Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dylan Thomas, ACDC, and a Grumpfest about the Great White (Male) Poet

In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Parker writes that Dylan Thomas was "the last rock-star poet," and that when he died in 1953, poetry died with him. Okay, I get it, we're dealing with a bit of a man-crush here; Parker obviously mourns the ages-old loss of a poet he considered "a wizard".

I have no such man-crush (I'm not a man, and Dylan Thomas is, to me, the creator of some brilliant poems, yes, but he's not a lost love or anything). I kept reading Parker's lament because, well, it's the article about poetry in the December Atlantic. And I'm not ready to read about beheadings or male mid-life crises.

In the second paragraph of Parker's dirge, he croons: "This Welshman was electronically famous, and he constellated in his rumpled persona various blips and signals that all said poet." [Herk. Gag.] [Sorry.] "The bow-tied ham at the lectern, bass-baritoning away; the scape-grace of the after-party, peeing into potted plants; the inspired tavern regular, talker for hours, blood-brother of the universe; the craftsman in his deep and scratching silence; the fire-tailed bard, the cometary Celt. All of it was Dylan, all of it was poetry, and when he died, it died with him. He was the last of the rock-star poets, because the minute the real rock stars showed up--amps buzzing, drugs twanging--the poets would be shuffled off into inconsequence."

Okay. FIRST OF ALL, Parker might be better off claiming that Thomas was the first, rather than last, of the "rock-star poets," if by being a "rock star" Parker means a white male poet who meanders in an alcoholic stupor through radiant lectures and poems that would dazzle for decades, only to show us how 'down to earth' he is by, ohmygosh!, peeing in potted plants! And spending time in taverns! And brooding! Really? I'm not making any commentary (yet) about Thomas' poems, but do you really think this description of a rock star poet is original, unique to the genius life of Dylan Thomas? I'm sorry, Mr. Parker, but you just described about fifty other white male poets I know, and probably hundreds I haven't met yet, who methodically practice these "blips and signals" with the hopes of being someday compared to poets like Dylan Thomas -- those poets who produce remarkable poems but live their lives as if they have already been mapped out by traditions of hopelessness and rugged philosophizing.

SECOND, poets have hardly been "shuffled off into inconsequence" by "real" rock stars. Honestly, they've shuffled themselves into problematic unpopularity by embracing obscurity and exclusivity in their work, but I don't have time to get into that now. I know, though, that ACDC didn't have much to do with the Poet's demise. And I know that, if poets were so inconsequential, I wouldn't have hosted an auditorium full of community poets last Friday as they gathered to share poems they'd written over the past two months. I wouldn't have stayed awake most of Tuesday night because I'd been reading war poems that've emerged from Iraq and Afghanistan, I wouldn't have shared one of these poems with my husband, a man routinely suspicious of poets and their work, and heard him laugh and laugh, the poet's humor having cracked into him like an ax against pine. So, how do you define consequence? Book sales? Undergraduate class attendance? Fine.

Parker goes on to claim that Thomas' poetry has "not held up well" over the years, so THIRD, I need someone to explain this to me: only three weeks ago on a chilly Tuesday night, I was explaining villanelles to a group of poets at the Veterans Center, and we read Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" (yes, I still teach it). You want to tell me that the silence in the room after reading that poem, the sound of somebody saying plainly and quietly, "I like this!" is the product of something that only disappoints you? That lacks the "sticky generative sizzle" you crave? Please. Nothing indicates you've crafted this claim from a high tower more than this. I like Thomas' poems and probably always will, despite my refusal to marry any of them. I think they've "held up" better than many poems from the 40s and 50s.

The good news? Parker admits that Thomas sometimes flopped with all the grace of a whoopie-cushion when he recited the works of others, and he compares Dylan Thomas' reading of Edward Thomas' "The Owl" to something like "Stevie Nicks' 'Landslide' performed by Meatloaf." Ha! You left me laughing, Parker.

It'd be unlike me not to end this grumpfest by saying I'm sure Mr. Parker is a nice guy (even though the fact that this Dylan-Thomas-worshipping article is sitting nearly squat in the center of one of our country's most well-read magazines proves how "consequential" poets still are), and that I appreciate his clearly stated love for poetry and one of its beautiful sons. So, thanks Jim; you got me to write a blog post.