Wednesday, November 18, 2009


R. S. Thomas, who died in 2000 at the age of 87, was for forty years a priest of the Church of Wales (Anglican), serving a number of back-country parishes. He is widely considered to be the greatest religious poet of the twentieth century, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. By all accounts he was a caring pastor, but one of the chief themes of his early poetry was a clear-eyed, unsentimental look at his rural parishioners:

Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales,
With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your
sweaty females,
How I have hated you for your irreverence, your scorn even
of the refinements of art and the mysteries of the Church,...

But he is also one of them, and comes to have a gruff respect for their perspective on life:

...why should you come like sparrows for prayer crumbs,
Whose hands can dabble in the world's blood?

Even though he writes in exasperation of their ignorance and their uncouth ways, he credits them as the very source of his poetic vocation:

I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet,
Your want of deference to the painter's skill,
But I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips; and what brushwork could equal
The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill.

The artless speech of these farmers forms what Norman Maclean calls the "words that are under the rocks." Of this natural poetry of everyday speech, Robert Pinsky writes, "It's as though we're singing to each other all day long."

Near the end of his life, Thomas brings this view of poetry to a kind of ultimate conclusion: the language that is the song of human speech -- the language that Thomas had early recognized as the bridge between the "refinements" of the priest and the roughness of the people -- is the language (poetry) that bridges "the limits of our articulation" and communicates the divine:

...You have given us the ability
to ask the unanswerable question,
to have glimpses of you
as you were, only to stand dumb
at the limits of our articulation.
Is it our music interprets you
best, a heart-beat at the very centre
of your creation? Is it art,
depicting man's figure as the conductor
to your lightning? Had I
the right words, it is the poem
that would announce you to
an amazed audience; no longer
a linguistic wrestling but a signal
projected at you and returning quick
with the unpredictabilities at your centre.

Robert Pinsky, "The Sounds of Poetry"
R.S. Thomas, A Priest To His People, "Collected Poems"
R.S. Thomas, Neither, "No Truce With The Furies"

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