I encountered the work of RS Thomas only recently after reading Art & Soul. A Welsh poet and Anglican minister, Thomas was considered to be a man of contradictions. I think this description is given in the present with a bit of bewilderment, though I suspect it should be received as a compliment, the most honest, basic thing anyone could ever say about themselves (and rarely do).
The Bread of Truth is a slim volume of poetry, Thomas’ sixth. It was first published in 1963. I had trouble finding any of his other works, and had to harass a local librarian and ultimately take the book out on loan from a library out of town.
I found the poems in the volume to be descriptive, filled with images of bones and wheat, hedges and earth, the water, the body, and abstract concepts like fear and love, language and regret that become concrete when written about with such clear and vivid signs. Vagabonds show up unannounced on the narrator’s doorstep, workers walk in from the field. Always the ocean is within view pulling sailors away and bringing husbands back to the home, only to be swept off again. A baby is dropped, dreams die. Empty handed, all the narrator can offer is a song of “honour and pain.”
The territory of the poet is that of paradox, two things that should be impossible that he reveals can exist in the same space and time, thrown together, occupying the very same line. Thomas uses surprising conceits that lift many of the poems off the ground, like a jet, so heavy, yet it flies.
Mrs Li, whose person I adore,
Said to me once, walking on the shore,
The wind’s voices whispering at the ear’s
Innocent portal: Love is like the sea’s
Wandering blossom; we are the waves,
Who wear it wreathed a moment in our hair.
But I replied, toying with the sand
That was the colour of her carved hand,
Though warmer, veined more freely with the sun’s
Tropical gold: No, love is like the sea’s
Measureless music; we are the shells,
Whose lips transpose it to a brief despair.
Many of the poems seem hollow and hallowed like the shells, filled with a sense of feeling and meaning which ebb and swell then recede at the pages’ inevitable turning; the tide of sensation retreats only to return with force, pull from the corner of the mostly single-paged poems.
What surprised me most, perhaps nearly to the point of shock, was Thomas’ use of the comma, often placed at the end of a line to break the enjambed line so that the breath is stopped and emphasis is placed at the end of a phrase mid-verse. As a poet-in-the-making I’ve tinkered much the same. Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Canadian poet John Lent who pointed out my habit of breaking lines with commas, usually to the detriment of the poem. Much of the pace of my poems are centered more around breathing than anything else. Thomas’ frequent use of commas in the aforementioned locations really stood out in my perception, and I’ve taken note. It was a school for me in poetic punctuation. I’m not sure, yet, what I’ve learned.
In that vein of vain self-evaluation and regarding the work of a proven, respected wordsmith, I defer to the following poem, another of my favourites from the tome:
TO A YOUNG POET
For the first twenty years you are still growing,
Bodily that is; as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It’s the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you,
When love has changed to a grave service
Of a cold queen.
From forty on
You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
Of poems that have come to pieces
In your crude hands how to assemble
With more skill the arbitrary parts
Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
A new impulse to conceal your wounds
From her and from a bold public,
Given to pry.
You are old now
As years reckon, but in that slower
World of the poet you are just coming
To sad manhood, knowing the smile
On her proud face is not for you.
I’m pleased at the introduction, and hope to become more acquianted with Thomas’ other work.
Thomas, R.S. The Bread of Truth. Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1963.