Listen to those words


Poems to Elsi
, R.S.Thomas (78pp,9.99, Seren)
Uncollected Poems
, R.S.Thomas,(192pp, 9.95, Bloodaxe)


Is it that he can't be left to die in peace, this patriotic Welshman, this English-language poet, this man-priest, or is it that we need to continue to hear the voice of the apparent nakedness of a human being and what he had to attempt to articulate in mere verbal language? And so left behind poetry that will be kept in print because by God real or imagined it matters?

But also, is the apparent nakedness, even awkwardness of his language an embarrassment to us? Those perhaps few who knew him more closely and have told of it, speak of his kindness, his hospitality, his laughter.

At the publication of his later books I was inclined to think he was stuck in a mode that had detached itself from his everyday life, that he had become stuck with being 'R.S.Thomas famous poet struggling with faith', as can perhaps happen to a poet unable to move on but having to do this poem-making thing to the end. And that he had (born 1913, died 2000) come through a century of such social and religious upheaval, as is surely unclear to any of us where we go - where the world goes - from here.

Some perhaps twenty years ago I wrote to him from here in Birmingham asking if I could interview him for a left-wing magazine. He replied with a courteous but stark response, that he didn't talk to anyone for English publications. I wrote back saying I had grown up in Wales in the Church of Wales as a chorister and altar server, that subsequently in England I became a priest in our common church, the Anglican, that I was a not a journalist but a poet. To which he did not reply.

My own truth was that my functioning as a priest was long past, my relationship with Wales, while full of hiraeth
, was of memories of my early years there in an English family, and of occasional trips back. I still think it was Wales made me; what my common ground was with R S Thomas still questions me.

Why if he was so keeping his distance from the English is it that a major publisher of R.S.Thomas's poems has been the Northumbrian Bloodaxe, along with Dent, London, and Macmillan, London, these twe the publishers, respectively and among others, of Collected Poems 1945-1990 and Later Poems, 1983. In fact, few of his collections were from Welsh publishers. His work in this way was widely available, as it should have been, but why so if he was keeping his distance from the English?

The new books, 'Poems to Elsi' and 'Uncollected Poems' - each is a significant addition to the R.S.Thomas library - collect each to a different purpose. At the back of the second there is a list of all, as known to the editors, uncolleced poems, from which about a hundred and fifty have been selected, and are printed in chronological order by year, complicated to some degree by when dated by the poet and when published. The editor of the poems to (not for) his wife are printed 'in such a way as to give a sense of the rhythms and shifting moods of married life,.... What the arrangement preserves is the swift  development of Thomas's lyric voice, from the Georgian mode of the opening poems to the pared-down (anti-)lyric notation that has come to define his idiom.'  If you flip slowly through especially the Bloodaxe, the shift visually is more or less readily apparent. It looks as if it was in the early 1970s he stopped capitalising the start of each line.

Perhaps it is most of all his poems for or to or in relation to his wife that as brought together now show the later subtlety of what I call his talking poems, which I see more clearly now were not strung-out prose, would not have been created in prose, but that speak inwardly and to a reader with a profoundly subtle economy, by means of which he both 'says' and holds in tension a see-saw effect of 'maybe', of provisional comprehension. Often nonetheless stark, unforgiving of himself.

Here is his poem, Pen Llŷn, of the peninsular where he lived and measuring time by reference to Dafydd ap Gwilym,

   Dafydd looked out;
   I look out: five centuries
   without change? The same sea breaks
   on the same shore and is not
   broken. The stone in Llŷn
   is still there, honey-
   coloured for a girl's hair
   to resemble. It is time's
   smile on the cliff
   face at childishness
   of my surprise. Here was the marriage
   of land and sea, from whose bickering
   the spray rises. 'Are you there?'
   I call into the dumb
   past, that is close to me
   as my shadow. 'Are you here?'
   I whisper to the encountered
   self like one coming
   on the truth asleep
   and fearing to disturb it.

His wife, Elsi, had died in 1991, the poem was published in his 'Mass for Hard Times' 1992. I recall my feeling that he was publishing such a lot of poetry, as if a rolling mill of it, it couldn't all matter really; I think now I have a much clearer sense of it having mattered to him
, and that by then he was a widower, an elderly priest in, it appears, a real struggle with his faith, doubtful to say the least about the future integrity of Wales as a nation, and with whatever self-consciousness it is grapples with being an eminent recluse.

A few poems appear in both books, conversations between the editors an obvious part of what might be seen as a shared process, related to the poet's archive in the University at Bangor.

A vital part of his being who and where he was, was his relationship with the natural world. A poem that appeared first in a Mir Poets pamphlet (number 15 in 1988) is this ambiguously gentle 'Caught', in the 'Uncollected',

   The Pale Clouded Yellow
                     that is a buttercup
   in flight, which I catch
   and hold under your chin
   asking you if you like
                     now or always.
                              And 'Certainly'

   you reply, taking my hand
                    in yours and prising
   the fingers open to discover
                     the butterfly, broken-winged.


