by R.S. Thomas
192 pages, Bloodaxe, £9.95
Encounters with R.S.
edited by John Barnie
102 pages, H’mm Foundation, £9.99
Another book about R.S. Thomas? Surely there is nothing of note to add to his legacy.
R.S. Thomas’s reputation for being a miserable old git is so widespread even the predictable attempts to oppose the caricature in Encounters with R.S. do not warrant a mention. But just as 2013, the centenary of Thomas’s birth, was drawing to a close, this comic strip send-up took a baffling turn for the absurd.
Potato crisp firm Tyrrells unwittingly used a photograph of R.S. Thomas to promote a tongue-in-cheek competition. The firm used a photograph of a deceased dog-collared man looking a bit grumpy (actually, it was his default expression), on packets of Sweet Chilli And Red Pepper, next to the words ‘a fleeting look of contempt’. Tyrrells describe their product as ‘hand cooked English Crisps’, which only added fuel to the outrage of fans of Thomas, a Welsh nationalist who once said it was a good idea to burn the holiday homes of the English (speaking of burning, the image of R.S. has since been replaced with antiquated firefighters).
Personally, I cannot dream up a more telling anecdote. And look up Ron Paste, a Norfolk poet known for parody and puns, for a sarcastic summary of this story, and the funniest account you will find.
Luckily, the H’mm Foundation’s first publication, Encounters with R.S., dives a fathom deeper. The depth stops short of the plural maybe due to the largely predictable cast. An anthology of informal essays, reminiscences really, its contributors include both the current National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, and the inaugural one, Gwyneth Lewis. The other National Poet of Wales, Gwyn Thomas, does not feature; maybe he was out. The book is far from redundant, though. Edited by John Barnie, it contains many stories worth reading and even one or two fresh approaches when it comes to viewing the almost secular clergyman.
Uncollected Poems, which spans the whole of Thomas’s career, could be accused of being a Greatest Hits of poems deemed expendable at the final cut. For some of the poems, historical interest is undoubtedly prioritised over the quality of writing. For a poet as captivating as R.S. Thomas, this is not necessarily a sore point.
Spindrift, commonly known as R.S. Thomas’s first collection even though it was never published, is a good example of this. The typescript, approximately three quarters of a century old, remains absent as a whole even in a book entitled Uncollected Poems, but some poems do feature.
The first of the poems, ‘I never thought’ is said, by the editors Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, to be where artist Elsi Eldridge (later, Thomas) enters R.S.’s poetic world for the first time. That Elsi was the addressee is backed-up further by the opening essay of Encounters with R.S., but one suspects this knowledge, and some more of its author’s research, was based on the Uncollected Poems publication, although the author, Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, writes with greater authority; firstly he knew R.S. Thomas personally, secondly, he uses a direct quote from R.S.’s son Gwydion, although quotes can always be placed in misleading places. ‘I never thought’ has never featured in a magazine but was published in The Man Who Went Into the West, R.S.’s biography, written by Byron Rogers. Rogers provides no proof or even a guess as to the addressee of this specific poem, but he did find a letter alongside the Spindrift typescript, addressed to Elsi. The claim that ‘I never thought’ was the first poem in which Elsi appeared does, at least, have more logic to substantiate it than the idea that a bunch of poems counts as a collection just because the text had been typed and had a title.
The second poem, ‘July 5, 1940’, had been kept by Elsi and was found by Rogers among the contents of four plastic supermarket bags given to him by Gwydion. ‘July 5, 1940’, was a poem which R.S. Thomas wrote for Elsi as a kind of wedding gift, the title being the date of their wedding. This poem was clearly never meant to be made public, being a clear rip-off of, or tribute to, Edward Thomas’s ‘And you, Helen’, which Edward wrote for his own wife (and which was part of the quartet of ‘household poems’). R.S. Thomas respected Edward Thomas and did not publish this. Elsi does indeed appear in Spindrift, after all, but Spindrift was never published and was never meant to be. Though, tellingly, they were not published in poetry magazines or literary journals during Thomas’s lifetime.
Not all poems of R.S. Thomas which have been published in magazines or journals but not in a collection are included here. Maybe a few more should have been left in the folder marked ‘Early Draft’.
