“The Muse Will Not Be Forced” | R.S. Thomas on Poetry (and God)

I see wads and wads of balled up paper, each containing some words that please the poet until . . . time passing . . . he turns “a sour look on the thing.”

Every writer understands what Thomas is talking about. Those first words, paragraphs, whole chapters even – they’re satisfying. They may even prompt us to pat our own back. Then we reread them and groan, “How’d I write this crap?”

My son blames it on the Crap Fairy stealing into his word processor overnight and mucking up his writing.

American poet Jack Gilbert grumbles: I worked “so hard / to get it right even a little, / and that little grudging and awkward.” But when it was done as well as I could do it, and when I longed to be buoyed up by a tiny sense of accomplishment, always there was “this same old / dissatisfaction instead.”

Gilbert’s grouch rhymes with what Thomas says about his “sour” look, but Thomas adds a telling sentence: “One gets pleased at the time [with a poem] and then turns a sour look on the thing later. The muse will not be forced.”

That was in a 1955 letter. More than a quarter of a century later, in 1981, Thomas used “sour” again, this time in a poem:

                 . . . Poems we threw up
too far back are not
to return to; they smell
sour. . . .

Let’s put “sour” on hold and consider Thomas’s “muse.”

Poets hope some of their words, lines, metaphors, will become ingredients in the thinking of their readers. So here’s where I’ve gone with Thomas’s not-to-be-forced muse.

Writing, I think, is a self-induced or a muse-induced activity.

Thomas, in conversations, alluded to his encounters with each of these writing experiences. He told me that he often balled up the pieces of paper on which he was writing a poem, and tossed them into the wastebasket.

On another occasion, he said that poems frequently took shape in his head, so that by the time he wrote them down, his pen moved over the paper without hesitation. “I might,” he added, “change a word or two.”

He seems to be suggesting that there are two kinds of writing: In the first kind, we imagine that we have a good idea, so we toil and sweat to get it right on paper or in a pc-file. That, in my choice of a term, is self-induced writing.

Second, there is the muse-induced variety. Our muse stops us in the middle of something we’re doing, nudges an insight into our consciousness, and then seemingly directs the flow of our words.

Some weeks ago, I devoted the writing part of four days to the struggle of getting a blog right, or at least a smidgen righter. I’d add this, delete that, hoping that the next morning my writing would exhibit some blogginess. No luck – I flashed a vinegar glare.

Then, sometime between Thursday night’s pill-taking and Friday morning’s teeth-brushing, the muse slipped me a way to let my blog unfold naturally. So it practically wrote itself on Friday morning.

I’d been trying to force the muse, and “the muse will not be forced.”

Thomas recognized that you must be still and wait in silence for the coming of the muse – be quiet in the way you are quiet as you wait for a rare bird to soar into the range of your field glasses.

Likewise, we must be still and wait for the coming of God.

God will not be forced.

Times of silent waiting are, however, times of emptiness, and doubt is always lurking, ready to fill cavities in our psyche.

When birders have waited until they are tired and stiff for a particular rare bird to fly into the range of their binoculars, they are ripe for doubting the accuracy of the information they’ve been given about the bird’s flight path and times of migration.

Doubt plagues them . . . then the bird glides into view.

And doubt threatens to dominate us . . . then God becomes a filling presence.

“Suddenly,” Thomas writes,

As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. . . .

Poetry and Prose of R. S. Thomas (and Jack Gilbert) quoted in this blog:

“. . . so hard / to get it right“ – “Doing Poetry,” Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert, 42.

“One gets pleased at the time” – Letter to Raymond Garlick, October 18, 1955; R. S. Thomas: Letters to Raymond Garlick 1951-1999, 31.

“Poems we threw up” – “Predicaments,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 118.

“As I had always known” – “Suddenly,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 32.

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2 thoughts on ““The Muse Will Not Be Forced” | R.S. Thomas on Poetry (and God)

  1. ‘…and a great and strong wind rent the mountains…but the Lord was not in the fire…..and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a small still voice.’
    It seems that waiting for the silence is the key.

  2. Pingback: Hearing God in Silence | Poems of R.S. Thomas | Doubt & Belief

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