“A Poem Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another” | R.S. Thomas’ Poems

RS Thomas at Porth Neigwl

R.S. Thomas at Porth Neigwl, August 2012

My neighbor keeps an eye out for Amazon book boxes at my door, then asks if she may have them for mailing her Christmas presents.

Recently, she’s been asking for larger boxes, so she can get rid of some of her husband’s books. I supplied the boxes, but said that her project constituted grounds for divorce and offered to represent her husband.

The other day, she gave me a magazine article dealing with a craft person in Chicago who glues together six or so hardback books, hollows out the pages, inserts a milk carton, and . . . presto . . . a flower vase.

Fortuitously, one of the Amazon boxes brought me Rebecca Solnit’s book The Faraway Nearby, in which Solnit says: “The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, . . . It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, . . .

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

Solnit’s insight takes us back to my blog quoting Jack Gilbert’s poem “Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played.” One of the poem’s lines riffs the title: “Like the song that exists / only in the singing, and is not the singer.”

In like manner – Poetry is in the poem only when it is being read. It is most fully in the poem’s reading when we are reading the poem aloud. Then the poem is a heart beating in our chest, fulfilling the poet’s dream.

These lines, in which R. S. Thomas addresses God, have been beating in my chest for many years:

   . . . At night, if I waken,
there are the sleepless conurbations
of the stars. The darkness
is the deepening shadow
of your presence; the silence a
process in the metabolism
of the being of love.

Another poem has been beating in my chest since 1973, when I bought my first book of Thomas’s poetry, Selected Poems 1946-1968. Thomas collected this poem, “Evans,” in his 1958 volume Poetry for Supper, so it dates from the first decade or so of his parish ministry.

Thomas describes his many visits to Evans, a man – probably a farmer – confined to bed in a room you reached by a “bare flight / Of stairs” from “the gaunt kitchen.”

After those visits, Thomas went out into “the thick tide / Of night,” not forgetting that he was walking away from the house, while Evans was marooned on one of its beds:

It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.

A cheerless poem . . . but honest . . . .

I’m not going to Crusoe you, however, on that poem’s grim island; rather, here’s Thomas’s tribute to his first wife, Elsi, written roughly a decade before she died:

My luminary,
my morning and evening
star. My light at noon
when there is no sun
and the sky lowers. My balance
of joy in a world
that has gone off joy’s
standard. Yours the face
that young I recognized
as though I had know you
of old. Come, my eyes
said, out into the morning
of a world whose dew
waits for your footprint. . . .

Books quoted in this blog:

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (New York: Viking / Penguin, 2013), 63

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 58.

“At night, if I waken” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 51.

“It was not the dark filling my eyes” – “Evans,” Poetry for Supper, 15; Selected Poems 1946-1968, 47.

“My luminary” – “Luminary,” Uncollected Poems, 169; Poems to Elsi, 54.

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9 thoughts on ““A Poem Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another” | R.S. Thomas’ Poems

  1. Dear John,

    I thank you for each and every blog. I read each one several times – the poetry aloud. That feeds the sense of taste as well as of sound. As you have pointed out there is more nourishment for the soul this way.

    You haven’t heard from me because I have been unwell. I will send an email explaining that but I did want to thank you again for your blogs.

    • Thanks, Barbara, for your encouraging words. In our fast-food, fast-think culture, the snail’s pace of reading poetry aloud is essential if we are to retain our humanity.

      I have responded to your email dealing with your health. May you soon be fully Barbara once again!

  2. Then the poem is a heart beating in our chest, fulfilling the poet’s dream.
    ……. that’s quite a responsibility and honour……. no wonder I get breathless with 2 hearts beating at once when reading his poetry in his church…..

    • Thanks, Dave, for alerting me to this post. The accompanying photo is just right. And I’m still chuckling about “a melodramatic spinster of eighteen.”

      “Luminary” became one of my favorite RST poems the first time I read it. Am using it to close a talk I’m giving in May.

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