I guess I was feeling pretty confident, more or less, after my however tentative understanding of Dylan Thomas. I actually fell in quasi-love with him for a while and listened to the Caedmon recording of him reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The first ever paperback book store–Brian Thomas books-had opened across the street from the Central Library, and I found a copy of the Christmas tale and took it home
(As a side note, paperback books were a true rarity in my high school days. Hard cover books were relatively expensive, so the library was my main source for reading. The sudden availability of paperback books, selling for between .95 and 1.95 was intoxicating.)
However, the next poem Mr. Sanders handed us was Peter Quince at the Clavier.
Too lengthy to post here, the link will send you to the full text. Here, I was an unfortunate victim of formalist criticism. The poem centers around a text from the Bible about Susanna being spied on in her private garden by elders of the synagogue. I had no knowledge of the Bible, so the allusion was lost on me. There were numerous other references too. Context, history, allusions, and author biography were superfluous to a true formalist reading, as I understood Mr Sanders’ assignment. But the poem totally flummoxed me.
When I later became an English professor, I tried to walk a line between telling my students what something meant and leaving them completely adrift if I thought some background might help their reading. Sometimes sitting with a hard poem and no clues is just frustrating.
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.
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.