Mr. Sanders, our junior high school English teacher, had a very unconventional method of teaching poetry. Years later, in my graduate school course on literary criticism, I learned it was formalist criticism. At the time, it was the most radical approach to reading poetry we had encountered. Up to that point, we were taught about the poet, the date of the poem, its rhyme scheme, and what it meant.
Mr. Sanders, to our utter dismay, asked us to pick a poem out of our text book and explicate it, without giving us any further information or any hint as to its meaning. I can perfectly remember, 54 year laters, sitting in the library staring at Dylan Thomas’ poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.