A rather longish excerpt from
(Poem #270) Under Milk Wood
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courter's-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are 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 widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now. Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yard; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs. You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride. Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman's lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread's bakery flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies. Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms. Time passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now. Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the combs and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wished and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams. From where you are, you can hear their dreams...
'Under Milk Wood' is subtitled 'A Play for Voices'; originally written for the BBC, it has been performed countless times since Dylan Thomas' death in 1953, and is quite possibly his best-loved work. Today's poem is an excerpt from it; in fact, it's merey the first 20 or so lines of the play. I had to exercise the strictest discipline to stop myself from running more - the entire work is every bit as good as this prologue. As usual with Thomas, the words are utterly magical, a torrent of sound and colour. Note especially the use of transferred epithets (in phrases such as 'the dogs in the wet-nosed yard') - more pronounced than in most of Thomas' work. thomas. In response to comments/requests from several of our readers, Martin and I have decided to add a new feature to the Minstrels - an occasional column titled Poetry 101. This column is aimed at readers without much formal knowledge of poetry - we'll be discussing things like the basics of rhyme and metre, the histories of various poetic movements, the art of criticism, construction, deconstruction and reconstruction... well, you get the idea. Disclaimer: I am not a poet. Nor am I a critic, commentator, essayist, or Writer (with a capital W) of any sort. Neither, for that matter, is Martin. Our only claim to superior knowledge is that we both like poetry, and read a lot of it. So please don't take our writings for gospel truth - in this (as with everything else) we could be (and often are) wrong. And please do write in if you spot any mistakes on our part - we're just beginners at this game! If there's any particular topic you'd like us to talk about, you have only to let us know. [Poetry 101] Today I'd like to talk about a dichotomy that's basic to the understanding of poetry (and, for that matter, of all literature) - the difference between 'connotation' and 'denotation'. Let's start with the meanings of the two words: Connotation: the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes. Denotation: meaning; especially a direct, specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea. Thus you can think of the denotation of a word as being its 'dictionary definiton', while the connotation as being all the baggage of facts and feelings a word carries with it. Consider, for instance, the word 'clipper'. It denotes 'a fast sailing ship, especially one with long slender lines, an overhanging bow, tall masts, and a large sail area'. But its connotations include the tea trade, the East India Company, the Cutty Sark and the War of Jenkins' Ear; these in turn evoke thoughts of Washington and the Revolution of 1776, Clive of India, Scottish border ballads, the rise of Napoleon and Nelson... As you can see, the connotations of a particular word can be endless; furthermore, they depend critically on the person reading the word - someone other than myself would associate a completely different set of images with the word 'clipper'. Poetry works by connotation . The task of the poet is to choose, out of a plethora of 'possible' words, the one word that fits both the superficial/structural demands of the composition and the themes underlying the work as a whole. It's not easy, but when it works it can be glorious. To illustrate using the absurd, consider the following line: 'My love is like a red red fruit'. Although 'fruit' fits the poem structurally and semantically, it makes a mockery of the line. Why? Simply because it has none of the associations (springtime, purity, beauty... ) of the word 'rose'. As the above example makes clear, the use of metaphor in poetry depends to a large extent on the connotative power of words. And that's why connotation offers immense scope for compression of meaning and emotion - a single well-chosen syllable can replace reams of drab descriptive prose , as today's poem vividly demonstrates. Dylan Thomas uses 'words as much for their connotations and rhythmic/melodic properties as for their meanings' - phrases like 'the snouting, velvet dingles' convey a lot more than just the words that make them up. And (as I've mentioned several times before) Thomas was the master of the compressed metaphor; he 'juxtaposes disparate words into combinations which seem utterly right.... [his] phrases, with their wealth of connotation and descriptive detail, seem so natural that you don't even notice them on a first reading.' I think that's enough for the day. More later. [Notes]  This is, of course, a shameless over-generalization. But bear with me, please.  The key phrase is 'well-chosen'. [Minstrels Links] Dylan Thomas is one of my favourite poets (and Martin's, too), so there's a lot of his stuff on the Minstrels website. There's a brief biography of Dylan Thomas accompanying one of the very first poems to be run on the Wondering Minstrels, Thomas' Prologue to his Collected Poems, at poem #14 Prologue is in many ways similar to today's poem; a less dense work than either is Poem In October, which (surprise!) I ran in October; you can read it at poem #225 And similar to Poem In October in form and spirit is the beautiful Fern Hill, poem #138 The commentary accompanying Fern Hill has more material on compressed metaphors and Thomas' use of language; it also talks about Thomas' poetic philosophy. You can learn more about the latter by reading everybody's favourite Dylan Thomas poem, the utterly magnificent Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, poem #38 [Trivia] 'Starless and Bible Black' is the title of a classic album by King Crimson.