In response to to both of these collections what must be a very old question arises, to do with allowing oneself, even insisting to oneself, that in the making of poems it is right to be open and vulnerable. One immediate response is to say, reasonably, that not all poetry has to do intimately with one's own life. Much poetry does, though, whether expressed intimately or metaphorically or by inference or to a degree in shadow or curtained off, or, as for R.S.Thomas, as it seems, in the moment wide-openly.

But who is to know really, between the life and the making, between how he lived and what we read? Does it matter? Does it matter only that the poem becomes what it becomes, is published and shared? But why share it? Why read it?

Poetry doesn't emerge in whatever form of publication without a gloss already of interpretation: who the publisher is and in what format, how much pre-publicity there is, what if any reputation the poet has already and not only by way of critical response but - if known already - the wider perhaps vague and variable image of who the poet is. These new books present R S Thomas  as significant simply by their happening at all, building on half a century and more of the image of him as an unusual parish priest, and this image subsumed into his arts-cultural identity as a poet, along with something rascible about him as Welsh nationalist. So far as I know, there has been nor likely will be a proposal to publish a selection of his sermons, if indeed they existed or exist still as prepared in complete or in any written form. I wish I could have heard him preach, not least at the major turning points of the Anglican year.  Also, did he keep a journal, or are the poems in effect precisely this? Here is 'Excursion' (1981, published in 'Caliban XVIII' (Toulouse University, 1981),

   Went to the sea; stared
   at the birds. Did they
   stare back? Nature looks
   through us, beyond
   us, into a territory
   always denied us. Held hands
   with a prinked girl; showed
   her what she showed
   him, a featureless
   interior. The gland
   sagged. Emptied in the train
   home, inaccurate
   hour-glass, the sand
   from his shoes. Peered
   through a hurrying window
   at the still fields
   with a star over them
   like life itself,
   signalling meaning
   to him on the one
   wavelength he could not receive.

If one is in habit of writing - in my experience anyway - a poem can start to write itself, to get going; it may turn out to be one to stay with or one to abandon or to leave and return to. How when a poem is
done, to know its worth? So, reading this 'Uncollected', I wonder did the poet forget what he'd published, did he look again and say leave well alone, let it be forgotten? My sense of this book is that, whatever he himself may or may not have wanted to keep in print, it is a fine addition to what we now have of his. The following poem, 'Luminary', is in both books, which date its publication to 'Ringless Fingers' (Bangkapi: Frangipani Press, 2002), 'Uncollected' adds that a note in that publication suggests it was composed in 1980:

   My luminary,
   my morning and evening
   star. My light at noon
   when there is no sun
   and the sky lowers. My balance
   of joy in a world
   that has gone off joy's
   standard. Yours the face
   that young I recognised
   as though I had known you
   of old. Come, my eyes
   said, out into the morning
   of a world whose dew
   waits for your footprint.
   Before a green altar
   with the thrush for priest
   I took those gossamer
   vows that neither the Church
   could stale nor the Machine
   tarnish, that with the years
   have grown hard as flint,
   lighter than platinum
   on our ringless fingers.

There are, I think, reasons why he might have let this one go. Is it somewhat laboured? Formulaic even? Why did he publish it, as it seems, twenty two years after writing it? Had he remembered it, did he find it in a pile of poems or in a notebook? Such questions perhaps keep us in mind of the everydayness of his life, in one room writing, while his wife Elsi was working at her visual art in another.

But listen to those words, 'of joy in a world/ that has gone off joy's/
standard', and the many poems that, as it were, struggle with struggling, with the mystery of life itself on a planet spinning in space, to be alive because fate said so but without giving a reason why beyond this accident of life itself. I can't but recall Samuel Beckett's - if I am quoting him or a fiction of his correctly - 'I can't go on, I go on.'

To end now on some nitty-gritty of bibliography, which perhaps will have no end. In both books there is a poem, 'July 5 1940', written on the day of his wedding, neither listing says the poem had been published already in Byron Rogers' 2006 biography ('The man who went into the west'), where two lines are printed differently; in the two books under review the poem opens,

   Nought I could give today
   Would half compare
   With the long-treasured riches that somewhere
   In the deep heart are stored.
   Cloud and the moon and mist and the whole
   Hoard of frail, white bubbling stars,

where Byron Rogers had,

   Nought I could give today
   Would half compare
   With the long-treasured riches that somewhere
   In the deep heart are stored -
   Cloud and the moon and mist and the whole hoard
   Of frail, white bubbling stars,

Such was the building of the poet's structures, does it matter that we readers don't know which truly was what he wrote? All, I suppose, found the poem in his archive. Rogers says, 'And then I found the manuscript of a poem headed 'July 5, 1940 [comma also in the Seren book, not in the Bloodaxe], also in R.S.Thomas's hand, ....'

      David Hart 2013