The “Sullen Art” of Writing Poetry


Sure, some writers love to spout off about inspiration, about their passion for writing, about the way their precious ideas bloop out as finished products, ninth month in the first week and Hail Caesarean!

Then you have the honest writers. The ones who write quality poems, but acknowledge it as work that seems to take this side of forever. Writer as the eighth dwarf, call it, whistling as he heads off to the mines for another day’s work. Poem as dirt and sweat, then. As collar so stained you can no longer see the blue.

One poet who described writing this way was that brief star from Wales, Dylan Thomas. I say brief because his life was cut short by the black hole called alcohol (also known as “America’s drug of choice”).

In the end, Thomas writes, his work is for the lovers “Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.” Now those are words a writer can identify with, as writing, even when published, seems the province of a vacuum, of a god named Hoover or Dirt Devil.

Here is Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” Does it look, like so many good poems do, spontaneous and born of sea or briny foam (or, God save us, of Adam’s rib)–miraculously? Or can you picture the messy process, the ink stains and half-past-midnight oil, start to finish?

I know a poet who claims he sends no poem to markets until he’s revised it for at least a year. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But if it’s true, it’s wise. Wiser than any golden potato chip.


“In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.



  1. the end rhyme structure says such a lot in this poem. the gap between ‘art’ and ‘heart’ is ironic, pointed at us who cause it, so it seems.
    I believe Thomas was on medication the fateful night of 18 whiskies & some witnesses say it wasn’t true. he drank half pints in fact usually, which suggests he wasn’t the soused Welsh bard we have mythologized him as.
    i love hard working poets, i claim to be one, like Roethke or Blake, or Thomas too. i do believe Paul Valery that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” & at some point this admission must be faced for us to progress.
    Great piece Ken. Right up my alley this.


  2. With due credit to the “Fun Poems” section of Agenda Magazine.

    William Oxley

    In this Daft and Stupid Art
    (with apologies to D.T.)

    In this daft and stupid art
    for which I was hung
    in chains from the start
    because somewhere I’d read
    lovers undressing for love
    risk death through cold
    unless they stay in bed,
    leaving the rest of the night to us
    poets to moon in the dark
    before raging home on a late-night bus
    pissed as newts and singing like larks,
    spewing contents of lung and heart –
    not to mention tummies at times –
    and all for the sake of an art
    that rhymes. Or it does sometimes.

    Appealing to the proud man apart
    or not as the case may be,
    or the man-in-the-moon-and-bus-queue
    and to every woman from nurse to tart,
    not to mention our very own muse
    who shares with us a leading part
    in this daft and stupid art.


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