Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Poetic Break 5

I have R.S. Thomas' collected poems on the windowsill beside where I'm sitting with my laptop on my knee.  I always keep the latest volume of poems that I am reading thereon.  at the moment it is accompanied by a collection of the Gaelic poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh who is surely the greatest living Gaelic poet in Ireland.  I dip in and out of both for inspiration, and, indeed enjoyment and pleasure.  I'll confine myself to poems in English in this blog.  I will comment on Ó Searcaigh's poems in my Gaelic Blog which you can find in the links on the right column of this blog under the heading Aisling.

Anyway back to R.S. Thomas, with whom I am somewhat besotted these days.  I find his poems strong, virile, full of energy and very inspiring to say the least.  When I read his words he brings me on a journey to my own country and peasant roots, back to the soil as it were, almost as if I had the clay once more under my finger nails.  His poems blow a refreshing wind into my face this wet grey day in Dublin.  Today's offering, my friends is a strong little poem called Man and Tree:


Man and Tree

Study this man; he is older than the tree
That lays its gnarled hand on his meagre shoulder,
And even as wrinkled,  for the bladed wind,
Ploughs up the surface as the blood runs colder.
Look at his eyes, that are colourlessa as rain,
Yet hard and clear, knotted by years of pain.

Look at his locks, that the chill wind has left
With scant reluctance for the wind to bleach.
Notice his mouth and the dry, bird-like tongue,
That flutters and fails at the cracked door of his lips.
Dumb now and sapless? Yet this man can teach,
Even as an oak tree when its leaves are shed,
More in old silence than in youthful song.
I shall repeat myself here at the risk of boring the reader.  This is an extraordinarily strong poem, yet one full of compassion which is so objective that it roots all sentimentality and schmaltz out.  This is also an earthy and ecologically sound poem.  The man in this poem is almost a tree and the tree itself is almost a man.  This may seem strange to any reader who might be unaccostomed to reading any poetry, never mind brilliant poetry like that of R.S. Thomas.  As a sort of "tree-hugger" and ecologist/green myself, who subscribes to the principle that our blue planet is Mother Earth or Gaia and that we human animals are very much part of that world which is one overarching brilliantly beautiful organism, I believe that we too are creatures like our brother and sister animals of all kinds and types who happen to share the same earthly home.  I am not surprised by Thomas's juxtaposition, nay symbiotic combination of man and tree.  In fact it inspires and delights me.  Modern genetics teaches that there is very little in our genetic makeup that divides us from the animal kingdom, and surprisingly little more that divides us from the plant world too.  I'm not surprised.  We are indeed made of earthy stuff.  Like the animals and the trees we are made of clay and we, too, sprang from it.

Read this poem.  Read it twice, three times, four times.  Nay, more, meditate upon it.  Let it rest in your mind and seep into your very heart or soul.  It will grow roots there. I promise!

A Poetic Break 4

One thing that both inspires me and intrigues me about R.S. Thomas' poems is that they are totally unsentimental.  They are almost "objective" in the best sense of that word.  Sentimentality is absolutely anathema to this great poet.  I especially love all the poems he writes about the ordinary country Welsh people, the simple labourers or peasants.  Needless to say I use this last word in its wholesome sense of meaning people who earn their living or keep from or off the land.  They are a strong people, an earthy people, an authentic people who do not need to hide their feelings.

I spend several days in Wales once way back in the early 1980s and unfortunately the weather was very bleak as we travelled through the many little mining towns.  Everywhere was either dark or grey with stone upon stone, grey slate upon grey slate and still more slate.  The countryside was almost depressing, but coming from Ireland where we, too, often have terribly grey rainy days with the clouds practically down on the ground obscuring all beauty, it certainly did not have that effect on us.  Actually the landscape inspired me in a strange, mysterious and, shall I say, mystical sort of way. 

And so, I am quite taken with R.S. Thomas' poems about the peasant people of his Wales from the forties until the eighties of the twentieth century.  It's almost as if these strong peasant farmers, labourers or tillers of the soil or hewers of wood grew out like trees from the slate grey soil or even from the very rocks or stones.  Hereunder, I'll type out two of these strong, virile, dispassionate poems.  These poems are so dispassionate, so unsentimental that they become, to my mind, very compassionate in a Buddhist way.  Only those who practise meditation will get this point, I feel.  Here are two strong, unsentimental, objective and extrememly compassionate poems:



A Labourer


Who can tell his years, for the winds have stretched
So tight the skin on the bare racks of bone
That his face is smooth, inscrutable as stone?
And when he wades in the brown bilge of earth
Hour by hour, or stoops to pull
The reluctant swedes, who can read the look
In the colourless eyes, as his back comes straight
Like an old tree lightened of the snow's weight?
Is there love there, or hope, or any thought
For the frail form broken beneath his tread,
And the sweet pregnancy that yields his bread?


