Reflections on Dylan Thomas and the Poetry of ‘Interstellar’

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Interstellar enjoyed a well-received wide release a couple of weeks ago on the tail of much praise and fanfare and several posts on my own Facebook feed from people celebrating its beauty and achievement. And I agree—Interstellar is mostly a fantastic film (besides the obvious problems of paradox that always mess with wormholes), and had I more time before this post’s due date arrives, I could think of a hundred things to which I’d like to apply a little personal philosophy, or a little analyzing, or just a little happy rant about Hans Zimmer’s legendary score, among other things.

But since I have not the time, I’d like to substitute my working history as an English major and talk—just talk—about what made this film especially meaningful to me, by which I mean one of the film’s grandest recurring themes: the recitation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

The poem in its entirety reads as follows:

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 grieve 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.

Or, if you like, you can hear it read by Anthony Hopkins, who I’m pretty sure does a much better reading of the poem than Dylan Thomas himself, for some reason:

I have been told time again, in the tradition of many famous authors and poets, that a good reading of a piece of art must—more often than not—eliminate the presence of the artist completely, focusing clean on the subject at hand and the message within. But the thing is, there is a message without the text, and I have usually found that a piece of poetry is almost always improved in scope when it is considered hand-in-hand with the life and times of its author. In the case of Interstellar, even a little foreknowledge about Dylan Thomas and the strangeness of “Do not go gentle” in the midst of his chaotic life and lexicon amplify the film’s cathedral tones to new depths.

Thomas lived a fleeting life, dying before the age of 40 during a flash of fame—not unlike the sudden destruction of a fiery star. And burning he was; a drunk, a liar, a “lord of misrule” wearing the mask of recklessness, never in one place or state of mind for long. He seemed to be, like the workings of the universe itself, something of a wild card.

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And yet “Do not go gentle,” written just a few years before Thomas’ death, takes on an unusual physical form to have been birthed from such a character. It is, compared to much of the rest of his work, a rather mathematical poem, arranged in a formal poetic style called a villanelle: a 19-lined poem with the rhyme scheme ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA in which there must must be two refrains and two repeating rhymes. The first and third lines of the opening tercet must be repeated alternately in the last lines of the next stanzas. In the final stanza, the refrain must serve as the poem’s two concluding lines.

A careful poem for a careless man whose personal involvement with this poem enlightens one of Interstellar’s central themes: the desperate boundlessness of love.

Thomas famously wrote “Do not go gentle” under the inspiration of his deteriorating father—an eerie detail, again, given Thomas’ own death not far on the horizon (dare I say… the event horizon?) As if it could be written from a child to his father, but also, perhaps, to the poet, from himself. This secret history gives enormous power to Interstellar’s narrative, which sees a father denying the inevitable fate of the deteriorating Earth for the slim chance to save his children’s future in a “rage against the dying of the light.”

One of Interstellar's teaser images.
One of Interstellar‘s teaser images.

In this sense I must absolutely disagree—through pure virtue of this poem’s inclusion in the film—with critics who write that Cooper’s relationship with his children is too understated, too poorly crafted to amount to its intention of being the driving motive in Interstellar, and thus kills its emotional core. In fact, it is the perfect characterization of the microcosm within “Do not go gentle,” which witnesses the remoteness of fathers protested in echoing cries by Thomas’ child-voice—the desperate sob for reparation from an infant creation to its aloof, spiraling creator. And it’s true—to Interstellar’s Murph, Cooper is her whole world. And if we were to take anything at all from this movie, it’s the refrain that “love transcends space,” even the space between a parent and his children.

In simple terms, the poem serves as a love song to humankind, by humankind, but also as a brush against the interaction between humans and the universe.

Nature, as Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brant suggests, is terrifying an intense, but not evil. It can be met with. We can observe its craft, much as Thomas does in the careful, defiant lines of “Do not go gentle.” The poem is both rebellious and respectful—the exact same approach used by Cooper as he faces his mortality in the unfathomable dimensions of space-time.

Thomas wrote in a letter once, “I like things that are difficult to write and difficult to understand. I like redeeming the contraries….” Perhaps, then, this is the lens through which we must encounter the universe of Interstellar and “Do not go gentle.” Perhaps it is the lens through which we must encounter all things.

