Writing to Explore Influence and Admiration, Part 2

Many of us know the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who is pleading in his famous villanelle that his father not easily give in to death.  The archetype of the father is strong in all of us, even if our own fathers remain enigmas to us.  There is so much we honor, admire, and need from our fathers, and there is so much most of them have given to us, in person or in absence, both in love and sometimes in anger.  For some of us, men other than our own fathers have mentored us as a father might.

With Father’s Day approaching, your father or a father figure is probably increasingly in your mind and heart.  If you want to write about or to your father, you can allow Thomas’ poem to call forth your words and feelings, whether you write an essay, a free verse poem or try your hand at a villanelle. If you would like to write about a different powerful figure in your life, the following exercise will help you do that, too.

As you read Thomas’ poem, notice the patterns in the lines.  If, after you try the exercise, you decide you are going to write a villanelle, the rhyme scheme will also become important, but for now, what matters most is noticing the line repetitions.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I am sure that you have recognized the command form in two of Thomas’s famous lines: “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  If you could make one heartfelt command to your dad, what would it be?

Here are some commands that come to my mind:

  1. Smile, smile for all that you have taught to me,
  2. Listen, listen; I have grown to understand,
  3. Cut that wallpaper, sand that trim, mow the grass; do what you have always done.

After you have thought about several commands you want to make, think of another command for each that goes with it in the way that “Do not go gentle into that good night” makes sense with “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I wrote these three continuations:

  1. Don’t greet each day as if the worst is yet to come,
  2. Stare, stare into my eyes and find the ways I honor you,
  3. Remember painting the basement posts with dragons wrapped around them, setting cement on top of gravel for a patio, planting cosmos all around.

My command couplets would be:

  1. Smile, smile for all that you have taught to me. / Don’t greet each day as if the worst is yet to come.
  2. Listen, listen; I have grown to understand. / Stare, stare into my eyes and find the ways I honor you.
  3. Cut that wallpaper, sand that trim, mow the grass; do what you have always done. / Remember painting the basement posts with dragons wrapped around them, setting cement on top of gravel for a patio, planting cosmos all around.

After you have several “command couplets” written down, choose one couplet to use as Thomas does.

Either in prose or in poetry, you will write six parts.

Begin by starting with the first command of the command couplet you have chosen.  Write your way to the end of a first stanza or paragraph in an essay.  But then add the second command line from this first couplet you chose.

Continue writing the memories and images and associations that come up for you in a second stanza or paragraph. When you feel you have gotten to the end of this part, add in that first command.

Now, when you go on to write the third part, end it with that second command.  Next, write the fourth part and end it with the first command.  Write a fifth part and end it with the second command in the original couplet. End the sixth and last part with both commands one after the other.

Even if it feels forced to put the lines in where I’ve said to, go ahead and do it. You might find that the repetition both builds emotion and grounds it.

Alternatively, instead of choosing a set of two commands to work with, use all of them.  You can thread them throughout your writing in a pattern you devise for yourself or you can use each of the commands as headings for an essay or poem in parts.  Or, you might use the commands as first sentences in your essay or poem parts to continue from one memory to the next.

With the music and forcefulness of Dylan Thomas’ words in your ears, each of your commands will call up concrete memories and associations. Let yourself write quickly as you would in free writing.

Experiment. See what happens–love, awe, thanks, forgiveness, and longing have a strong likelihood of surfacing. When you have finished writing, you might find that one of the command lines makes a good title for the writing.

 

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