It’s near-darkness on a placid autumn evening and I’m sitting in my sherbet-lemon car. Floodlights towering over the pitch beyond throw their glow upon the burnished leaves of the birch tree in the car park. A car pulls up next to the pitch and a woman with a baby harnessed to her chest walks up the lane. The baby’s name is Max. They are wrapped together beneath her coat and she is talking to Max, kissing his hatted head. She watches for a while as the coaches shout to the boys who throw and catch, run and ruck. She tells Max how well his big brother is doing, explains to him some of the simpler rules of the game and, even as she breathes in the milky sweetness of his forehead, she knows that the years will be short before it is him she is watching in the steaming pack of muddy boys on a still autumn night.
I sit back in my car seat and put my head against the rest. A migraine is in retreat. It is too dark to read – the floodlights don’t reach this far – so I take out my phone and find something to listen to. Dylan Thomas shuffles to the front of the queue, he’s reading Over Sir John’s Hill. I rest my head and close my eyes; I’m there with him and it’s bliss.
I think Dylan Thomas’ poems work on many levels, many points of sophistication; Thomas is to poetry what Abba is to pop music. Listen to the poem (here, although I prefer the reading from ‘Dylan Thomas at the BBC’) and you will hear lively imagery animated by alliteration, assonance and repetition. It sounds free and almost prose-like, but if you read it (here) you can see that, as in Don Paterson’s poetry, everything is held together by a solid frame of form. Five stanzas of twelves lines with a syllabic pattern and rhyming aabccbdefegh.
As I’ve said before, poems seem to take on an added dimension when read aloud. Donald Hall agrees. In an article for The New Yorker, a series of anecdotes and thoughts on poetry readings, he says Thomas’ poems were ‘fabricated for his rich and succulent Welsh organ’. He also says:
‘When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way. Charles Olson said that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Really, content is only an excuse for oral sex.’
But for me, as a listener, it is something purer.
Sitting there in the darkness, listening to Thomas examine his own mortality, it took me back to that moment of promise before a first kiss.