Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The divine Dylan

No, not Bob Dylan, but the guy from whom Bob stole his last name: poet Dylan Thomas, whose "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is currently playing on my iPod.

I'm feeling quite festive at the moment, in spite of the oppressive gray rain outside; though I think this feeling has more to do with the fact that I have a mere five essays left to grade, and those I will strategically leave to grade during my American Drama students' final exam tomorrow. If grading essays is worse than writing them, proctoring exams is comparable -- not quite as bad as writing exams, but so crushingly boring that one does well to have a distraction on hand. And while I suppose I could watch a DVD on my laptop with the earphones on, that might not appear quite as professional as grading papers.

But back to the divine Dylan, whose glorious language is a pleasure in and of itself. Indeed, my three favourite Christmas stories -- How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and "A Child's Christmas in Wales" -- are all so poetic and lyrical that they practically read as Christmas carols in and of themselves. Listen to the rhythms of Dickens as he describes Scrooge, in what is one of my favourite passages of prose: "Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster."

But Dylan Thomas trumps even Dickens ... "A Child's Christmas" is a simple, short story that merely details a typical Christmas day for the young Dylan, and the first sentence beautifully expresses how memories merge together in the mind's eye: "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

Read that out loud to yourself! Words given the quality of music ... One of Thomas' principal pastimes was to sit in his local pub with a pint and make lists of his favourite words. When you read his poetry, often the meanings of his combinations of words makes little or no sense: you have to read them for the sounds they make.

John Updike once said of Vladimir Nabokov that he wrote prose "the way it should be written -- exuberantly." The same is doubly so for Dylan Thomas. Listen to this description of the snow of his youth: "it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

Or of the postmen: "With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully."

"Mittened on them manfully." I love alliteration.

Or of some "useful" gifts received on Christmas day: "pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why."

Or of a "useless" gift (much preferred, or course, to the useful ones): "a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow."

Or of his roaming around the snowbound town: "I would scour the swathed town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out."

I love that ... so vivid an image of the red bird lying starkly on the snow, melancholy yet still beautiful.

I love writers who can, with the sheer elegance or force of their language, take the mundane and make it sublime. Dylan Thomas, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, Don DeLillo, George Eliot, James Joyce ... just to name a few (seeing as how I'm still in listing mode).

Listening to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" makes me forget the gaudy tinsel that permeates the mall the day after Halloween, the incessant advertising, the bludgeoning pressure to buy buy buy, and the adult anxieties that accompany much of this season. It even makes me forget the likes of Bill O'Reilly and his *%#%@# "war on Christmas" rhetoric.

Yes, feeling very festive this afternoon.


Lesley said...

Ok I'm a little scared at the holiday-ness you seem to have found. You're scaring me. I may have to go out on the street and find someone to hold me.

As long as you're not that creepy professor who sits and stares creepily at all the young girls in the class and clearly thinks creepy thoughts while acting creepy at the front of the room--you should be ok. And yes Mr. Professor I do realize that was a run on sentence with a lack of grammar that is proper.

Grading the papers portrays you as the "professor I hope I don't have next term because he is hard core if he's grading papers during another class of exams". Unless you look young enough to be "professor who probably got drunk last night and forgot he had to grade papers and is now doing so during this exam so he can go get drunk again tonight". Then I guess you're cool. But see the paragraph above about the creepiness. There is a line you know. And it's very easy to cross.

Clearly. Whoa, heebie jeebies there about an exam I wrote at Western all those light years ago.

Anonymous said...

The grocers'! oh, the grocers'! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses!......the almonds so extremely white,the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. WHO????? BUT DICKENS!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Then he got an idea!
An awful idea!
And he puzzled three hours, 'till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more."

Thank you, Dr. Seuss!!!

And Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Chris - Did you hear the revamped Under Milk Wood that the BBC Radio Four site made available a couple of years ago? They used the old Richard Burton narration (of course) but all the other parts were recast. The voices and sound effects were wonderful and the end result very lavish. I have it on a MiniDisc (not in surround sound, alas - I was limited to analogue recording at the time and transferred it later - but the atmosphere would come across the same if I'd captured it on a wax cylinder. Thomas's language takes some beating).

Anonymous said...

Follow-up: that updated surround-sound version of the original Richard Burton recording is available, if I understand correctly, on the 2004 "Season of Dylan Thomas" CD (available via Amazon for the price of a Fabergé egg. Stuff is so expensive!). Maybe you have it?

jo said...

Hey, I love "A Child's Christmas in Wales" too--and we have a beautiful edition of it belonging to the kids, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone--it's gorgeous. Also, here is stanza of a pretty George Herbert poem about Christmas (one of my excellent nineteenth-century students told me one day that "Herbert was his home boy"--I know! Herbert's 17th c, but still!)
Here's the poem (with apologies for the odd spacing):
Christmas (II)
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.
George Herbert