R.S. Thomas: A Cocktail Party Poet?

cream sherryWell, no; I can’t see Thomas at a London publisher’s soirée, circulating the room, martini in hand, fencing adroitly with this supercilious literary critic and that soigné bestselling novelist.

Yes, he had a drink, usually cream sherry, before dinner when we were together. But a cocktail party man about town? No.

Yet he wrote a spot-on cocktail party poem.

Someone arrives:

‘How good of you to come!’
………………………………………..(Yawning inwardly.)
So beautiful!
………………….(The bitch!)
. . . .
…………..‘Handsomest of men!’
Can eyes be believed over the rim
of Madeira?

We can’t identify the speakers of those lines. Then we come to a sentence beginning with “I,” but we must be wary of confusing the narrator of a poem with the author of the poem:

………….           . . .I move
to a new partner, polishing
my knuckles, dazzled by the medals
he has left off. Once
in the sand it had been his club
against my fish-net. Here we exchange
insults civilly.

Eight words assure me that Thomas had been to cocktail parties: “dazzled by the medals / he has left off.”

The poem deals with the period of his life when Thomas was vicar of a parish in Wales inhabited by many retired English military officers. So medals were always visible . . . even when they weren’t present. The same can be true for resumes and academic hoods.

I once invited a new resident of the building where I live to join a group of us for five o’clock drinks in the lounge. “What’ll I say?” he asked. “Oh, just tell us a little something about yourself.” He came. He talked . . . talked on and on and . . . our drinks were exhausted long before he was. We were dazzled by the resume he hadn’t handed out.

The other night, when I was walking to the health center to kiss my wife goodnight, I was hailed by a clergy colleague I hadn’t seen for years and scarcely knew. As she was introducing me to her husband, she paused and asked, “Are you ‘doctor’?” “An honorary degree,” I conceded. “Oh,” she preened, “honorary. I earned mine.” And I was dazzled by the doctoral hood she had left off.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“’How good of you to come!’” – untitled poem, The Echoes Return Slow, 53.

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6 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas: A Cocktail Party Poet?

  1. Medals, resumes and doctoral hoods,
    Patronising flock, vanity’s brood,
    A noisome pestilence;
    “The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit….
    The rest is silence”

    Of course, Thomas has captured it all.

  2. I just came across a statement in the August 31st issue of The Economist (p.72): “The experience of ministering in country parishes in England and Wales has long inspired marvellous writing. From John Skelton in the late 15th century to R.S. Thomas in the 20th, via Thomas Traherne and Francis Kilvert, the routines of the job–preaching to sullen, snoozing farmers, taking the sacrament to remote farms, playing peacemaker between villagers and squire–have been transmuted into some of the best poetry and prose in the language.” More than a cocktail party poet for sure.

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