R. S. Thomas: “Resolute Citizen of the Hyphen”

R. S. Thomas resided on a hyphen: Welsh-English, poet-priest, doubter-believer; man of moors-man of seas-man of mountains.

As my friend Andrew S. puts it so aptly: Thomas was a “resolute citizen of the hyphen.”

Thomas recognized that living with complete honesty means being aware of life’s irreconcilable opposites. Because they resist harmonization, all we can do is link them with hyphens.

In his lecture titled “The Creative Writer’s Suicide” (1977), Thomas said this about a poet:

If it is suggested that writing well is mainly a matter of inspiration, his tendency will be to emphasize the difficult toil. If the opposite is suggested, that some poem has caused him much effort, he will pooh-pooh the idea in order to show himself to be an inspired man.

Two decades before Thomas read those words in Welsh at a writers’ conference, he poed them in English.

Feel free to grouse at the verb “to poe.” My defense is that I borrowed it from Les Murray, the fine Australian poet, who was, to my knowledge, the first to use it: “You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn; / you can’t poe one either.

In 1958, Thomas’s recent poeing appeared in a book titled Poetry for Supper, in which the poem that gives the book its title presents two poets hunched over their glasses of beer, ping-ponging contradictory positions on writing poetry.

Often my first meal with Thomas has helped me imagine the scene.

August 12, 1992: I sat opposite Thomas at a narrow table in the Woodlands Hall Hotel, which is remotely located on the Llŷn peninsula, perhaps the most out-of-the-way region of Wales. On the table, wine not beer; on our plates, poached salmon with prawns. When Thomas spoke, he pressed his palms into the deep depressions in his cheeks.

That’s the scene I see when I read “Poetry for Supper.” Except I see Thomas seated on both sides of the table. Thomas arguing with Thomas. Each R.S. contradicting the other, with the table itself hyphenating them.

R.S 1: Hold on there, verse should emerge naturally, sprouting like a beautiful flower from dirt and dung.

R.S. 2: Natural, zut! Writing a poem’s a hard slog. If you simply let it flow, it’ll have all the beauty of kudzu.

R.S. 1: “You speak as though / No sunlight ever surprised the mind/ Groping on its cloudy path.”

R.S. 2: “Sunlight’s a thing that needs a window / Before it enter a dark room. / Windows don’t happen.”

The words in quotes are Thomas’s, those not in quotes are mine. If you’re looking for an example of the difference between a poet and a prose-it, you’ve got it.

But returning to what I was saying:

The back-and-forth between R.S. 1 and R.S. 2 could run on and on, inspiration and perspiration arguing their cases forever.

In Thomas’s poem, the argument ends when the poem ends, and the poem itself is a hyphenation of the idea that writing a poem is a matter of being surprised by sunlight and the idea that writing a poem is a matter of making windows.

All we can do, then, when reflecting on the activity of writing poetry is hyphenate inspiration and perspiration. The muse hovering in the air and the pen scratching on the paper.

Muse hyphenated with slog.

“Emotion recollected in tranquility” – Then laboriously poed.

Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“If it is suggested” – “The Creative Writer’s Suicide,” Autobiographies, 20.

“You speak as though” and “Sunlight’s a thing” – “Poetry for Supper,” Poetry for Supper, 34.


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