Monday, October 24, 2011

Dylan Thomas and Hank Williams: They Shared Their Art and Died Young

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels…”
St. Paul (II Corinthians 4:7)

Statue of the poet Dylam Thomas
in Swansea, Wales
Life hurls herself in all of her fullness, as is her wont, though most cast a blind eye and a deaf ear. Some cannot help seeing and hearing.  The surpassing greatness of the power of life flows in excess. The poets and seers are astounded and try their best to tell the wonders, the beauty, and the heartache of dancing within the realm of creation.

Dylan Thomas and Hank Williams both had to write it. One told it, and one sang it, but her essence was so strong that the seers began to temper the onslaught of vision with alcohol. Some peopple drink to numb the pain, others drink to quiet the vision. Still others drink when there is no other one to accompany them on their visionary road.

Memorial statue of Hank Williams
Montgomery Alabama, USA
In another time, they would have been taken into the community to be honored and protected in their shamanic states. They would have been allowed a safe place to tell their visions and sing their songs. Ritual and dance would have marked the comings and goings of Life’s emanations into the human community. The shaman would have been heard, then would have been assisted in his return to everyday life. Permission for vision and permission for cooling toward the ordinary would have been granted.

Today, our shamans enter without training or forewarning. Our humanity, being a few steps removed from the natural rhythms of life, still requires a word of Life. We are ever more bereft of that breath of Spirit. The poet comes of age who is by nature receptive to the Word of Life and Her spirit breath. Beauty of life, hunger of longing, and nearness of death become the ever present company of the poet. The poet must speak whether we hear or not.

Robert Graves wrote a fascinating short story, “The Shout.” It was about a mysterious Englishman, a patient at a mental asylum, who made himself a guest in the house of a young musician and his wife. He claimed to have lived among the Australian Aborigine and had learned secrets of the soul and of nature. He had learned a shout which when vocalized could bring madness and even death to all within hearing range.  He had an unusual control over the man and his wife during his visit. Whether it was all dream, fantasy, or reality, the reader cannot quite be sure.  Graves stated later that the story was an allegory about the disruption that poetry brings to family life.

Dylan and Hank drank themselves to an early grave. If the alcohol had not killed them, the poetry might have. Yet their words and songs remain as a marvel of talent and beauty. The living can calmly remark how amazing it was that so much work came from such a short life.  Their lives and deaths are a testament of how we hold such a vast treasure within ordinary “earthen vessels.” It is as though we are not completely wired to handle the full current of life’s reality.  And yet, Life continues to beckon. Those who have ears to hear celebrate its beauty and wonder. Most of us take that wonder in small doses: a visit to the symphony, a hike in the woods, an appreciation of a sunset, or a favorite hymn or poem taken in from time to time.  We still have shamans and poets walking among us, declaring to us the promise of life.  Sometimes we hear them; sometimes we come too late in our appreciation of their vision.


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