Tag Archives: Dylan Thomas

“They are long last friends.”

Dylan Thomas enjoyed revisiting clichéed expressions, refreshing them to offer his reader new insights, experiences, lines of thought. Phrases such as “a dog among the fairies, The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream” (“Altarwise by Owl light”) and “Dead men naked they shall be one  With the man in the wind and the west moon” (“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”) wake us up with a tug on the bell of familiarity. 

Sometimes a student error has the same effect. This is one such error.

The reader of student papers (as distinct from the reader of a Dylan Thomas poem) must of course first ask: “Is this just a typo?” We can be almost certain here that my writer was going for “long-lost friends,” and possibly all she did was hit “a” instead of “o” and omit the hyphen, a little mark students are generally not comfortable with anyway. The reader silently corrects and moves on. No problem. We knew what she meant.

Just as likely, though, is that my student has not heard the expression “long-lost friend” very often; she is, after all, only 18 or 19. How long can friends be lost for if one’s entire life is two decades or less? And if she hasn’t heard the expression very often, she may not have heard it correctly. I’ve looked at a lot of other errors that seem to have resulted from reaching into one’s own lexicon to interpret an unfamiliar term, and this may be one of those errors. She may have misunderstood what she heard.

If so, then what intention did she add to the phrase? We get to play with punctuation here, all the “little marks” that group words into concepts.

Did she mean “long, last friends”? That is, was she thinking of enduring relationships with people, possibly tall people, who were likely to be among the mourners at her gravesite? For some reason this strikes me as a kind of Dylan-Thomas-y thing to write.

Or are we seeing “long-last friends”—those sturdy ones who can be relied on through thick and thin, kind of like Levi’s jeans or Wearever cookware or Firestone tires—?

I like the latter. Rather than the poignancy of friends separated by space and time, meeting again in a joyous embrace, two bereft halves coalescing finally into a stable and satisfying whole, this phrase offers us the practical, workaday comfort of friends who are, as so many of my students like to say, “THERE for each other.”

I therefore offer you the companion phrase as something you might want to add to your lexicon. “At my high school reunion I enjoyed the thrill of seeing again some long-lost friends” can be joined by “When I got home I told Jane, my long-last friend, all about it.”

Remember to keep that hyphen in there, though, or you’ll have to be writing from a sickbed or coffin.

Medieval statues of Mourners—or Long, Last Friends. No reunions here. This image from an article on the exhibit “Mourners” at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon.

“He shot his son out of frustration…”

This is the killer father again. I don’t know if the topic spawned so many strange sentences because my students just weren’t ready to write clearly or because they were uncomfortable writing about a young man about their own age who was shot dead for smoking a little dope.

At any rate, the student-author of today’s sentence has a credible idea about the father’s motive: frustration. But let’s go on:

“He shot his son out of frustration with his drug problem and inability to get back on his own feet.”

The part of the sentence I love is the melded clichés: “stand on his own two feet” and “get back on his feet.” Neither expression seems particularly sensible or necessary when you take a close look, but a cliché properly uttered is comfortable. The loss of “two”—or the addition of “own”—creates a strange phrase, a discomfort; and that little bump allows just enough time for the reader to think about the words, and therefore to entertain the possibility that one might get back on someone else’s feet.

Dylan Thomas had a good time with clichés, or perhaps we might call them common figures of speech, transposing elements  to give the reader pause and create fresh ideas:

                         …a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream…

(Thus the reporter with a nose for news becomes a dog with a much-more-threatening jaw for news in “Altar-wise by Owl-Light.”)

Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon…

(Here the cosmos is animated and made strange when the man leaves the moon and supplants the “west” in the wind in “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”)

Poets can get away with this kind of serious playfulness because they are armed with intent. The reader assumes the intent and takes the time to contemplate the phrasing and its role in the meaning-making of the poem.

Students have to be more careful with similar kinds of wordplay because they cannot predict whether the reader will perceive intent or presume incompetence.

