The next piece in the essay class was "Notes on the Art of Poetry" by Dylan Thomas, which confusingly is also a poem. The essay is most likely from the book Modern Poetics: Essays on Poetry edited by James Scully (1965).
Although the essay in the version from the book is not available online, quotes from the essay are found here and there: https://quotesondesign.com/dylan-thomas/ and this version is not the same as my version, but it's close.
The subtitle says the essay was “written in the summer of 1951, at Laugharne, in reply to questions posed by a student” – a fact that seemed somewhat indulgent at first; but I think this a very understandable impulse, the desire to elaborate on something you previously only considered while thinking on your feet.
Anyway, Thomas starts by saying how poetry first came to him with sound and nursery rhymes (which I can relate to as the first two books my parents gave me were my father's copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses and Hallmark's A Child's Rhymes which was illustrated). Dylan says, “let me say that the things that first made me love language and want to work in it and for it were nursery rhymes and folk talks, the Scottish Ballads, a few lines of hymns…”
He maintains “I am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly…they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth”
“What I do like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, figures of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realised truth I might try to reach and realise."
“My first, and greatest, liberty was that of being able to read everything and anything I cared to. I read indiscriminately, and with my eyes hanging out.”
He goes on to define the charge that he has been influenced by James Joyce; he also talks about “the great rhythms” of the Bible and Sigmund Freud.
Then he moves over into talking about craft:
"I may apply my technical paraphernalia. I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the direction I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twisting and convolutions of words, and inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.”
He also lists as influences the Surrealists (and the subconscious mind…without the aid of logic of reason…illogically and unreasonably in paint and words”) but he breaks with them in insisting that afterwards composition “must go through all the rational processes of the intellect. The Surrealists, on the other hand, put their words down together on paper exactly as they emerge from chaos; they do not shape these words or put them in order; to them chaos is the shape and order. This seems to me to be exceedingly presumptuous; the Surrealists imagine that whatever the dredge from their subconscious selves and put down in paint and words must, essentially, be of some interest or value. I deny this. One of the arts of the poet is to make comprehensible and articulate what might emerge from the subconscious sources; one of the great main uses of the intellect is to select, from the amorphous mass of subconscious images, those that will best further his imaginative purpose, which is to write the best poem he can.”
I agree with this. Neglecting to edit through selection, deletion, reconfiguring has always seemes presumptuous and lazy to me. Five little more minutes could turn something mediocre or solipsistic into something amazing and meaningful to someone besides yourself.
Thomas finishes attempting to avoid defining poetry.
“What does it matter what poetry is, after all….All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation, or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem.”
“You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick…But you’re back again where you began. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.”
And that's pretty much all you have to say about that.