Tag Archives: r s thomas

R S Thomas and the first poem.

I’m guessing that most of us can recall the first poem that dragged us into this curious means of expression, the first poem that demonstrated what poetry is about and what it can do. I’ve said before that mine was R S Thomas’ ‘Welsh Lanscape’, a poem that hit me with the force of a sledgehammer in an English class in 1968 when I was thirteen. Since then I think I’ve always understood that poetry is in some way special without wanting to work out what that specialness might be about.

This poem wasn’t being taught or explained to me, it was something I came across by chance in an anthology.

I think that I also need to point out that there was nothing in my personal background to suggest an affinity with things poetic, a family engaged in small-scale commerce with no experience of higher education and my interests at the time being focused on sport. So, it wasn’t as if I’d given poetry some attention, it simply hadn’t crossed my field of vision until that afternoon and suddenly/instantly I knew that:

  • poetry could do things that prose couldn’t;
  • these things were reasonably simple but worked really well;
  • this particular poem hinted at other tricks that poetry could perform.

In order to illustrate this, I set out below this poem in its entirety:

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky.
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields' corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future:
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

I am the first to admit that the above isn’t perfect but it does contain a lot of really good and effective material. The line that has stood out most in the last forty four years is ‘Vibrant with sped arrows’ because it marks the point of revelation, the realisation that very few words could do many different things at once and in a way that made more ‘sense’ than prose. At the time this line struck me because it was speaking of strife but also of the passing and trajectory of time as it is played out across the landscape. The ‘strung woods’ is also wonderfully redolent of many different things- musical instruments, execution, stress all of which tie in with the description og the arrows. ‘Sped’ is also a wonderful way of describing something in flight.

Of course, it is the first line that initially caught my eye and I think it did so because the clarity of the statement, without equivocation or ‘fluff’ challenged my assumption that poetry had to be somehow vague and evocative rather than precise.

The imagery of spilled blood would also have appealed to my then interest in the violent and gory and I probably wouldn’t have noticed the tie in between bleeding and the ‘carcase’ of the last line. The description of the skies as ‘wild’ suggests a land beset by storms which is oddly set beside the ‘immaculate’ rivers, an adjective freighted with religious connotations- Thomas was a parish priest.

The other extraordinary indicator of what poetry can do comes with the “thick ambush of shadows, / Hushed at the fields’ corners” which functions in ways that ‘ordinary’ or ‘unheightened’ language never can and I like to think that it was this that led me to an understanding of the kind of transformational magic that poems can do. This might seem pretentious and grandiose to suggest that a thirteen year old can grasp all of this from a single poem. It could also be argued that I’m still avoiding defining this particular kind of magic.

So, what follows is a personal and subjective description of this magic using ‘Welsh Landscape’ as the sole example because this saves me from endless digression and because what I understood in 1968 hasn’t changed in any significant way since. The poem tackles a huge theme, the history and fate of the Welsh nation, and does so with an intense precision. The ‘no present, no future’ statement is both angry polemic but also a kind of resigned elegy for a country that once had its own life and identity but whose past is now said to be ‘brittle with relics’. You don’t need to be familiar with the troubled history of the Welsh nation because the poem gives you this sense of defeat and decline but the magic is in the images that surprise and startle – the strung woods that are said to be vibrant but in the sense of resonating with the flight of arrows and the ambush of shadows that is said to be thick and lurking at the corners of fields. Both of these would seem overblown in prose but poetry transforms the words to create something beautiful but also something that makes more ‘sense’, is more accurate than ordinary language could ever be.

The last line is particularly effective, the notion of ‘worrying’ rather than ‘hunting’ or ‘pursuing’ this carcase makes perfect sense and more so because of the ambiguity that Thomas can do so well. I would also argue that the ‘carcase of an old song’ provides a conclusion that fits perfectly with the many ‘points’ of the poem from what time does to living things, to the various forms of song and singing, the heady mix of this poem with the Bardic tradition.

