There R. S. Thomas sat, enthroned in an armchair, under the fringed shade of a floor lamp. On his face, eyeglasses; in his hands, my copy of a book of his poems.
Twenty minutes earlier, ten of us had sat around the lounge of a small hotel, eying the empty throne. Had Thomas forgotten that he’d promised to read some of his poems before we ate dinner together? Getting antsy, I began walking in the direction of his hotel, only to meet him on his way uphill.
After settling in under the fringed shade, Thomas revealed what we need to know about great poems.
He demonstrated that rhyme is not an essential ingredient of poetry. Yes, some fine poems include rhyming words, but since there is great unrhymed poetry, rhyme clearly is not essential.
The first essential is rhythm – the rhythm created by stressed and unstressed syllables, by punctuation and line ends, and by the way that some words force you to make a tongue adjustment before you can say the next word.
The second is word choices, word sounds, and word placements, and the ear, not the eye, is the judge of rightness.
The third is fresh metaphors, avoiding shopworn tropes like the plague. High on the list of shopworn tropes – “avoiding like the plague.”
The fourth is saying something common to human experience in a better way than it has ever been said before – a way that ventilates our stale mind.
The man under the fringed lampshade revealed all those things by reading a selection of his poems.
Too much reading of poetry is done by people trying to be dramatic. They seem to imagine that without their elocutionary salt, the poet’s work will be bland.
Listening to Thomas, it was clear that the reading of poetry involves careful articulation of the words, so that the play among their sounds can be heard. Reading poetry also involves adherence to the rhythms the poet created, so that what the poet is saying, not what the reader thinks the poet should be saying, catches the ear of the listener.
Now read aloud to yourself one of the poems Thomas read under the fringed lampshade:
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with the fruit of a man’s body.
I can’t think of a more striking figure of speech for the crucifixion than “love in a dark crown / Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree / Golden with the fruit of a man’s body.”
Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“To one kneeling down no word came” – “In a Country Church,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 114.