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One Direction and the Timely Dynamism of the Boy Band

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Last Thursday, at the age of twenty-one, I attended my second One Direction concert—this time in what basically amounted to a front-row seat—on a date just past the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ New Orleans show in 1964. My calves burn from incessant jumping. I have a mysterious bruise on my upper thigh that I suspect arose from numerous collisions with the chair in front/beside of me (depending on which direction I spun in). Even my throat is sore from shouting lyrics and calling out to the boys on stage, which, thanks to our amazing seats, stood undivided from our front-row view.

I may have been among one of the older faces in the crowd, but not by much. My sister and I danced the whole time with a married woman and her friend behind us. Several moms got in on a few verses. And in one hilarious move, my other sister—perhaps one of the youngest faces in the crowd—had grown so tired by the time One Direction came on stage that once they did enter (and stood literally just feet away from us) she sat down, opened up their tour booklet, and started flipping through their photographs as if reading the morning paper.

As I’ve written about in brief previously, these microcosms of the concert as an instant in time and space fascinate me. Much can be said about the social psychology of the boy band in particular, often revolving around their importance as a crucial aid during a girl’s transition from adolescence into adulthood—probably the most awkward phase of her whole life. She can rely on these unthreatening ideals of meaningful relationships while waiting for her male peers to catch up to her rapid mental maturity, simultaneously avoiding more aggressive advances awaiting down the line, which she is certainly unprepared for.

And while all of that may be true when it comes to the importance of boy bands as a concept, I cannot claim to find that particular psychology the most important part of what I consider the sheer miracle of mega groups like One Direction, The Beatles, or even Thursday’s talented opening act, 5 Seconds of Summer (all of which, by the way, are at least a year younger than me).

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5 Seconds of Summer plays a live set. From the left: Michael, Luke, Calum, and Ashton.

Speaking of my age, I don’t exactly fit into the preteen-to-adult transitional phase of development, anymore. So what does someone in my position think about at a One Direction concert?

Obviously, I don’t exactly struggle to admire One Direction for formulaic reasons involving hair, skinny jeans, and carefully attributed personality traits. The One Direction boys fall within my own age range, so I naturally feel inclined to relate to them in terms of the way they look, dress, and act. In that way, it’s interesting to be a female generational counterpart to what can be argued as one of the biggest bands to ever grace the planet.

But I also revel in the fortune this generation got to experience last Thursday in their home state, one of fifty states in their country, and in a country separated by the whole Atlantic Ocean from One Direction’s origins in England and Ireland. The whole Pacific Ocean, even, if Aussie rock band 5 Seconds of Summer reenters the mix. The fact that every member in the Superdome was able to preview One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer millions of times on YouTube before ever seeing their true form still blows my mind when I think about how recently such a thing would have been impossible.

One Direction's Harry Styles greets fans in Tokyo, Japan.
One Direction’s Harry Styles greets fans in Tokyo, Japan.

One Direction has undergone immense transformation in the span of two years. When I last saw them in Houston in 2012, they played at a half-covered outdoor venue on a small stage with room for only one—although still massive—screen behind them on which played quirky videos of the band together, or some sort of special effect to go along with their music. They played their whole first album, but as it was their only one in existence at the moment, they also played a few covers and had time for mid-show games like answering concertgoers’ Twitter questions as they appeared on the aforementioned screen. They dressed head-to-toe in clothes reminiscent of prep school uniforms, with perfectly quaffed hair and nary a tattoo in sight.

One Direction during their 2012 "Up All Night" Tour.
One Direction during their 2012 “Up All Night” Tour.

Now, one of the biggest stadiums in the country erupted with screams and iPhone lights when the band emerged on a stage large enough for four even more massive screens, an extension of the stage through the crowd (against which we stood), a rising platform, and plenty of pyrotechnics. One Direction now has three albums to their name with no time at all for a cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” They dress in loose shirts, tank tops, and occasional ponytails, most of their bodies scribbled with dozens of inked images ranging from tiny stick figures to massive renderings of stag heads and ships.

One Direction during this year's "Where We Are" Tour.
One Direction during this year’s “Where We Are” Tour.

This is not the same One Direction that debuted three years ago. I also can’t help but notice that 5 Seconds of Summer, about three years younger than the boys on average, resemble the modern One Direction much more than their innocent, uniformed introduction, this time already tattooed and shaggy-haired from the start, and protected from One Direction’s early criticism by playing their own instruments. Now, One Direction’s Niall plays his guitar throughout most of the show.