A Peasant



Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clouds that glint in the wind -
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perphaps once a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against seige of rain and the wind's attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death's confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
Reflect on these poems because they are strong poems which deserve to be reflected upon.  They contain a strength beneath which is a wondrous wisdom that respects difference.  A lecturer told us once years ago that what made good literature of any genre was its honesty.  In counselling and psychotherapy circles, we speak about the counsellor's or therapist's being congruent with his/her inner self so that they can in turn be honest, open and true for their clients.  By being so congruent, he/she will thereby enable the patients or clients to trust the therapist and consequently to open up to their own personal development.  R.S. Thomas is nothing if not honest, authentic, genuine, true and congruent.  What we have in his poems is simply great literature.






Monday, July 05, 2010

A Poetic Break 3

Ah, these blessed slow days of Summer.  I always find this season, when I am free from schoo,l to be of the nature of a long retreat from the world when I can bury myself in reading and writing - mostly poems and philosophy.  One of the many books I have taken on holidays with me is R.S. Thomas: Collected Poems, 1945-1990.  Thomas is brilliant, because he literally brings you to those depths of soul that few other poets would dare.  He plumbs our ancient unconscious with unexpected consummate ease.  For an Anglican clergyman, he is singularly lacking in anything one might call traditional doctrine.  His spiritality isu far broader and deeper than the doctrinal limits of his official church.  However, then again, one of the beauties and strengths of Anglicanism, I feel, is its nature as a broad church, one where there is not as much written doctrine as the Roman Catholic Church and it is  consequently very much liberating as churches go.  There is also a tradition of free speech within the Anglican Communion which would neither be known nor indeed countenanced in its Roman sister Church.  Today's offering once again is a short provocative poem about plumbing the depths of the Self.  After all I have been writing about Rollo May, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud, not to mention Jung and Hillman and many other such stars in the psychological and psychiatric firmament, it is indeed a sort of poetic break to read this little gem from R.S. Thomas.  He shows us how much we need our poets as well as our psychiatrists and psychotherapists for the mental heath and sanity of our various cultures. This wonderful gem is called This To Do and I will type it hereunder as I cannot find it anywhere on the net:

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!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Poetic Break 2

When the soul is dry it is time to go to the soul's well.  For me there are many wells - so many poets whose well-wrough work in words waters the barren spaces of my soul.  One such well is that of the briliant Welch poet, R.S. Thomas Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913 – 2000) was a Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman, noted for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the anglicisation of Wales. He was one of the most famous Welsh poets.  He also lived a very ascetic life and despised many modern machines which he said prevented human beings from tending to more spiritual matters.  His poems are never schmaltzy or sugary or saccharine.  No, indeed.  They are full of hard love, deep insight and catch us unawares with their wisdom about life.  His poems are always strong and their language inevitable in its simplicity.  His themes are universal: our destruction of nature and the rural life; the search for our true self and for meaning; the quest for and dialogue with an often absent God - so the reader will find no sugary or watered-down spiritual trinkets in these sweat-wrought poems.  Professor M. Wynn Thomas said: "He was the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Wales because he was such a troubler of the Welsh conscience. He was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century."  Although he was a clergyman, he wasn't always charitable and was known for being awkward, taciturn and somewhat difficult. Some critics have interpreted photographs of him as indicating he was "formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humourless".  Although he may have taken some of his ideas to extreme lengths, Theodore Dalrymple wrote that Thomas "was raising a deep and unanswered question: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, and divert ourselves with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry? What will this do to our souls?"

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.


A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
These words are, what S.T. Coleridge might say, well chosen, thta is  "the right word in the right place" and in the right order.  In this sense the language is inevitable and apt.  Enjoy, and let its wholeness or holism or balance -  insofar as it contains both beauty and ugliness, both bright and dark, both happy and sad -  bring your mind a contemplator's equanimity.