I came across a copy of W.S. Merwin’s Lament for the Makers. It’s an anthology about the size of a 45rpm record, constructed as an elegy for some of the poets Merwin admired. The work of these poets—twenty three of them—comprises the anthology. It’s a nice basis for a book; embodying the title poem lends it certain come-to-life vividness.
Constrained by brevity of lives and of presentation, he chooses unexpectedly from mostly familiar poets. Sylvia Plath’s “Words,” for example, caught my eye on the first flip-through. For Dylan Thomas, he offers “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
I didn’t know the poem myself, but right away the title indicated that it was going to be a difficult one to pull off. Dylan Thomas manages it. I found myself in the surprising position of reaching for an anthology to read more Dylan Thomas—it had been awhile.
Michael Robbins writes of Dylan Thomas’s work that “self-seriousness is the major trope” (the whole short piece is worth reading). But in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” Dylan Thomas enacts a kind of stepping down from proclaiming. He reveals a flip-side of self-consciousness. He sort of contrasts himself.
Self-seriousness, meanwhile, to use Robbins’ more specific term, is seductive. As such, as a writer’s writer, Dylan Thomas can lure one into imitation—big mistake. Perhaps a writer-reader, from a conscious stance—at least specifically avoiding imitation—can use, burn, that intense energy, and produce something different.
In any case, so prompted, I turned around and wrote some prompts.
I might add one: create a selection of poets to anthologize, and explain your selection. Attempting to do that in a poem, as Merwin does, would be a real challenge, I think, especially for more than about seven of them*. But if you truly adore (or mourn) the poets you chose, it might work wonderfully.
First read Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”
In a letter, Thomas wrote: “I make one image…let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together; a fourth contradictory image, and let them all within my imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seeds of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time…” (as quoted in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry).
The first stanza of the poem illustrates this technique, a complete ‘seed cycle’ within a formal limit:
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer..."
Write a poem using this technique, or a variant of it.
Adjust compression (the spacing of the contrasted elements) as needed and experimentally. Also, adjust the formal constraint (rhymes, stanza shape), or jettison it entirely.
Less Death’s Dominion
First read “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”
Write a poem so unexpected, that death shall have no dominion in it at all. The goal is to strain (or non-strain) to write not only with freshness (a familiar goal that in and of itself seems to yearn towards a writerly "death shall have no dominion" on its own), but literally to create an open, clear, deathless field or vista or space in which everybody has a star “at elbow and foot.” Is it possible?
The interesting thing about Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is the extent to which death does have dominion in it.
For this exercise, however, the poem should be different; death will have no dominion in it, not even in paradox. It will be a poem from another world.
* See the notion of "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which suggests that humans can hold onto about seven new concepts at a time.