‘In my craft or sullen art’ by 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. 

I thought I would start the blog with this poem because it is a sort of explanation by the poet of why he writes. That seemed like a good enough place to start. It is a question that interests me because I have felt compelled to write poems since I was about 13 years old (I proudly printed, signed and dated my poems since that age) without really understanding (or wondering) why. I think that if you like poetry then it’s interesting to find out a poet’s take on why he writes it.

Apart from that, ‘In my craft or sullen art’ is a beauty and a glory. It is a poem that I have loved for a very long time. For me it possesses a quality that all my favourite poems have: the quality of being so beautiful that, even on a first reading, you feel that you already know its rhythms, its music — that you have heard it before.

So, why does Dylan Thomas write? Well, he tells us all the things for which he does not write: not for ambition, not for money, not to impress other poets or artists in the same game. He does not write for the “towering dead” (all those immortal poets that went before him — poets people write books and theses and make films about — and who can be such a heavy, often paralysing shadow for a poet). Thomas says that instead he writes “for the lovers”, for the “common wages/ Of their most secret heart”. He wants to speak to ordinary people, to every human being who has ever loved. These are the most important experiences, the most important griefs, the most important, age-old ache of humanity. The lovers in this poem are heroic, cradling all the “griefs of the ages” in their arms. Holding each other, holding on to love, even though the person they are holding represents all their griefs, and the griefs of the whole world. And the poet does not need praise or payment from the lovers for whom he writes — they don’t even read his poems. He just wants to speak to those secret hearts that we all have, that want only to communicate with other hearts — to know and be known, to love and be loved — completely. We are all lovers, we all understand the necessity and the agony of loving someone. I like Dylan Thomas’s reason for writing.

Thomas describes poetry as a “craft”, which is not a word that is often used to describe poetry these days, though of course, it is a craft, just as much as pottery or sculpting or music is a craft. Many people think of poetry as a highly emotional art — full of gushing declarations of love or melodramatic, melancholy musings — and I’m as guilty of that as the next aspiring poet. But even the most ‘emotional’ poets, the Romantics, who described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, added that it must “take its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” (that’s Wordsworth in The Lyrical Ballads). So, although poetry often deals with the most intense human experiences and emotions, it is also controlled, it is crafted — and Thomas “labour[s]” – to create a form that will express those experiences and emotions. In the same way, a sculptor does not simply hack away angrily at a block of stone, he rather uses the techniques he has learned to create a recognisable form that will communicate his anger (or whatever) to other people.
You can listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading this poem on The Poetry Archive (which is a really good website, by the way). It’s a lovely thing to do because listening to his voice, which is grave and slow and magical, speaking the words really dramatises their quiet power, and makes the poem even more entrancing.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh