Presidents' Poets: Jimmy Carter and Dylan Thomas
by Gerry Hendershot
In a nod to the election, the Poetry Foundation posted a list of U.S. Presidents and the poets with whom they were associated (see it here). I was surprised to learn that our first President, George Washingto, a slave owner, wrote a letter praising the "poetical Talents" of Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American to publish a collection of poetry.
I was even more surprised that pious Jimmy Carter, famous for confessing to Playboy he had "committed adultery in my heart many times," is a fan of 20th C. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, about whom Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:
"He was undoubtedly all that he has been represented as being – a drunkard and philanderer, compulsively incompetent and dishonest about money, a parasite on the generosity of many friends (New Statesman, August 1, 2014)."
According to the Poetry Foundation, "Jimmy Carter is a great advocate of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Upon discovering that there was no memorial to Thomas in Westminster Abbey’s 'Poet’s Corner,' Carter launched a successful campaign to install a plaque there for the poet (op. cit.)."
Why does a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher advocate for a reprobate Welsh poet? Well, Bishop Williams notes, with approval, that one obituarist wrote that Thomas' life was a manifestation of Christianity; Williams then adds:
"Thomas was no admirer or adherent of conventional religion; but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all the varieties of human oddity (op. cit.)."
As evidence, Williams cites a poem written by Thomas for his 1954 BBC radio drama, "Under Milk Wood," which was made into a 1972 film of the same title starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In the play, the poem is attributed to the Rev. Eli Jenkins:
Rev. Eli Jenkins' Prayer
by Dylan Thomas
Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please do keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die
And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I'm sure is always touch-and-go.
We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.
O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye - but just for now!
The Hymn is written in "Long Meter" form, or 88.88 meter in hymnal notation, meaning each stanza has four lines of eight syllables each. It has been set to music in that form. You can hear and see a performance here.
Dylan Thomas raises a question for self-professing Christians: can a "non-Christian," or those who answer "None" when asked their religious affiliation, be followers of Jesus's Way? Bishop Williams and Jimmy Carter say, "Yes!" Let us all be so generous and welcoming they.