The Child That Sucketh Long
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.
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...