These types of bands have been around for decades, but as I grow older and farther away from the mainstream audience, I don’t exactly feel left behind. The Internet lets us live in a dynamic world where change happens instantly and simultaneously across borders and cultures and stadiums. It’s a world that gives appropriate meaning to the title of One Direction’s current tour, “Where We Are.” As I grow older and change, so do the boys of One Direction. To see someone else so clearly, so celebrated—well, makes me want to celebrate me, too.

Arcade Fire, Singing in Unison, and the Wordless Refrain

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Through the years, the world of music has delivered immeasurable lines of lyrical greatness. If I asked someone to hum “Hallelujah,” they’d know right away that “it goes like this/The fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift.” Others like it exist. “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one.” Inspiring. “One life, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other.” Brings me to tears. “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.” Tugs right at the heartstrings, that one, second only to the grandness of “Hey-ey-ey,” or maybe “Oooh-oooh-oooh.” All excellent contributions.

Well, if you hear them, I mean. If you can experience them, even better. And if you can sing along, then you may have a stake in a perfect moment within the whole of human existence.

In 2008, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin named Arcade Fire and Sigur Rós the best bands in the world. Indeed, both groups remain to this day two of the most influential forces in music, each of them—I’d argue—the modern-day deliverers of the wordless choruses in the similar case of “Hey Jude” or the end of “Born to Run.”

Few 20-somethings with an interest in modern music, for example, might be able to deny the legend of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” (which celebrated its 10th birthday last week, thus inspiring this blog) and the reemergence of the “Whoa-oh” as we know it, necessitating huge choruses of perhaps the most orchestral sing-along in pop music:

Sigur Rós takes the concept even further, summoning a choir to join in on the beautiful sounds of what begin as Icelandic lyrics, but then transcend into a make-believe language of frontman Jónsi’s own emotional whims (I suppose someone must understand the Icelandic language to receive that full effect, but the feeling doesn’t change). Like Arcade Fire’s most recognizable song, the audience doesn’t need to know any lyrics to participate. Although I admit… singing along to Sigur Rós requires quite the honed voice box:

Attending concerts, like seeing movies in the theatre, requires a unique combination of social states. That is, their purpose generally benefits from large crowds, and yet their impact depends on the individual—all individuals feeling the same thing, but for different reasons, without any clues usually granted by conversation or gesture. One could argue, even, that the concert (or the choir), where people sing in unison, takes highest honors as the most unifying experience within the spectrum of the arts.

Some studies suggest that singing together synchronizes heartbeats, muscular movement, and neural activities in the choir of voices. Hearing a pleasant chord can alert dopamine to flood to the part of the brain associated with addiction, reward, and motivation, and send physical chills down people’s spines. Pretty much any musical genre can cause these reactions, but something about the choral refrain—devoid of lyrics in favor of a universal exclamation encompassing pain and joy simultaneously—seems to be a favorite even among visual artists, particularly the category of film trailers, when a lasting impression matters more than anything.

Spike Jonze’s tragically underrated Where the Wild Things Are and its trailer, for example, use Arcade Fire’s aforementioned “Wake Up” as a way to rally the fear, emotion, and energy present in the song’s overall theme of growing up. Coming of age, after all, can be something of a group effort, linking every person who ever lived across all cultures, countries, and imaginations.

The film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty also produces a similar, sweeping effect via José Gonzáles’ “Whoa-oh-oh”s in “Step Out” to emote the same themes about the journey to reconcile growing pains, even as an adult.

Recently, the trailer for the sports film When the Game Stands Tall employs the “Whoa-oh” portion of Tim Mayers’ “Hills to Climb” to get the audience excited.

Mumford and Sons may have even built a career around the success of “Little Lion Man” and its choral “Hah”s, and years later saw its rebirth as the “Oh”s in Phillip Phillips’ “Home”.

Similar as these themes are, I can’t ignore their testament to the universal cry—to the almost paradoxical communal liberty of singing in unison to language-less words. And if this should be the type of lasting impression we celebrate ten more years down the line, and if a world divided can be brought together by these battle cries in all their sublimity of joy and sorrow, then I think, perhaps, we might finally find the words to say.