James Ellroy and Dylan Thomas’s ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’

When I saw James Ellroy read from his most recent novel Perfidia at the London Review Bookshop late last year (during which he signed my hardback copy with the helpful admonition ‘Alex – Finish ‘yo thesis!‘), he ended the Q&A session by reciting a Dylan Thomas poem. The recital was in response to a question posed by Ellroy himself – in other words, he wanted an excuse to recite it, and nobody had asked the question to which he had prepared it as an answer, that question being, ‘Why do you write?’.

I’ve been meaning to track down the poem, which wasn’t one I recognised (it’s been a while since I went through my Dylan Thomas phase – or, being less presumptuous, my first Dylan Thomas phase). Today being International Dylan Thomas Day, I’ve been unexpectedly directed to the poem by this tweet…

The link contains a great recording of Thomas reading the poem in his sonorous tones, and it motivated me to go back to the recording of the LRB event to check if it included Ellroy’s recitation – which, happily, it does (starting at 1:02:00).

Not for the proud man apart / From the raging moon I write / On these spindrift pages / […] But for the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages, / Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.

– Dylan Thomas, ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art

With its invocation of ‘the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages’, the poem chimes with Ellroy’s insistence, earlier in the Q&A, that Perfidia and the other novels planned to follow it in the Second LA Quartet, should be considered romances. But it also evokes, for me, a couple of vivid (and similar) scenes from novels in the First LA Quartet.

At the end of The Big Nowhere, Buzz Meeks spends a final night with Audrey Anders, before fleeing while she sleeps, knowing that staying with him on the run from Mickey Cohen and the LAPD will be no kind of life for her. Dave Klein makes a similar decision at the end of White Jazz, leaving Glenda Bledsoe and escaping to Brazil. The depictions of the final nights together that these pairs of doomed lovers share are filled with the pathos of Thomas’s ‘griefs of the ages’. And the latter novel’s final lines could even be considered a rewriting of Thomas’s most famous couplet, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light’…

Revoke our time apart.

Love me fierce in danger.

– James Ellroy, White Jazz

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Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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