The Novel (Part 2): Why novelists should read (and write) poetry*

For a long period of my adult life, I paid little attention to poetry. Yes, it was a part of my growing up. My father loved to read and recite poetry. Yes, I studied it in college and grad school, as my degrees were in English literature. Yes, I taught English composition; therefore, I read and reflected on poetry during those chapters in my life. Other than those periods, however, poetry remained in the background of my reading and my consciousness for many years.

When I moved to Los Angeles, some years ago, I was accepted into a local writing workshop. The moderator and some of the participants were poets. We met once a week. Every fourth week, we had a poetry hour, during which we read and discussed poems we had chosen from among the world’s poetry, old and new—poems that were as near as my bookshelf, my computer devices, my library and bookstore.

It was while preparing for and participating in the monthly poetry hour, as well as listening to workshop members discuss their own poetry, that I rediscovered poetry.

Inevitably, I gave in to the urge to write a few poems of my own. Most of my attempts were crudely crafted, but I got help and encouragement from the workshop. I was urged to rethink, revise, go farther, go deeper. The outcome I hadn’t foreseen was that, because of my exposure to and attempts at writing poetry, I became a more disciplined, a more thoughtful, a more insightful novelist.

In my novel, The Second Mrs. Price, there is a scene in which the Price family gather together one evening and read aloud, in round-robin style, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.** The poem itself is a favorite of mine. It is a celebration of youth, and a nod to the inevitability of losing that youth. It is about the timelessness of that brief, often idyllic, season when we were “happy as the grass was green.”

Dylan Thomas has been described as “a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.” *** In a style reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas takes daring leaps as he bends and shapes language to fit his vision, his voice, his unique consciousness.

When I linger over the fluid, tantalizing lines in “Fern Hill,” I am beguiled by the potential of language freed from the restraints of formality, convention, grammar, even logic. I ask myself: How many ways can a story be told? How close can I get to my character’s thought processes? How honest can I be, especially in portraying flawed, sometimes unsympathetic, characters? How can I put into words the ephemeral moments that make up our lives?

In The Second Mrs. Price, I attempt to answer those questions and test those boundaries, just as, in “Fern Hill,” Thomas is testing the boundaries of language.

Bernard, the patriarch of the Price family, is in his late 80s. It seems natural and appropriate that “Fern Hill” is one of Bernard’s favorite poems. I see him as the embodiment of time and timelessness, perennial youth and death, as he remembers “the sun that is young once only.”

Even as he approaches the end of his life, Bernard is in love—with youth, with beauty, with nature, with the small comforts of each day, with the memory of his late wife, Anna. Just as Dylan Thomas is aware of the intertwining of life and death in all of creation, Bernard understands that, from his earliest youth, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Selene, the flawed heroine of The Second Mrs. Price, takes a daring leap into the unknown in her quest for a fulfillment that is, perhaps, beyond her reach. She is attuned to Bernard, but she is living her “green and golden” moment, rather than reflecting back on it. Her obsession for Griff is disturbing but, hopefully, the reader comes to relate to her—to the pulse of her attraction, to the often self-imposed stranglehold of security, to her longing for freedom.

“Poetry,” Dylan Thomas is quoted as saying, “is what in a poem … makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” ****

In much the same way, the novel allows us to enter the mind, the consciousness–the very soul–of the characters. The emotional divide that separates us as individuals can be bridged through storytelling and the imaginative use of language.

For more about Dylan Thomas, his life and his work, visit discoverdylanthomas.com, the official website hosted by Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of Dylan Thomas and Creative Director of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate.

*See my January 27 post, The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price,” at tonifuhrman.com.

**“Fern Hill” was published in 1945. Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1914, Dylan Thomas died in 1953 while on tour in New York. He was 39 years old.

***https://vinhanley.com/2016/02/23/the-poetry-of-dylan-thomas/

**** https://izquotes.com/author/dylan-thomas/6

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