Beyond Rhyming Part 2

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We left me sitting in the Portland Central Library, book opened to the Dylan Thomas poem, totally stumped. Where was the teacher to explain what it meant? Where were the rhymes? What were all these strange references to Zion and sackcloth? I didn’t know how to begin.

I grabbed a dictionary, hoping that it would help. It didn’t. Mr. Sanders had said we had the capability of understanding what we would read among the poems available. I wasn’t so sure, but I was, if nothing else, diligent. I would sit there until I made some sense of this strange writing. I read it over and over. Finally I was able to figure out the sentence structure of the writing. Before I had been guided by line length and rhyme, but those weren’t helping here. I determined that the title was a clue: he wasn’t going to mourn the death of the child. But why not? And as I read on, I gathered that he wasn’t going to mourn for a very, very long time. I.E. probably never. Whew!

Still, why wasn’t he? Didn’t he care? Didn’t he believe John Donne’s famous thought that any death diminishes us all? Apparently not, as far as I could tell. The poem now actually had me upset. That was something new, since in my experience poems were to be memorized, not felt! And my distress actually answered my question. Basically, as far as I could tell that afternoon, he was telling me that after the first human died, death was a fact of life. And that got to me, more than a romantic elegiac ode to the one particular child would have done. I thought of the human predicament, and of my own mortality, and I was silent.

Beyond Rhyming Part 1

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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.

                                       Never until the mankind making

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.