Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Brightness that Seemed as Transitory as Your Youth'

For some writers, my ardency quickly cools, leaving me feeling self-duped and sheepish. At that point, either a sense of revulsion sets in (and from that, a writer never recovers), or sustained but not necessarily irrevocable indifference, a cooling-off period. Among the permanently rejected are Donald Barthelme (the summer of ’70 was ours), Arno Schmidt and Charles Olson. All have in common pretentions to being avant-gardistes, a malady to which young people are particularly susceptible, and I hold only myself accountable for youthful folly. Other writers recover from short-lived ardency, prove their worthiness after months or years, and become reliably rereadable. They are not Shakespeare or Chekhov but neither are they a waste of time. Philip Larkin illuminates my experience in his contribution to a symposium sponsored in 1957 by The London Magazine (collected in Further Requirements, 2001):   

“My only criticism of a writer today, or any other day, is that he writes (as I think) badly, and that means a great many things much more certainly than it means `non-engagement’: being boring, for instance, or hackneyed, pretentious, forced, superficial, or – the commonest – simply leaving me flat cold. Therefore, if I find a novel or poem the reverse of all these things – gripping, original, honest, and so on – I shall be much too grateful to take up a quarrel with its author over motives or material.”

 Embodying “the reverse of all these things” is the Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas. In 2006, in the early months of this blog, I fell hard for his work and read all the poetry and prose available (most of which I bought), as well as Byron Rogers’ biography and much criticism. Then, incrementally, without trauma, after a year or so, we drifted apart. It was my doing. I expected too much. Now we’re working out the terms of our rapprochement. Can we be just friends? Thomas writes in “The Bright Field" (Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975):

“I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.” 

Larkin’s pal Kingsley Amis expressed admiration for Thomas’ poems, but in his letters Larkin referred to the Welshman as “Arsewipe” Thomas. Larkin was a great poet but sometimes, especially in the letters, too glibly clever for his own good. Thomas died on this date, September 25, in 2000, age eighty-seven.


The Britophile said...

Thank you for posting my favorite R. S. Thomas poem. As for Larkin's nom de cul, I don't know whether Larkin knew Thomas, but i gather that the latter could be an extremely difficult man to deal with.

Cynthia Haven said...

Thanks for this poem, Patrick. I didn't know this one.

Larissa Antipova said...

"ardency"? Really? Try "ardor."