So, this magic seems, for me, to be tied up with the compression of bigger thoughts, feelings and ideas, with the production of beauty which is somehow different from the aesthetically pleasing and with the original and the startling. I’d also throw in Geoffrey Hill’s principle of ‘technical efficiency’ as contributing to the magic because the effect is primarily spoiled by inefficiency as in ‘noisy tractor’ and ‘for instance’ in the above.

The Scope of Poetry

This might take some time. A couple of months ago I watched a television programme about R S Thomas. (An hour long programme on R S Thomas. On the BBC. Not on Larkin or Hughes or Heaney- surely a once in a lifetime event). It was quite good although I would have preferred more about the poetry and less about the man. Towards the end there was an interview with Rowan Williams who made the point that Thomas’ verse was a kind of working out of what it is like to be within the “scope of God” and also noted that George Herbert’s poetry could be seen in the same way. I didn’t pay too much attention to this notion apart from thinking that Thomas was a much more reluctant Christian than Herbert.
Last week I attended my father-in-law’s funeral, my wife had initially intended to say a few words during the service but her brother suggested that she should read a poem about her father that she had written over twenty years ago. Her brother is not at all a poetry fan, neither was his father but it emerged that this particular poem had assumed a significance in his life.
This realisation that people with little or no interest can somehow find poetry to be important and appropriate set off the following train of thought-
I’m not religious and therefore cannot know what it feels like to be within the scope of God, nor would I wish to equate the way I feel about poetry with some kind of faith but poetry does exert a degree of influence over me. I think Williams meant that both poet’s were aware of God and of the fact that he was aware of them and that ‘scope’ is not the same as either ‘presence’ or ‘reach’.
The precise nature of this influence is difficult to identify. My enthusiasm for poetry is negatively affected by the extent of my depression and there have been times in the recent past when reading poetry demanded too much from me in terms of attention and writing about poetry just seemed (for me) to be utterly foolish. There are other times when I get really enthusiastic about some new discovery and have an absolute need to write about it an to become immersed in it. Fortunately there is a middle ground where I don’t do the manic read-everything-at-once behaviour where I can approach things with a degree of care. It is however poetry that holds both my interest and my attention, in a recent trough I decided to dive into narrative history and catch up on the early Tudors. This is the standard way that I try and keep the demons at bay. On this occasion I became distracted by the work of Stephen Hawes and John Skelton both of whom are endlessly fascinating. I then tried to read a political history of the 1590s but became distracted by the sonnet explosion of 1592/3 which has always struck me as deeply odd.
I like to think that I’m not obsessed by poetry, I am interested in a range of other things and try to take some notice of what’s going on in other fields of creative endeavour but my interest in poetry is radically different from my interest in music or politics and this brings me back to the ‘scope’ metaphor. I’m not one of those that thinks that poetry has any kind of privileged access to the truth but I am prepared to concede that poetry can enhance/transform the language and it is language that we live by. To give a brief example, Hawes and Spenser both used language against itself in the 16th century to great effect and Celan and Prynne have done the same. The ‘scope’ comes from the fact that poets have this particular ability to challenge and undermine the thing that we live by.
I would also argue that it was poetry’s scope that caused my brother-in-law to suggest that a poem rather than a speech should be read at his father’s funeral.
Having written this, I now realise that this view could get quite elitist, along the lines of how only poets can fundamentally change things because of their expertise with words. My hurriedly drawn-up counter argument would be that poetry is quite democratic in that it (mostly) trades in the words that we use every day whereas the vast majority of us don’t use either music or paint as our primary means of communication. Of course poetry can become too poetic for its own good and poets remain the biggest bitches on the planet but the fact remains that it is really rather central in the scheme of things whether we like it or not.

