“Poetry Is Not Made with Ideas” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

“I have passed the mornings in writing poetry,” R. S. Thomas said, in a letter to me written on March 31, 1994, two days after his eighty-first birthday. “I don’t think it is of any significance,” he continued. “I have shot my bolt at last. Plenty of interesting ideas, but, as Mallarmé remarked, poetry is not made with ideas.”

The poet Mallarmé listened to the painter Degas complaining about his inability to write poems even though “he was full of ideas.” “My dear Degas,” Mallarmé responded, “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”

Words were spoken aloud for millennia. Only later in human history were they put down in something like what we call writing. For ages, then, poetry flowed from the mouth of the poet to the ear of the listener and on into the imagination. With the advent of writing, the eye began to lift poetry off of clay or stone or parchment and send it on into the intellect. The result? Poetry came to be associated more with ideas than with feelings.

Because my wife’s health means that I’m now living alone, I can read out loud without feeling foolish. This makes it possible for me to page through Thomas’s books, giving voice to each poem.

Hard to do. But find a place where you can’t be overheard, and vocalize some of the poems Thomas wrote before he thought he had shot his bolt.

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