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Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

17 October 2012

From the times of the ancient Greeks, poets recited their works. It was considered as much a part of the poet’s art as the composition of the poem was. This tradition continued through the middle of the twentieth century. It is PG’s opinion that the general end of poets as independent authors and the move of most into academia substantially reduced the role of the poet reciting his/her works.

It is also PG’s opinion that, in general, poems were better when they were recited regularly. A substantial part of the traditional poet’s art is arranging precisely chosen words into forms that carry meaning by the way they sound with the sound of words building upon and expanding the meaning of the words as they sit lifeless on the page.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had life-long problems with alcoholism and, toward the end of his life, earned much-needed money by touring the United States in a series of very popular pubic readings of his poetry. In fact, he died in New York in 1953 at the beginning of another tour.

Do not go gentle into that good night was written for Thomas’ dying father.

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16 Comments to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

  1. Actually, all through medieval times, Irish poets never read their work. Poems were very commonly written down for the enjoyment and study of readers between poetic performances, of course, but they were composed and performed orally, and the famous ones wer elearned orally in poet schools.

    Poets never performed themselves, except when called upon to provide ex tempore poetry (a “poem at the finger’s ends”) which had a connotation of oracularness. Each poet maintained a harper, a reciter, and a troop of musicians which varied in size according to the poet’s rank and training in his profession. The poet was obliged to provide good conversation at table to the lord, and was supposed to be able to tell all of the famous stories as well (which he also learned by heart in school).

    Poets were not officially paid in boring old cattle money or coin, but there was obligatory maintenance and other favors by the lord they served, and obligatory gifts from houses they visited with their troupe. Legal consequences as well as humiliation by the poet could ensue if the gifts weren’t properly generous.

    But yes, the connection between brain and sound has to be the primary one in poetry, or you’re actually just writing funny lines on paper.

    • I made a misstatement. When poets were still in poet school, and hence still low in their profession, like common bards or worse, they did have to compose poems and perform them at their teacher’s table on even nights of the week. On odd nights, the students had to go around to the surrounding houses that were big enough to maintain them, and perform for their suppers. (Monks in monk school had to beg for their suppers on odd nights, even though adult monks usually lived in self-supporting monasteries; so this was similar.)

    • Fascinating history, Maureen.

      • It is interesting, because it’s more like being a hereditary professional prophet than a literary person in our society, and yet some very fine poetry did come out of it.

        Oh, and there was a point, which was that Welsh medieval poets were very similar, except without as many of the caste-ish regulations. (I don’t think anybody bugged Welsh bards to marry only other Welsh bards’ daughters, or told their children who didn’t want to be poets to take up other appropriate professions like historian, genealogist, or monk.) We also have a lot more “inappropriate” known medieval Welsh poets, like that one guy who outright bragged about sleeping with all the girls (though we got lovely love poems from it). Dylan Thomas sorta made use of both sides of the Welsh poet archetype.

  2. The move of poets to academia coincided with the coded, obscure poetry that the English majors love so much. Poets who write for popular (non-academic) audiences get no respect from their vaunted peers. What made Thomas’ poetry stand out is that it was able to please both audiences. That’s why he was able to go on tour and make some money off his work. Most poets today can’t do that because their work is over the head of most people. Maybe Indie publishing will change that.

    • My observations also, Abel. If you cut off teaching income, 99% of today’s American poets would starve. I don’t know if the situation differs in other countries, however.

    • Two much-lauded American poets (Mary Oliver and Billy Collins) are, I think, *very* accessible. And there are many others out there – it’s not all ivory-tower stuff. ;)

  3. That poetry (as we know it) should decline in modern times should not surprise us. It originated in the pre-literate era when rhymes and beats helped people remember things (a stitch in time ___ ___) from small proverbs to epics. 100 years ago, the US literacy rate was 80%. Today it is 99.4%.

    BUT poetry hasn’t gone away. It changed. And produces handsome incomes … it’s just called RAP. Don’t frown, listen to it, stretch your cultural boundaries and you will hear the modern psalm and the contemporary lament. Just as raw as the early Hebrew poets (although a good deal more erotic) and just a epic as Homer.

    I have to admit, having grown up listening to Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on the HiFi, that rap/poetry is difficult for me to stomach. But my African-American grandchildren make me listen. There are a few gems. Probably the same ratio of trash to gem as in 1912 when everyone was a poet, including my grandmother.

    Peace, Seeley

    • Agreement about rap.

      People still make use of poems as mnemonic devices. The problem is that it’s not done systematically, as a help to kids. Kids have to find them for themselves, these days.

      It used to be part of basic school training (from ancient times on) to make kids learn many poems, read them out loud (which was great for learning to read out loud at a good clip, because verse is patterned sound) and learn to recite them in public by heart (which was basic rhetoric and memory training). Now, kids mostly don’t learn any of that in school, and largely never meet up with the body of English poetry until high school, or never.

    • Excellent point, Seeley.

    • I would argue there’s a difference between being a poet and being a songwriter. Occasionally they overlap, but not often.

  4. Actually, it really is possible to make your living writing poetry. The key is to write poetry people actually like.

    I even know people who make their living as performing poets.

  5. But here and now, I’m making a vow never to use the word “public” in any non-oral forum.

    It’s just too dangerous …

  6. “It is PG’s opinion that the general end of poets as independent authors and the move of most into academia substantially reduced the role of the poet reciting his/her works.”

    As an academic endeavor, poetry has always been in the schools.

    As a commercial endeavor, poets have become songwriters. I agree that not all songwriters are poets, but some are; for examples, Paul Simon, Harry Chapin, Madonna (at times). Most songs do not rise to the level of poetry, but 90% of everything is crap.

  7. But recitation is still as alive as the reader’s willingness to read out loud. That for me is the only way to read poetry, which kind of drives my family nuts.

    There is also an interesting parallel with audio books, in which so many actors display their amazing gifts.

    Another variation was the late Christopher Hitchens who himself read the audio version of his memoir Hitch-22, and at the end of the recording he commented on his effort to make his prose style as conversational, as near to spoken, as possible. This really comes through as he reads the text, as it sounds much more like a conversation with the recently deceased author. It was a little eery, but also quite wonderful.

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