the methods I employ when introducing sixth-formers to various poets is to
show them, whenever possible, video footage or photographs of the individuals
themselves. The pedagogic theory behind this is quite simple: poems are
written by people, not just names encountered on examination papers. Thus,
the lucky recipients view ancient black-and-white footage of AudenÕs camp,
playful explanation of how he writes; Eliot, bank-clerkly and formal behind
a huge BBC microphone; Larkin disingenuously enacting 'A Study of Reading
Habits' in Hull University Library. And when we come to R.S.Thomas, I show
them the dust jacket of Justin Wintle's critical study,Furious Interiors: an old man glares at the
camera fiercely, a portrait of forbidding, suppressed rage. He is an ordained
minister, but you wouldnÕt want to hear him preach.
While he was alive, this was the received view of R.S.Thomas: an adherent of
extreme views on Wales, a critic of the ubiquity of industrialised life,
engaged in a war of attrition with his God. Is that all there is ? The
publication of this volume, containing Thomas' last four 'official'
collections, The Echoes Return Slow (1988), ŌCounterpoint (1990), Mass for Hard Times (1992), No Truce with the
plus the posthumous Residues
(2002) offers an opportunity for reassessment.
The first two volumes listed above find Thomas (to a degree) abandoning his
typical short lyric form to sew together verse sequences (or prose-and-verse
in the case of The Echoes...)
with varying degrees of success. The four short sequences which make up Counterpoint,
entitled 'B.C', 'Incarnation',
'Crucifixion' and 'A.D' seem somewhat inconsistent. At their best, taken as
short lyrics, they approach the hard-edged sense of parable which
distinguishes Thomas' best poetry: 'the silence in the mind / is when we live
best, within listening distance of the silence / we call God. This is the
deep / calling to deep of the psalm Š / writer, the bottomless ocean / we
launch the armada of / our thoughts on...' ['A.D', ninth poem]. The wordplay
and the twinkling twists and turns in this chain of language might almost be
described as metaphysical and the tutelary spirits of Donne, Hopkins and late
Yeats recur through many of these meditations. Some of the revisitations to
typical Thomas themes (the demands of 'the machine' / the struggle of prayer
/ God's silence) feel a little worked-out and secondhand: he has been here
before to greater effect, notably in his early collections in the 1950s.
The Echoes Return Slow,
on the other hand, an alternating autobiographical sequence of verse and
prose pieces, seems fresh and rewarding, largely, I suspect, for the novelty
of Thomas speaking more openly as
Thomas throughout. 'A priest's work' is discussed, the 'bough of land' which
is Thomas' parish described, full of 'sins rural and sins social' and 'the
echoes of cloying Amens' he wishes to briefly evade ; all these prove a rich
extra dimension to understanding Thomas, and should perhaps be used in
conjunction with the translated Autobiographies (Dent, 1997).
The last two collections Thomas published, Mass for Hard Times and No Truce with the Furies still
seem full of powerful, tough, undiluted stuff to me, though both were written
when he was in his
late seventies/early eighties. From the former, 'Come Down', 'Tidal', 'Tell
Us', and 'Migrants' are strong meditations and petitions for prayers to be
answered, or even acknowledged: 'dashing / my prayers at him will achieve /
little other than the exposure / of the rock under his surface' ['Tidal'].
Unexpectedly, however, this particular poem ends in glimpses of trust and
mercy. Equally surprising is 'Winter', which conjures a picture of the aged
antagonist amused by the insolent philosophical sallies of Jorge Luis Borges.
No Truce with the Furies
is even stronger, a fine last collection. 'Geriatric' offers an unsparing,
moving meditation on old age, the shadows of Kierkegaard and Wallace stevens
fall on several poems and the concluding pieces, 'Play' and 'Anybody's
Alphabet' exhibit a playfulness you'd associate with the very late Auden of
'Epistle to a Godson' or 'Thank You, Fog'.
Two years after Thomas' death, Residues (2002) appeared, shaped from unpublished
manuscripts by M. Wynn Jones, Thomas' literary executor. It is much of a
piece with the two preceding collections, albeit a shade more elegiac, with
the past tense notable throughout. One of the concluding poems, 'Don't Ask
Me...' is a response to a slippery question; how to write poems. Coached in
negatives and denials, Thomas actually proffers a lot:
Ask no rhyme
of a poem, only
that it keep faith
with life's rhythm.
Language will trick
you if it can.
Syntax is words'
way of shackling
the spirit. Poetry is that
which arrives at the
by way of the heart.
Reminiscent of Larkin's similarly gnomic comments [see Required Writing], this is actually more
informative. It is a heartfelt way to conclude Thomas' poetic career: anyone
who has followed it, and has the doorstep Collected Poems 1945 Š 1990 will want to invest in this
companion volume, too.
© M. C. Caseley 2004