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.

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9 responses to “R S Thomas and the verse prose divide

  1. Hi John—
    I’ve just spent the past hour reading poems by R.S. Thomas. They are wonderful—better than that. ‘the air a staircase/ for silence…’ I can’t believe I’ve never even heard the man’s name before.
    Alone now on the brittle platform
    Of herself she is playing her last rôle.
    It is perfect. Never in all her career
    Was she so good. And yet the curtain
    Has fallen. My charmer, come out from behind
    It to take the applause. Look, I am clapping too.

    It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
    Jim

    • I’m delighted that you recognise his worth, I was beginning to think that I was in a minority of one. When compared with most of the poetry produced between 1945 and 2000, he really does stand out. I could now happily spend the rest of this week swapping Thomas quotes with you- he is one of the best.

  2. Thanks much for this — I too had better start reading some Thomas. I started to write something about the prose paragraphs, but it ballooned uncontrollably and I put it out on my defunct blog instead.

    • This is very insightful and adds a couple of dimensions that I hadn’t considered. Can you put it on here as a comment or can I use it as part of the next piece on Thomas? I think I need to say more about what is achieved by the juxtaposition of the verse and the prose because the poem ‘builds’ in similar fashion. Thanks for taking the time to respond in such a considered way.

  3. At first glance, I’m more impressed by the prose. Let me try to point out what’s distinctive, I think, in the first prose prelude—the logopoeia, the sequential movement of ideas.

    How far can one trust autumn thoughts?

    Opens at least two uncertainties: what does “autumn” mean? And is the question sincere or rhetorical?

    Against the deciduousness of man there stand art, music, poetry.

    This resolves both. “Autumn” referred (at least) to human lives — and probably not just to a late season in life, but to the figurative falling of something like leaves. And the question seems to have been rhetorical: this statement is a sensible followup to the implication that “autumn thoughts” are untrustworthy, not to the literal question of how far to trust them.

    The Church was the great patron of such.

    A fresh link in the chain, extrapolating from “art, music, poetry”; the association with the opening is not yet clear. (The discourse is unfolding forward.)

    Why should a country church not hear something of the overtones of a cathedral?

    Again, cantilevering forward, building on that part of the last sentence which was itself a new extrapolation. “Overtones” is nice. (The literal sense would chime with the musical theme, but a figurative sense seems more likely: both the usual one and a hint of something more. A cathedral stands “over” the country church administratively and culturally, so this way of putting it suggests that a bit of the center’s power is being experienced, out here at the fringe.)

    As an antidote to ancient and modern, why not Byrd and Marcello?

    This is rich — for most of us, Byrd and Marcello are as ancient as St. Paul, so the sentence implies a longer perspective (which indeed, as priest and intellectual, we know Thomas had).

    Looking back, we now see two rhetorical questions that imply reasons to be having some music. First, it will counter our deciduousness (deciduity?). It also may relieve or distract us from the tension between the ancient time (probably the ages of the Testaments) and today; and it may bring us some grandeur.

    But was winter the best time?

    Winter, and not autumn. A bit enigmatic — a gambit, as in music, where to repeat something with a change is to set a challenge, to make the listener ask what’s next. Of all the sentences in the paragraph, this is the one whose connection to what’s gone before is most tenuous. Into this gap steps the first sentence of the poem:

    It was winter.

    That is, never mind whether the time was well-chosen. (And one could read this incipit without the context of the foregoing prose, as simply setting a scene.)

    • The poem does start out by resolving the autumn/winter question but then sets up some others of its own. I think it is implied that we are in the parish church as opposed to the cathedral and that the music is part of the Xmas festivities.
      There’s also the sense of things being lit- shone, sharper than the lighted interior and the white face of the land all in contrast to the notion of winter being a time of darkness or (if man is deciduous) death.
      So there’s a kind of radiant autonomy set up which is then set against nature here described as being hungry for what it can’t digest- which is different from what it can’t have and the reader is left to ponder whether this relates to some notion of the sacred or of the celebratory music or both. The other question being – what is it about this things that are indigestible given Thomas’ affinity for the natural world that surrounded him.

  4. Hello. I was introduced to your blog by Jim over at ExtraSimile and first read with interest a lengthy debate you were engaged in about rhyme. Now I find this entry equally engrossing – how to combine prose and poetry, or how to patrol the border zone between them, is particularly interesting to me at present.

    I’ve enjoyed RS Thomas’s poems for years, first buying a slim paperback in the 1960s, but I haven’t kept up with him and certainly hadn’t come across this book. So thanks for highlighting it.

  5. John,

    Thanks for this, like you I started with Thomas many years ago and am now thoroughly enjoying getting to know his later stuff. I have a feeling the debate on rhyme will return in the near future- I’m still trying to get my brain around the technique/form thing so will probably meander on about that in the near future.

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