R S Thomas and the verse prose divide

Regular readers will know that my interest in poetry was awakened by R S Thomas’ ‘Welsh Landscape’ when I was thirteen. I tried to keep up with the work until the mid eighties when I got distracted by politics and then by Spenser and Milton. I now have a copy of the Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 and have to report that the quality of the work is maintained throughout, this stuff is really very good and you don’t have to be religious to enjoy it.
I completely missed ‘The Echoes Return Slow’ when it was published in 1988 and am now struck again by the clarity of Thomas’ work and his personal integrity in writing it. He was a Church of England priest, a pacifist and a fairly ardent Welsh Nationalist. Most of Thomas’ work relates to a vanishing Welsh rural culture and his turbulent relationship to God but ‘The Echoes Return Slow’ is autobiographical and consists of a sequence of poems each of which preceded by a paragraph of prose.
The poems are untitled except for an asterisk at the top of the page and another between the prose and the verse.
This is a new device to me- but this may be due to my limited reading. The effect in this instance is startling with both sections playing off and informing each other.
I’ll give two examples to try and show what I mean:

*

How far can one trust autumn thoughts? Against the deciduousness of man there stand art, music , poetry. The Church was the great patron of such. Why should a country church not hear something of the overtones of a cathedral? As an antidote to ancient and modern, why not Byrd and Marcello? But was winter the best time?

*

It was winter. The church shone.
The musicians played on
through the snow; their instruments
sharper than robins in the lighted interior.

From outside the white
face of the land stared in
with all the hunger of nature
in it for what it could not digest

Both of these would stand in isolation, the prose poem asking questions about the passing of time and the relationship of the local to the wider community of religious practice and culture. The prose is a series of questions which are responded to by the poem which describes the small country church in winter and the playing of music. The second verse resolves in its own way the issues raised by the prose with the glorious image of the hungry land staring into the church and the suggestion that this experience is just as valid as the cathedral’s ‘overtones’.
I think what I’m trying to demonstrate is that this is a radically different use of the prose/verse divide than the ones deployed by David Jones, Charles Olson and Keston Sutherland and probably more effective. The reader can take pleasure from an initial reading but then finds that going back to look at how the two parts talk to each other provides a much more satisfying experience.
The second example is equally effective:

One headland looks. at another headland. What one sees must depend on where one stands. There was sun where he stood. But on the pre-Cambrian rocks there was also his shadow, the locker without a key, where all men’s questions are stored.

*

Years are miles to be
travelled in memory
only. The children have vanished.
Here is what they saw

over the water: a beetling
headland under a smooth
sky with myself absent
How shallow the minds

they played by! Not like mine
now, this dark pool I
lean over on that same
headland, knowing it wrinkled

by time’s wind, putting my hand
down, groping with bleeding
fingers for truths too
frightening to be brought up.

For most of his life Thomas’ parish was in Aberdaron on the Lleyn peninsula and the headland and the sea are fairly permanent features of his work. I think what’s good about the above is that both talk of difficult secrets and of struggle with faith without being overly solemn or portentous. Unlike Geoffrey Hill, you do get a very clear sense of a man embedded in his community and his landscape.
I used to worry that my stuff was too much ‘in the style of’ RS Thomas, I think I’ll stop worrying now.
Incidentally, Amazon are still selling both the Collected and the Collected Later. There can be no excuse.

Geoffrey Hill does Wales (oddly).

And Pete Townsend.

Last year Clutag Press published ‘Oraclau | Oracles’ by Geoffrey Hill. The flyleaf tells me that this is one of five collections completed since the publication of the ‘Treatise’ collection was published in 2007. In a longish review in the TLS, Damian Walford Davies tells me that Hill has ‘responded delightedly to the discovery of his Welsh ancestry, recently uncovered by a professional genealogist’. He describes the collection as ‘Hill’s testing of Welsh cultural waters, an invocation of a cloud of Welsh witnesses that both enable and frustrate his coming to terms with a more-than-elective new identity.’ Unusually, I don’t want to argue too much with this description, nor do I wish to address the rhyme issue as I’ve commented on this in a previous post. I do however want to share some provisional view of the collection and where it might ‘fit’ with the rest of Hill’s output.

The first adjective that comes to mind is ‘uneven’ in that some things are done very well and some others probably shouldn’t have been done at all. The second adjective is ‘odd’ in that there’s a strange choice of subject matter that isn’t much helped by the form that the collection takes. ‘Oraclau’ consists of 144 nine-line stanzas some of which are grouped together as longer poems. Thus we have thirteen consecutive stanzas entitled “Welsh Apocalypse” and a group of untitled consecutive stanzas on the Welsh coal industry. There’s also the frequent use of Welsh words even though Hill acknowledges that he doesn’t speak the language.