But Uncollected Poems does contain hidden gems. In that way, it is just like every other collection by Thomas. Jumping from the starting post of R.S.’s literary career to the very end, ‘Blackbird’ was published in a 1998 edition of literary journal Agenda. It failed to make Thomas’s last collection proper, Residues, (published posthumously, by Bloodaxe, in 2002) and also Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 (published even later, also by Bloodaxe, in 2004). I first read ‘Blackbird’ in Ruth Padel’s book of poetry criticism, The Poem and the Journey. That was in 2007. I have been waiting for a book like Uncollected Poems ever since. The version of ‘Blackbird’ in Uncollected Poems is ever so slightly different; the changes, thankfully, are for the better.
Its bill is the gold
one quarries for amid
evening shadows. Do not despair
at the stars’ distance. Listening
to blackbird music is
to bridge in a moment chasms
As in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, we are receiving proof of a higher presence; higher physically and hierarchically. Padel discusses the similarity of these two poems in The Poem and the Journey. While Hardy was unaware, Thomas’s listening, Padel suggests, is ‘to bridge’ but also ‘to know’. What Hardy wanted to believe and what Thomas ‘knew’, was a presence:
is not our language, but who has chosen
with peculiar charity the feathered
creatures to convey the austerity
of his thought in song.
Gwyneth Lewis is also fond of bird-watching; her latest collection, Sparrow Tree, explores birds as ‘mouthpieces for inhuman song’. In Encounters with R.S., Lewis could easily have been talking about ‘Blackbird’ specifically when she says, ‘Thomas makes the uncertainty principle of enjambment, his great tool, unsettle our normal assumptions. This is the sign of a great poet, one who plays two tunes on the one line.’ Lines such as ‘at the stars’ distance. Listening’ encapsulates two tunes and then some.
On the one hand, you could say that Uncollected Poems is a perfect representation of R.S. as a poet, and, indeed, R.S. the man, combining as it does all of Thomas’s idiosyncratic themes. On the other hand, you could say these poems are repetitive, not just in terms of thematic choices but, also, the depth of the poems becomes a device, a formulaic yardstick, despite the amount of decades encompassed. The language in ‘Blackbird’ becomes a language which is ‘as unknown/to us as it is/familiar’ (‘Converse’ 1979). ‘Excursion’, from ’81, starts with:
Went to the sea; stared
at the birds. Did they
stare back? Nature looks
through us, beyond
us, into a territory
always denied us.
And, further on, but only a few years before ‘Blackbird,’ we read this in ‘The Lesson’:
There is not one bird but thousands
and thousands of species, each
separable by its feathers.
The comparison fails
here. Life, it is true, has its feathers,
but they are not all part of the plumage
of the one God.
This spin on a sermonic cliché, that we, although all children of God, are all unique, is part of a good poem and does show off Thomas’s poetic sensibilities, including playing two tunes on the one line, but, in being so similar to some of the other poems, ‘The Lesson’ adds muscle to the argument that Uncollected Poems is not a complete volume in itself.
Being that Uncollected Poems is a not-as-good version of Thomas’s volumes proper, the question has to be asked: Is this a book we really need? Even diehard Thomas fans will not gain much from it. The few beguiling gems there are, such as ‘Blackbird’, is reason enough to read this book. If, however, you have been overfed poems by R.S. Thomas (let’s face it, he sure was prolific), then Encounters with Thomas might be a better read. This anthology of essays does make a great companion read to Uncollected Poems but will do the same job for any R.S. Thomas book you already have.
Also in her essay (which regular readers of Poetry Review may find familiar), Lewis recalls a reading given by R.S. Thomas: ‘At his reading, he was asked if he thought that Dante was the imagination of Christendom. “No,” he replied, “Christ is the imagination of Christendom.”‘ R.S. was no backslider; nor was he a pantheist. He was a priest and had answered this question as a Christian.
To R.S., Christianity came to mean humbling oneself to the extent that you are on equal footing with the creatures you have been given dominion over. Levelling ourselves to a lower form of life is to emulate and appreciate what God chose to do, and still does, for mankind. This is an elementary truth. But it is not the definition of Christianity, and nor does R.S. neglect his responsibilities, as a Christian, to other humans.
Reading his work, one is often left to question whether or not Thomas is still a man of God. Thomas’s own questioning is born of a genuine and humble spirituality. Just as his patriotic poems speak of Wales yet are unidiomatic, his spiritual poems speak of God yet are disconcertingly realistic.
