One of the ways I like to approach poems is to allow them to speak to me in as many dimensions of my being as possible, as thinker, feeler, intuitor, knower etc. I have always been conscious of what Archibald MacLeish used say about poetry: "A poem should not mean, but be." There is a lot of truth in that line. Therefore, one should allow any poem to have as many resonances as possible, while obviously ruling out stupid or foolish associations. I have always despised an approach to teaching poetry which might set out to explain it away by offering something along the lines: "This is what X. Y or Z means here."
This To Do
I have this that I must do
One day: overdraw on my balance
Of air, and breaking the surface
Of water go down into the green
Darkness to search for the door
To myself in dumbness and blindness
And uproar of scared blood
At the eardrums. There are no signposts
There but bones of the dead
Conger, no light but the pale
Phosphorous, where the slow corpses
Swag. I must go down with the poor
Purse of my body and buy courage,
Paying for it with the coins of my breath.
Associations/Resonances, not Meanings:
Associations I like in the above quoted poem are the obvious overarching image of "diving down" and how this metaphor is sustained throughout the poem: "balance of air," "breaking the surface of water," "uproar... at the eardrums," and "dead conger." I wrote an article many years ago on depression as a diving down into the Self, called: "Coming up for Air: a Spirituality of Depression" which was published in the Aware magazine some years ago and reproduced in this blog here. I mention this association as I, too, see the metaphor of "diving down" as being a very good one to represent the exploration of the Self, i.e., all that we mean by depth psychology. Other images I love in the poem are "the door to myself" which is somewhere deep down in the darkness, but it is a green or hopeful darkness, not a pitch black darkness. In that green darkness I feel there is a lot of algae life which is the very stuff from which we evolved many aeons ago.
There are also banking or economic images which I quite like, rooting this poem in everyday life - "overdraw on my balance of air," "poor purse of my body," "buy courage" and "pay for it with the coins of my breath." While there are clear banking references here, there are also subtler images of paying Charon the ferryman across the River Styx. There are no signposts at all in this unconscious underworld of Self save for some kind of phosphorous light which he spells with an -"ous," not a "-us." There are, then, some dimlights to help us in our explorations of the Self. On checking on this spelling, I find that the "-us" is for the noun, and "-ous" distinctly adjectival in usage. So Thomas is distinctly wrong in his spelling here. However, that is a mere quibble and a testament to his humanity.
The above is a way I read a poem, just allowing these associations and resonances to come up, to surface as it were on the top of the great watery unconscious of the poem.
Once again, what I love about R.S. Thomas is how each of his poems makes us literally stop in our tracks and take stock. Read this poem and let it do so! In other words, let the poem do its work!