Collected Poems as the capstone of his career to date, but died tragically before its publication. The collection has become the standard volume of the poet’s work. Thomas influenced countless artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Annie Clark (her stage name, St. Vincent, is the name of the hospital where Thomas died).
Taking Time to Experience the Known
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I feel as if I know Mt. Si. An iconic rock formation in the Cascade foothills, it is an easily identified landmark signifying entrance into the mountains through Interstate 90. It’s an integral part of the region, something you would assuredly mention to an out-of-towner if you happened to drive past it.
But recognition is a different phenomenon than true experience. I still haven’t endeavored to hike the full mountain, but my understanding of the space has become more integrated when I spent a day-trip lumbering up the Little Si trail.
For me, this same principle applies to Dylan Thomas. A seminal influencer of many musicians I hold in high regard, the Thomas brand of poetry is something I’ve identified from afar. I even count his famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” as one of my all-time favorites.
Nevertheless, I felt it high time to engage in a deep-dive with Thomas’ compiled work, Collected Poems.
A collection of poems spanning Thomas’ career, Collected Poems provides ample evidence to a specific style and content focus.
Central to much of Thomas’ content is the idea of death and the frailty of life. Death, it seems, functions as the endpoint, the conclusion of narrative.
“In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death” (24).
Thomas often leans on the symmetry of life and death and the lengths to which humanity operates in avoidance of that final act.
“I dreamed my genesis in sweat of death, fallen
Twice in the feeding sea, grown
Stale of Adam’s brine until, vision
Of new man strength, I seek the sun” (31).
Here, it almost seems as if Thomas searches for beginnings hoping that the new will always push aside the inevitable demise of the human being.
Not only is death a common motif in Thomas’ poetry, it also operates as the subjects around which Thomas submits a tenacious attitude. Perhaps most famously in “Do not go gentle into that good night” Thomas argues,
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (123).
The reader feels the resolute spirit of Thomas often during Collected Poems. While death plays a central role in all of life, it will not govern us. Consider this passage:
“And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion” (73).
Surely death will come, but it shouldn’t influence the tasks we must attend today.
For this reason, Thomas always seems caught in the middle between an obsession with the end and the fight to not let the end influence the present. He concludes his compilation pondering,
“Last sound, the world going out without a breath:
Too proud to cry, too frail to check the tears,
And caught between two nights, blindness and death” (193).
“Caught between” seems to define Thomas’ view of life and his expressions throughout his poetry.
Finding the Takeaway
Stylistically, Collected Poems illustrates the unique characteristics of Thomas’ poetry. Often, the takeaway line—the most intriguing and artistic line intended to be exceptionally quotable—occurs at the conclusion of the poem. Each preceding line sets up the final point with gravitas.
Not so with Thomas.
His takeaway line occurs at the beginning, with expansion on the line building out from stanza to stanza.
Much like my trip to Mt. Si, reading Collected Poems gave me a better understanding of an author I thought I knew. Collected Poems affirms my thoughts on Dylan Thomas as a premier poet and I am glad to see his body of work is consistently good.
If you are like me and you know of Dylan Thomas, bite the bullet and read Collected Poems. Hey, even if you’ve never heard of Dylan Thomas and you generally like poetry, Collected Poems is worth your time.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
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