Under Milk Wood
“To begin at the beginning…”
Dylan Thomas “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood starts with these words. I fell in love with it when I heard it performed on PBS about 50 years ago. 50 years ago? WTF?
Perhaps twenty years later I decided to memorize the poem. Or I chose to play at learning it. I didn’t get very far. Every once in a while I resurrect that intention and do a refresher course. Sometimes I make a little progress, but mostly I keep from losing what I’ve gained.
Poetry changes you. Committing it to memory changes you permanently. There’s no alternative. It has to change you. You can’t remember it unless the physical structure of your brain changes. But I’m talking about non-trivial change. The poem becomes a part of you. If the poem is powerful and beautiful, then you become a little more powerful and beautiful for making it a part of you.
Under Milk Wood was separate from the core of my being—whatever that is—when I started. The words were in my nervous system, distant from the part of my brain that enacts “me.” To recite it I had to go on a hunt, rummaging around, find where bits of it had been saved—it’s not in a single place. Then I had to gather it up and reconstruct it. And only then I can recite it.
But as I absorbed he poem, the poem and I became more closely connected. It became a part of me. Or maybe I created a part whose job is reciting it. Or perhaps it’s alive within me, and it speaks itself through me.
I start to recite, and the words flow. Each word pulls the next behind it. It is effortless, and I can witness the performance. I am not the performer but part of the audience. The poetry appears as though by magic.
I don’t believe that “I” have much agency, but I do have some. I can turn my attention in a direction and create an intention, and things happen. If I turn my attention to Under Milk Wood and my intention to reciting it, then the words come out of my mouth. If I turn my attention to this experience and my intention to blogging, then the words come out of my fingers. I watch them as they come out, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. As they are now.
When I’m voice typing, I can get more done, in less time. My writing is serviceable. But Dylan Thomas makes music with his words. He paints pictures with his words. He creates feelings with his words.
To begin, at the beginning.
It is still, moonless night in the small town, starless and Bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters and rabbits wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black fishing boat bobbing sea.
The houses are blind as moles, though moles see fine tonight, in the snouting velvet dingles. Or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widow’s weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.
Google’s voice typing typically does a pretty good job of transcribing what I say, but it has a hell of a time with poetry. It wants to make everything mundane. It translated the phrase “there in the muffled middle” as “they are in the muscles little.”
One of the things I like about Thomas’s poetry, and which makes this piece particularly hard to memorize, is the way he uses lists of things to paint a richly detailed picture.
After telling us that “all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now,” he tells us:
Hush! The babies are sleeping. The farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen, and pensioners; cobbler, school teacher, postman and publican; the undertaker and the fancy woman; drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman; the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives.
And no, voice typing. It is
cocklewomen and not
What we grow into depends on the seeds we sow, the soil we plant, and nutrients we provide them. Poetry, like Under Milk Wood is full of seeds, it prepares a ground where other ideas—poetic and not—can thrive. It nourishes the soul.