And in the case of my student’s phrase, intent is most likely not present. The rest of the essay showed no such spriteliness, and the sentence in question shows no such grace; furthermore, the melded image adds not insight but only confusion—which, I’m afraid, is probably an accurate reflection of the student’s own measure of control of the sentence.

I do find quite poignant the idea that had the young man managed to stand on his own feet instead of, perhaps, his father’s—or the guy’s who scored him the grass—he might have been less frustrating to his father: he might have been permitted to live.

A lesson to take to heart, I guess: No matter how many feet you have, stand on your own.



“The rhyme scheme is scattered throughout the poem.”

I’m sorry, but if it’s scattered, it ain’t a scheme.

The two words may actually occupy the same page of a dictionary (they do in my Webster’s), but, despite Zelda Gilroy’s belief, propinquity does not make a relationship.

“A systematic or organized framework; a plan” is how Webster’s defines “scheme.” All the other definitions, dependent as they are on context, still share that central idea of planning and structure (even when the planning is “crafty or secret,” as in “The brokers devised an investment scheme crafted entirely of regulatory loopholes…”).

“To scatter,” on the other hand, means “to fling away heedlessly; to distribute irregularly; to sow by casting in all directions; to divide into ineffectual small portions; to occur or fall irregularly or at random.” You can scatter chopped pecans over the apple-pie filling, but that lattice crust is a scheme.

I evidently set my students up for failure when it comes to talking about poetry. They would like to cut to the chase, starting right off with pronouncements like “I think what the poem is trying to say is to never give up!” But I insist that they begin the discussion of any poem by noting its title, its length, and its structure—the way a musician takes note of the clef, key, and meter before launching into the concerto. I know they’ve had lessons on rhyme and meter in high school, but I scrupulously review those things, and also present examples of the major traditional forms. I review definitions. I even have a little game I play with them to try to get them to hear different metrical forms. And still I have a number of students who can’t even tell the difference between “rhyme” and “rhythm” (okay, they look alike, but so do “Mother” and “Mothra” and I’ll bet most people don’t confuse them), let alone “meter” and “rhythm.”

So what’s going on here is that my student is conscientiously looking for a rhyme scheme but isn’t quite sure what that means.

She may be looking at a piece of blank or free verse, in which case she’ll never find that scheme. Or perhaps it’s a poem by Dylan Thomas such as “Poem in October,” where rhymes may be pure ( turning/burning), or in some way imperfect (heaven/heron/beckon; wood/rook/foot; chapels/parables), or very nearly perfect (snail/tales). Or, heaven help her, she may be looking at a regularly-rhymed poem (Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example). She just isn’t sure what it is, or how to hear it. But, she assures us, there’s rhyming going on somewhere.

When I decided in the ninth grade that I would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature for my poetry (still waiting, by the way, Oslo!), my notion of poetry was guided to a great extent by my then-favorite poet, e.e. cummings, and my sketchy understanding of what he was doing. My words were all lower-case, and the words themselves were “scattered” all over the page. If they were willing to behave in a more pedestrian manner, as sometimes happened, they were still simple and beautiful (no fancy vocabulary or references to mundane things like cars or school or airplanes). But, although cummings frequently rhymes, I cast that off with the ankle socks of childhood (all my poems rhymed when I was a child, but I was determined to put off childish things). And of course, everything I wrote was actually a soul-spill, heart-cry, my endlessly fascinating adolescent emotions making their way onto paper the way I would walk: one foot after the other, one word after the other. I had not yet fallen in love with structure, and so I wasn’t particularly interested in, or curious about, it.

Most of my students seem to think that writing is largely a matter of one word after the other, and they want to start with the first word and stagger ever forward. What happens in the course of writing, then, has a certain random, or at least ad hoc, quality, and they assume that’s the way it is for everyone. No surprise, then, to find them stating that “the themes of love and death are littered all over the work” or “an example of how there is no rhyme scheme can be found anywhere.

It’s all chance. Maybe if you plan to rely on chance, the result is a scattered scheme?