The other day, during a halfhearted sortie, I was moving a file folder from one box to another when a photocopy of a journal article slipped out, and its first words stopped me short:
R. S. Thomas glories in the Midas touch.
Those words, published in 1972, the years before I was introduced to Thomas’s poetry, were written by Calvin Bedient, now an emeritus professor of English at the University of California – Los Angeles. Bedient goes on to say:
There are very few poets to whom one could point confidently, helping out some stranger to the earth and its great forms, and say, of almost any one of his pieces, that is poetry, and not fear that one has failed to show the thing in its purity. R. S. Thomas is happily such a poet.
Let me underscore the almost in Bedient’s assertion. Most of the time, when Thomas touches words, they become high-carat poetry. But a few of his poems are what I learned in college geology to classify as iron pyrite.
Bedient illustrates Thomas’s Midas touch by quoting “Ninetieth Birthday,” a poem that I, too, consider golden, although there are poems to which I’d assign a higher carat rating:
You go up the long track
That will take a car, but is best walked
On slow foot, noting the lichen
That writes history on the page
Of the grey rock. . . .
The walker going slow-footed uphill, observing nature’s way of recording the passage of time, arrives at the top and there . . .
. . . that old woman,
Born almost a century back
In that stone farm, awaits your coming;
Waits for the news of the lost village
She thinks she knows, a place that exists
In her memory only.
We know that woman: she’s out grandmother, our mother, our beloved.
You bring her greeting
And praise for having lasted so long
With time’s knife shaving the bone.
Yet no bridge joins her own
World with yours, all you can do
Is lean kindly across the abyss
To hear words that were once wise.
Quotes in this blog:
“R. S. Thomas glories in the Midas touch” – Calvin Bedient, “On R. S. Thomas;” Critical Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, Autumn 1972, 253.
“You go up the long track” – “Ninetieth Birthday,” Tares, 23.