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.