The first line of one of R. S. Thomas’s poems is “Come to Wales”
Just “Wales” – not followed by a period. For while the line ends, the sentence does not. It’s like a cliff that forces you to stop and, for a split second, not look down. And before you do look down to the next line, the poet would like you to guess what words you’ll find.
“Come to Wales” . . . to go fishing . . . to find a cheap B&B . . . to visit a slate mine . . . to climb Mount Snowdon.
Let half of your mind play with the reason you’d give for inviting someone to come to Wales, and train the other half on this:
The cliffhanger at the end of a line of poetry is like a pause in something being said – a pause that is long enough to allow our mind to supply the next word.
At lunch after church one Sunday, when my son was about five, he told his mother and me what happened in Sunday school: “Mrs. Wood taught me to screw . . . . . drive. His pause was just long enough to send my wife and me over the cliff into barely suppressed giggles.
Mrs. Wood was showing him how to use a plastic screwdriver to screw plastic screws into a piece of plastic wood.
When someone is speaking, their pauses between words give us a chance to guess what their next word will be. These breaks in the flow of words add drama, hence memorability, to what is being said.
Line breaks and the versatility and ambiguity of the English language do something similar in poetry.
One day in early May of 1993, as Thomas and I were walked close to grazing ewes and their lambs, I slipped “lambs cushion his vision” into our conversation. Thomas smiled, then commented on the versatility of the English language for the writing of poems.
Thomas’s smile acknowledged my quote from his poem “The Priest”:
He goes up a green lane
Through the growing birches; lambs cushion
His vision. . . .
The line break after “cushion” is one of those cliffs that stop our forward movement, prompting us not to look down into the next line until we have imagined what will come next. For me, “lambs” and “cushion” remind me of my favorite stuffed animal – a lamb whose fleece was as wooly soft as a real lamb’s, the perfect cushion for a little boy’s head.
What is cushioned in Thomas’s poem is the “vision” of an Anglican priest who is walking from cottage to cottage in his rural parish.
“Vision” can refer to the eyesight of the priest: what he sees in the stone-riddled pastures is softened by the lambs.
“Vision” can also refer to what the priest sees with his inner eye. Perhaps the lambs remind him of the Lamb of God – Jesus the Christ, and so his seemingly unredeemed parish is illuminated, at least momentarily, by rays of redemption.
In another poem, Thomas works with the versatility of the word “frame.” The poem’s speaker is Welsh, the person spoken to is English:
You knock with the wrong
tongue. Between you
and our kitchen the front room
with our framed casualties
in your fool wars. . . .
Those five lines provide examples of all we’ve been talking about. There’s the little cliff after “wrong,” the big one after “casualties.”
The problem with the visitor was not wrong clothing, not wrong address, but wrong language. So he will not be invited into the kitchen, the room for entertaining family and friends who speak Welsh.
The English knocker will be detained in the parlor, where there are framed photographs of the family’s young men who were framed by the English . . . (chasm between “framed casualties” and “in your fool wars”) . . . into fighting and dying for England.
With five lines of poetry, Thomas reminds us of the versatility of the English language and of what carefully placed line breaks can accomplish.
Now, back to what the other half of your mind has been doing. What follow-up words have you picked for “Come to Wales”?
Here’s what Thomas wrote:
Come to Wales
To be buried; the undertaker
Will arrange it for you. . . .
Why is Wales a good place to be buried?
. . . Let us
Quote you; our terms
Are the lowest, and we offer,
Dirt cheap, a place where
It is lovely to lie.
At the poem’s climax, a simple three-letter zinger – lie.
A word with all these meanings: be dishonest, be located, be present, extend, falsify, lie down, ride at anchor.
Is Thomas’s hinting that there’s something false about his whole poem? Is he suggesting that the English, who had come to Wales for centuries, had lied about their intentions? Is he saying that Wales is a pleasant place for our body to ride at anchor? Is he saying, “Watch out, when you come to Wales; the Welsh are mendacious?
The versatility . . . and ambiguity . . . of the English language for the writing of poems – Its precise imprecision.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“He goes up a green lane” – “The Priest,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 29.
“You knock with the wrong” – “The Parlour,” Welsh Airs, 40.