Friday, March 29, 2013

`A True Minor Poet'

“Significant poems seem not to be written about Stone Curlews, Dartford Warblers and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, nor about military orchids, water lobelia and antirrhinums, but rather about birds and flowers.” 

Even before Bryan Appleyard referred to the Welsh poet/priest R.S. Thomas as “Laughing Boy,” I was an admirer of the work if not the man. The sentiment above is drawn from a lecture, “Words and the Poet” (Selected Prose, 1986), Thomas delivered in 1963. Out of context, his sentence sounds comically pedantic, but it set me to investigating his claim. The Australian poet Francis Duggan, I discovered, wrote a poem about “The Bush Stone Curlew,” which may be judged “significant” if you’re interested not in poetry but propaganda. Jocelyn Brooke published his novel The Military Orchid in 1948. I haven’t read it. About antirrhinums, a word I confuse with “antimacassars,” I found a poem by D.H. Lawrence under the flower’s better-known name, "Snap-Dragon." Again, nothing significant. Thomas seems to concur with Dr. Johnson’s judgment as to numbering the streaks of the tulip. 

Thomas is making a point worth our attention. Earlier in the paragraph he writes: “Art is not simple, and yet about so much of the best, whether in painting, poetry or music, there is a kind of miraculous simplicity.” For an example he cites King Lear:  “Take it away; it smells of mortality.” Thomas misquotes without blunting his point. In Act IV, Scene 6, Gloucester says:  “O, let me kiss that hand!” and Lear replies: “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.” About the passage, Thomas writes: “I think that as long as there is poetry, it will keep reverting to that native plainness and simplicity.” He might be referring to his own customarily flinty lines, rich in familiar monosyllables. Consider “Autumn” from the four-poem suite “The Seasons” (Mass for Hard Times, 1992): 

“Happy the leaves
burnishing their own
downfall. Life dances
upon life’s grave.
It is we who inject
sadness into the migrant’s
cry. We are so long
in dying – time granted
to discover a purpose
in our decay? Could
we be cut open,
would there be more than
the saw’s wound, all
humanity’s rings widening
only toward ageing?
To creep in for shelter
under the bone’s tree
is to be charred by time’s
lightning stroke. The leaves
fall variously as do thought
to reveal the bareness
of the mind’s landscape
through which we must press on
towards the openness of its horizons.” 

After the sentence at the top of this post, Thomas writes: 

“We like to think of every poet as possessing a very keen eye, whereas Yeats, for instance, was reported to be decidedly short-sighted.  It is as though, for poetry, general words will do, with occasional glimpses or insights for added effect, as in Rosetti’s `The woodspurge has a cup of three.’” 

In his recently published Diaries, the Welsh actor Richard Burton writes: 

“The only nice poets I’ve ever met were bad poets and a bad poet is not a poet at all—ergo I’ve never met a nice poet… R. S. Thomas is a true minor poet but I’d rather share my journey to the other life with somebody more congenial. I think the last tight smile that he allowed to grimace his features was at the age of six when he realized with delight that death was inevitable. He has consigned his wife to hell for a long time. She will recognize it when she goes there.” 

For more of the same, see Nige’s account of Thomas, Elizabeth Taylor and the flatfish. 

Thomas was born on this date, March 29, in 1913. He died Sept. 25, 2000.

1 comment:

George said...

"We like to think of every poet as possessing a very keen eye"

Homer, for instance? Yet his epics have quite a variety of trees--pine, fir, oak, ash, cedar--birds certainly including eagles, cranes, sea ducks, and geese, and among flowers at least hyacinth and asphodel.