Some of the oddness is startling, there’s three stanzas in memory of B S Johnson (who wasn’t Welsh), the last of which contains the lines “Cheering splash ghastly spumante / to mark your self trashed span”. ‘Spumante’ is used to rhyme with ‘the ante’ in the first line. As someone who has thought a lot about suicide in the fairly recent past, I’m not sure how to respond to this but would query whether ‘self trashing’ is more than a little unpleasant in a gratuitous and sneering kind of way.

Then there’s the question of form and whether this kind of self-limiting is actually good for Hill. There’s more than a few of these stanzas where the last line feels as if it’s been put together in a bit of a rush because it’s line number 9 and that’s where the stanza has to end.

To give an example of what I’m trying to say, here’s the last four lines of stanza 26:

Intensely focused crowing atop spires
To what light is; a glaze between great flares;
The sun arraying in the brittle llyn
A limbeck of itself or of the moon

I’m prepared to overlook ‘brittle llyn’ because of the Welsh focus but I can’t get over the weakness of ‘or of the moon’ which is limp and inadequate to what precedes it and feels as if it’s been stuck in because it’s the end of the last line and something had to ‘fit’.

To be fair, some stanzas a remarkable and manage to end in a way that does justice do the rest but there’s enough that don’t to be of concern. The TLS review describes the various personalities that are honoured in this sequence so I’ll make a few observations that pertain to more general themes.

There’s an underlying anxiety about mortality and still having a lot of work to do before death arrives. The love poem ‘Hiraeth’ is a very personal statement and not at all the kind of thing that we’ve come to expect from Hill. he also pokes fun from time to time at his own seriousness. ‘I’d say that metaphysical acrostics, / Rightly taken, are as good as joss sticks’.

There’s also a more overt (to my mind anyway) emphasis on the more mystical frontiers of Christianity. This has always been present but it seems to run more noticeably through ‘Oraclau’.

Having been made painfully aware of my ignorance of all things Welsh by David Jones, I have made some attempt to make myself more familiar with the history and culture. I therefore have to wonder how the Welsh will feel about this ‘celebration’. There are a number of well-worn subjects put in to play, we have Nye Bevan, LLoyd George, Tredegar, the mines, slate at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The selection of some of this ‘Welshness’ is inevitably personal and subjective but I think I’d have welcomed something that tried to move away from the cartoon that most of us have in our heads. I’d also like to lament the absence of R S Thomas’ Iago Prytherch who has remained in my head as the epitome of what it was to be Welsh and poor in the twentieth century.

So is this a disappointment? For those of us who were expecting something to match the quality of ‘Treatise’ then it probably is. The last run of shortish stanzas in ‘Speech! Speech!’ is more successful and perhaps shows that 12 lines rather than 9 are better suited to Hill’s style. The collection isn’t as consistently weak as ‘Without Title’ although I must confess to becoming more forgiving of the ‘Pindarics’ which take up so much of that book.

Pete Townsend gets one mention in connection with Hopkins and Purcell (and his ‘tone-haunted ear’) and thus becomes the second sixties guitar hero to appear in Hill’s work. I’m taking bets on who will be next – the obvious front runners being Clapton and Beck but I’m open to other suggestions.

The other thing of note is the number of neologisms that occur and the other near-liberties that Hiull takes with the language- ‘disprody’ and ‘disrecreating’ being two that spring to mind. This is sometimes effective but can become annoying especially when other words would suffice.

There are also stanzas that are utterly remarkable and make me smile a lot – I’ll finish with the last two and a half lines of the 53rd stanza which is entitled ‘*******’;

………………….The humble unmeek
Swept up by some post-facto land-reclaiming
The Day of Judgement will do its flame-thing.

I would suggest that anyone who fails to see the brilliance and wonder in this simply has no soul.