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'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,' Remains An Iconic Poem, 70 Years In

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It is National Poetry Month. And today, we're going to look at one of the most recognizable poems in the English language. In the winter of 1952, Dylan Thomas concluded a reading at New York's 92nd Street Y with one of his newer poems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN THOMAS: And I'd like to end with "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."

(APPLAUSE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Published the year before, the poem was already famous, and its popularity has never waned. Tom Vitale tells the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" shakes an angry fist at death as the speaker pleads with a dying father to burn and rave at close of day. The poem is especially poignant this year, says former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins.

BILLY COLLINS: So many people recently - hundreds of thousands of people were denied a deathbed scene. You know, they couldn't go in the hospital. And we have those pathetic and very moving pictures of people at hospital windows or trying to touch fingers through glass. And this is a very intense deathbed scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: And you, my father, there on the sad height, curse, bless me now, with your fierce tears, I pray.

VITALE: Collins says the poem touches everyone who has experienced someone dying, even as it argues against conventional sentiment.

COLLINS: It's the common advice these days - when you're with a dying person, you tell them it's OK to go. It's time for you to go. And this is just the opposite, saying, don't go. Rage against this death. It's a desperate cry in a way because death will win in the end.

VITALE: And pop culture has echoed that cry for seven decades. "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" was set to music by Igor Stravinsky in 1954 and two years ago by Iggy Pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT")

IGGY POP: Rage - rage against the dying of the light.

VITALE: The poem turned up in Hollywood blockbusters as diverse as "Norma Rae," "Back To School" and "Independence Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INDEPENDENCE DAY")

BILL PULLMAN: (As President Thomas J. Whitmore) The 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday. It is the day when the world declared in one voice, we will not go quietly into the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERSTELLAR")

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Professor Brand) Do not go gentle into that good night.

VITALE: The poem is a centerpiece of the 2014 sci-fi epic "Interstellar," written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Something that expresses the idea of dwindling the idea of death as clearly and as universally as Dylan Thomas's poem felt sort of essential.

VITALE: In the film, the Earth's atmosphere can no longer sustain life. A scientist played by Michael Caine sends a crew of astronauts into space to search for an alternative, with Thomas's desperate message.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERSTELLAR")

CAINE: (As Professor Brand) 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.

NOLAN: For me, what I was looking for in "Interstellar" was this immediate connection for the audience of poetic language but very clear meaning - the idea of the dying of the light. The entire film was about the end of mankind's time on Earth.

MARIE HOWE: He's a melodic, musical, drunken language poet, you know? And it's seductive. It's like, I don't even care what he's saying. It just sounds so good.

VITALE: Marie Howe is a former New York state poet laureate. She loves the poem's music but doesn't agree with its lyrics.

HOWE: I don't know that it's the dying of a light that we have to rage about. I think there's other things to rage about - how the pandemic was handled, who took care of us, who didn't, why we didn't act like a planet instead of nation-states You know, there's a lot to rage about. But I do think that, yeah, it's a kind of old-fashioned affirmation of life in anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(APPLAUSE)

VITALE: One year after recording "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" at the 92nd Street Y, Dylan Thomas died in New York of pneumonia following a night of heavy drinking. He was 39 years old. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN MEMORIAM DYLAN THOMAS: DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.