Poems to Live By: ‘In my craft or sullen art’

In my craft or sullen art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Dylan Thomas

What’s the point of poetry? What’s the point of art of any kind? Incredible as it may seem to other generations, this is a question we have to ask as libraries are being closed and arts organisations have their funding cut or lose it completely. We have become pragmatic. If it doesn’t serve a clear purpose and if it doesn’t make things better we don’t really need it. ‘Make things better’ usually means materially or economically and always for me. So what’s the point of poetry?

Thomas suggests that he writes poetry not for his own ‘ambition’ or for material objects or for fame and adulation and the praise of the crowd. Nor is it to compete with or follow in the line of those great poets from the past with their ‘nightingales and psalms’ or to be remembered, like them, long after he has died. Nor is it for sophisticated, deep thinkers who will debate and deconstruct poetry. Nor is it for money. It is for you. It is for me. It is for the ‘common wages’ of our secret hearts.

I always thought that life would get easier as I got older. Less complicated, less messy. I was wrong. This fragile existence is saturated in grief. The personal grief of loss and disappointment and our own duplicitous hearts; the grief of humanity’s endless desire to destroy; the grief that all this beauty flickers for such a brief moment before the darkness comes. Where else can we turn but to love, to wrap one another in our arms in the dark of the night as ‘the moon rages’. And the poet speaks to this. To this common feeling deep within us, to comfort us, to help us understand, to see clearly even for just a moment.

But there is more. I can’t read this poem without feeling the beauty of it. The sound, the rhythm, the richness of the language. Even in this grief, ‘the griefs of the ages’, there is great beauty and, even if we only feel it briefly, it can scatter grief and loss and pity.

 Isn’t that enough of a purpose for poetry?

Where love and beauty and our hunger for them come from is a different question for another poem at another time.

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