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The Child That Sucketh Long

Reconsidering Dylan Thomas.

They appear to be the names of  heavy metal bands: Plague of  Fables; Star-Flanked Seed; Serpent Caul; Murder of Eden; Altar of Plagues; Seed-at-Zero; The Grave and My Calm Body; Dark Asylum; Mares of  Thrace; Herods Wail; Christbread; Binding Moon; Red Swine. In fact they are phrases culled from Dylan Thomas’s poems — except that I threw two actual metal bands in there. Didn’t notice, did you? The best metal undercuts its portentousness with self-awareness — 
if  your major tropes include corpse paint and Satanism, you’d better not take yourself too seriously. In Thomas’s work, self-seriousness is the major trope. There’s wit, but little humor. All those moons, loves, deaths, Os. Everything is intoned from on high: “Death is all metaphors, shape in one history,” he tells us: “The child that sucketh long is shooting up.” Wouldn’t you?

Those lines are from “Altarwise by Owl-light,” the poem that most haunted me in my teens, largely because I just could not tell what the fuck it was about, a confusion not terribly alleviated by Thomas’s own explication, which I discovered in my high-school library:

Those sonnets are only the writings of a boily boy in love with shapes and shadows on his pillow.... They would be of interest to another boily boy. Or a boily girl. Boily-girly.

It’s probably his greatest performance, so it has the highest ratio of stunning lines to the kind of thing you’d expect unicorns to write:

This was the sky,  Jack Christ, each minstrel angle
Drove in the heaven-driven of the nails
Till the three-coloured rainbow from my nipples
From pole to pole leapt round the snail-waked world.

If  you don’t like “This was the sky, Jack Christ” or “snail-waked world,” you don’t like poetry. And if  you can get the image of  rainbows shooting out of  pudgy-faced Dylan Thomas’s nipples out of  your mind any time soon, you’ve got a heaven-driven hole in your head.

There is a quirkiness to Thomas’s disregard for what part of  speech a word usually is that at its best recalls Stevens — “A grief ago” is instantly, telescopically parsable. But at its worst, well — “I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain, /  Let fall the tear of time” sounds like E.E. Cummings. In fact, Thomas’s lumpier excrescences usually recall no one so much as Cummings in his twilight-wristed cups: the willy-nilly word order, the grammatical burps, the nonsense masquerading as secular scripture. Of course Thomas is a better poet than Cummings (who isn’t?), but they are similarly susceptible to the smear of sentimentality:

No. Not for Christ’s dazzling bed
Or a nacreous sleep among soft particles and charms
My dear would I change my tears or your iron head.
Thrust, my daughter or son, to escape, there is none, none, none,
Nor when all ponderous heaven’s host of waters breaks.
— From If My Head Hurt a Hair’s Foot

Who does the guy think he is? I wouldn’t change anyone’s head for a higher thread-count, either. The allusion to Hopkins’s “No worst, there is none” feels unearned: Hopkins sincerely believed the state of his soul was at stake. All that’s at stake for Thomas is whether his self-pity has been gorgeously enough expressed.

And it has. That’s what I hate most about Thomas: if you care about poems, you can’t entirely hate him. Phrases, images, metaphors rise from the precious muck and lodge themselves in you like shrapnel. “And the dust shall sing like a bird / As the grains blow”; “The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis’ thunder”; “the kangaroo foot of the earth”; “Always goodbye to the long-legged bread”; “The whole of the moon I could love and leave”; “And one light’s language in the book of trees”; “When, like a running grave, time tracks you down”; “I make a weapon of an ass’s skeleton”; “where maggots have their X”; “the synagogue of the ear of corn”; “famous among the barns.

Like Hart Crane’s, Thomas’s faults protrude embarrassingly from the wazoo. Crane’s are easier to forgive, since he had vision, and Thomas was myopic. But at his best he has, like Crane, a towering presence of mind, a stranglehold on the language. Perhaps I’d love him more if   I hadn’t loved him so much, so early. I’ve made my peace with other early crushes who came to seem so much mannered mush: James Wright, Rilke, Neruda. Rereading Thomas now for this piece, I found myself thawing toward him, as I slowly did toward those others, whom now I love anew, love more clearly. So get you gone, Dylan Thomas, though with blessings on your head.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2013

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014), as well as a book of criticism, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his...

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  1. January 4, 2013
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    These are interesting statements about Thomas: "All that’s at stake for Thomas is whether his self-pity has been gorgeously enough expressed", "Thomas’s faults protrude embarrassingly from the wazoo", and "Thomas was myopic".

    I wonder if the author my explicate in more depth how his poetry is nothing but self-pity, myopic, and protrudes embarrasingly, since I seemed to have missed the seminar where this became common wisdom.

  2. January 12, 2013
     Donald Futers

    "I wonder if the author my explicate in more depth how [Thomas's]
    poetry is nothing but self-pity, myopic, and protrudes embarrasingly"

    Of these three claims claimed, the only one made in the piece is that
    Thomas is myopic.

    You've even quoted the chunks that you're pretending to believe say
    these things! Look at them – at the words. If possible,* in context.


  3. January 12, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    Dylan Thomas was a very careless poet, except when he
    was a great one. Careless because he often allowed his
    own gifts to get the better of him. Too many of his
    poems have a great first line, but then falter from
    there to the finish. He was, however, so talented that
    he could create the illusion of a sustained performance,
    even when the rest of the poem was a mess. Crane's
    talent was very similar. Both of them were drunk on
    words, both prolific to their detriment. I am grateful
    for what they gave us.