As a Christian myself, there is a lot I dislike about Christianity. Christians being at the top of my list. Reading the poetry of Thomas, I am reminded of Christian men who exaggerate talking in tongues to the extent that they sound like beat-boxing chickens, because this is the kind of behaviour Thomas leaves out. Likewise, the Christian men who would never admit to any kinky sin of the hand no matter how far ago in the past, surely a sin in itself; in the essay ‘The Ornithologist-Poet as a bird’, we read: ‘In his poem “On Hearing a Welshman Speak” he writes of a praying girl and how even in a sacred place the thoughts of the flesh arise impetuously. The dangers of our natural biological drive he compares to the instinctive insistence of the hawk’s eye…’
We should be equally ashamed of all our sins, yet move on with equal openness and progression, albeit always being aware of the dangers of the nature of ourselves. We should be one type of Christian at home, and the exact same one in the company of others, and to deny the nature of ourselves will surely deal us a worse fate.
R.S., who was a better man than me, does not make a habit of judging other Christians. If he is having a go at anyone, he is having a go at God. Where some Christians would say when praying, or even conversing about God, you must be respectful at all times, R.S. has none of that. R.S. gave every day of his adult life to God; in return, he questioned God’s reasoning, he demanded that God have more time for him, he expected God to be as loyal to him as a best friend would; in so doing, R.S. shows God, through his poetry, a respect so obstinate and strenuous in its obtainment that most of us will settle for the more overtly righteous truth.
Locations such as Thomas’s cottage in Sarn Rhiw, which M. Wynn Thomas (who edited Residues) compares to the tower belonging to W.B. Yeats, lend a great deal of character to the poems of Thomas, but the freshest of these essays is ‘The Ornithologist-Poet as a bird’. Its author, writer and painter Osi Rhys Osmond, is a cultural activist who recalls marching beside Thomas during demonstrations, usually against nuclear weapons or in favour of self-government for Wales. Conversations usually centred on what the immigration of English-speakers meant for the Welsh language, or the indifference of the Welsh as to the fate of their culture. Brought up in a Welsh-speaking family, novelist and screenwriter Fflur Dafydd, a Welsh-speaker herself, acknowledges, in her essay, this irony: ‘that the very tongue R.S. found so problematic, the language he would rather not have written in, according to him, was the one he had made so appealing to me— a Welsh speaker, from a Welsh-speaking family who’d been given everything from birth that he’d desperately wanted.’ Thomas was infamous for his nationalism, but he was patriotic to the point of tedium. Or is this assumption due to the misrepresentation of other, or their reinforcement of his views?
One thing Osmond and Thomas never talked about was birds (for that topic, read the essay by Jon Gower, who sometimes went birdwatching with Thomas). Yet Osmond describes the bird-like traits of Thomas, poet, priest and raptor, in a remarkable narrative. Jon Gower also conjures up this image, but his narrative on the subject is brief, and more in the form of possible reincarnation.
R.S. knew more about birds than he did about people. R.S. was at his happiest alone on the hillside with no company but the company of birds. A Christian friend of mine once said that it surprised her to meet Christians who rarely smile. If R.S. knew God only on the hills and had to leave those hills for whatever reason, well, is it surprising he always came across as grumpy?
Thomas knew exactly where to find contentment, as we discover in Uncollected Poems, and especially so in ‘Quest’:
You are not the first to arise
and cry: Happiness is not
here; I will take the ship and
pursue it over the world’s waters.
Pauses within the second and third statement hint at hesitation, as if the speaker is unsure of what happiness is not, and what exactly he will do once he takes the ship. This warning personalised would read like the opening four lines of ‘Process’: ‘Not satisfied with/the fairness of nature/they began imagining/the fair city’. This might be more about the physical power of nature, rather the solitude brought about by residing in its barrenness, but isolation in nature is what the name R.S. Thomas conjures up. But in ‘Quest’, the warning regards physical exploration rather than spiritual, reminding the reader of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Giddings’. Thomas’s interpretation ends:
So where you are, traveller,
is the best place, and inward not out
your journey through dark ante-rooms
of the species to where the self sits and waits.
In ‘Quest’, Thomas describes Columbus as an expositor of a new theory of sound. Thomas himself is an expositor of the sound of God. Thomas says of Columbus, or the protagonist of Columbus’s exposition, that ‘from such slight impact/as his the echoes will never be done’. The same can be said of Thomas, an explorer himself, albeit of a different kind, and of the protagonist of the sound of Thomas’s exposition. The results, though, could not be more different.
In time, the question ‘How many people in this country believe in God?’ will be replaced with the deceptively non-idolatrous teaser, ‘How many Christians believe in R.S. Thomas?’