  4. January 14, 2013
     Thomas DeFreitas

    Oh, where to begin? When Michael Robbins has written lines
    that sportswriters can quote a half-century after his
    death ("the Red Sox are not going gentle into that good
    night"), then maybe I'll listen.

    And Cummings? The 20th-century heir to Robert Herrick
    remains unsullied by Mr Robbins' adolescent opprobrium.

  5. January 15, 2013
     Baltimore Poet

    I wish this author well in his ambitions, and have seen one or two poems by him in journals that were intriguing, but I have to say: Why is this up-and-coming generation of young writers pretending they are stupid by their casual language, vague jargon, and annoying self-knowing lack of simply explaining themselves. Guess what, it makes for vague and smug reading. I mean this: If you are writing for the television / YOUTUBE crowd that won't read articles like this anyway, then go ahead, talk about names of heavy metal bands (irrelevant), use curse words (non expressive at least here), and be totally vague.

    "A grief ago" is a brilliant phrase. What is this author's problem with it. Oh, I forgot, these days it is hip to be 'too cool to argue,' and because this essay appears at POETRY, we all agree with you. What does this mean, that a grief ago is "instantly, telescopically parsable." Okay, does it mean I can look at the words individually as well as a phrase?
    Does it really take a telescope (metaphorically) to think about this somewhat simple, though quite expressive and catchy, phrase? Well, my rhetorical questions need no answer, do they?

    Further, the assertion that this Dylan Thomas line sounds like e.e. cummings (But at its worst, well — “I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain, /  Let fall the tear of time” sounds like E.E. Cummings."). That's a laughable assertion (editorial note: I first used the word observation but erased it as observation implies glancing at the line at least). If I was taking the GREs, for instance, without author attributions, I would quickly note the line as Victorian. There is a little innovation in it ("fellowed"). Would Cummings ever say, "Let fall the tear of time." No, Cummings abstractions are usually in a conversational diction. ("...The rain has such small hands.")
    Sorry if this Comment is bitter. I am a little bitter about all the money POETRY has and what their editors, again and again, chose to fund in regard to their very thin and off-hand criticism and commentary.

  6. January 17, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    There are not many poems, by the living or the dead,
    that are as good as "In My Craft or Sullen Art." Nor
    are there as many lines as good as "I see the boys of
    summer in their ruin," or "Light breaks where no sun
    shines. Another line that stands on its own is "Only in
    darkness is thy shadow clear." That line is a poem in
    itself, better than Pound's "Metro" poem and better,
    because shorter, than Williams' ode to an ancient star:
    "Shine alone in the sunrise toward which you lend no

  7. January 19, 2013

    Hm, maybe read the piece? Robbins *praises* the phrase "a grief ago." Sigh.

  8. January 20, 2013
     Baltimore Poet

    I agree with Tim that Dylan Thomas is a master of incredible lines and a number of special poems, including SULLEN ART, RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, and a few others. It also partially comes down to taste and I have always felt his poetry a little too wild, like Shelley, and in regard to romantic poetry, I like more exactitude, like Wordsworth or Keats' Odes. "[A] grief ago" is such a wonderful, accurate description of the human condition that it is amazing that anyone could criticize it. If one lives long enough, and I hope that's not too forward, the truth of a grief ago will be all too manifest.

    Anyone's collected poems often reveals the truth of Tim's brief comments. I think I'll go back to Dylan Thomas and keep reading, as I recently started and stopped reading his collected about 10% through. Was it three years ago now I spent significant time with Yeat's Collected.... Truly amazing and refreshing and a treasure.

  9. January 28, 2013

    Articles such as this guy Robbins are just hot-air in the
    stands, if you'll pardon the baseball allusion Jack.

  10. February 3, 2013
     Don Armstrong

    The agitated tone of the above comments speak to
    Robbins'significance -

  11. March 13, 2013

    "Articles such as this guy Robbins"

  12. April 18, 2013
     Devin Gmyrek

    In response to the author's supposed problem with "A grief ego", I see no such annoyance stated. Robbins is actually praising the poet's choice to disregard the designated part of speech (grief is a noun) and employ it as an adjective, a risk which many poets, to me, seem to scared to take.

    By the Television/YouTube crowd, I assume you mean anyone under forty, or anyone of any age who can operate a computer. If you mean to disregard an entire generation of people, then I suppose poetry and art have already lost and we should all just go eat a Snickers.

    Many of the young people I know, non-poets, are intrigued by contemporary art and poetry but have only been exposed to poems about folks walking their golden retrievers around a lake. So this tendency towards "casual language" or "pretending to be stupid" could just possibly be an attempt to make poetry relevant again. (I might add that such writing may seem superficially casual, but upon closer examination reveal itself to be more complex; it might engage the relationship between popular culture and tradition, or it might make you question where words came from in the first place.)

    Finally, if you don't have a clear enough sense of tone to notice this poem, on the whole, praises Dylan, then I'm not sure where your education in poetry came from.

    I'm not always a fan of Robbins' essays (what's up with the one on cats?), but I do know that you need to be a little prickly when criticizing art. Otherwise you're writing fan fiction.