R. S. Thomas and Harry Smart: God’s Odd Couple

Two poets, one still with us, one gone since 2000; one a Ph.D. in geography and an evangelical lay preacher; one a student of the Latin and Greek classics and a priest of the Church in Wales.

Both with unconventional views of God’s thoughts and God’s ways. Both more truly biblical in their believing than many who are officiously orthodox.

Each poet has written a poem titled “Praise.” Harry Smart opens his poem with this line: “Praise be to God, who pities wankers;” R. S. Thomas opens his in this way: “I praise you because.”

Both poets go on to praise God for things not mentioned in conventional prayers, such as “bastards” and “dickheads,” as “artist” and “scientist”.

Some weeks ago, when I was in Wales, I met an Anglican priest who received his bishop’s hairy eyeballs, all because he included this profoundly biblical poem by Harry Smart in a sermon:

Praise be to God, who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God, who pours out his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.

For he knows what he is doing; the healthy
have no need of a doctor, the sinless
have no need of forgiveness. But, you say,
They do not deserve it. That is the point;

that is the point. When you try to wade
across the estuary at low tide, but misjudge
the distance, the currents, the soft ground
and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

then perhaps you will realise that God
is to be praised for delivering dickheads
from troubles they have made for themselves.
Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

Let him who is without sin throw the first
headline. Let him who is without sin
build the gallows, prepare the noose,
say farewell to the convict with a kiss.

I wonder if my priest friend’s hairy-eyeballs bishop ever preached a sermon dealing with the occasion when Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Along came some throwers of headlines, saying to the disciples of Jesus: “Why does your teacher eat with wankers, bastards, and dickheads?” To which Jesus, overhearing the pious reproach, replied: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means” (Matthew 9:10-12, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 5:29-31).

In sharp contrast with Smart’s “Praise,” R. S. Thomas’s “Praise” is lyrical, yet it concludes with a blunt reminder that our every effort to domesticate God, to force God to do what we want God to do, is resisted . . . endlessly . . . by God:

I praise you because
you are artist and scientist
in one. When I am somewhat
fearful of your power,
your ability to work miracles
with a set-square, I hear
you murmuring to yourself
in a notation Beethoven
dreamed of but never achieved.
You run off your scales of
rain water and sea water, play
the chords of the morning
and evening light, sculpture
with shadow, join together leaf
by leaf, when spring
comes, the stanzas of
an immense poem. You speak
all languages and none,
answering our most complex
prayers with the simplicity
of a flower, confronting
us, when we would domesticate you
to our uses, with the rioting
viruses under our lens.

I can’t picture RS and Harry Smart sitting across from each other at a narrow pub table, sipping their pints, discussing poetry, while pub “talk ran / Noisily by them, glib with prose.” Certainly, if they had done so, they would have been God’s odd couple.

Both, however, believed in God. Both understood that God is larger than all of our God-ideas put together. That God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that God’s ways of forgiving are not our ways of forgiving. That God “pities wankers” and delivers “dickheads;” that God uses “rioting viruses” to keep us humble.

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Praise be to God, who pities wankers” – “Praise,” Harry Smart, Fool’s Pardon (1995), 63.

“I praise you because” – “Praise,” The Way of It (1977), 20.

“talk ran / Noisily” – “Poetry for Supper,” Poetry for Supper (1958), 34.

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8 thoughts on “R. S. Thomas and Harry Smart: God’s Odd Couple

  1. when you recited the first lines of Harry’s “praise” in Wales, I laughed out loud. I’m reminded of that now and smile again. A brave thing to do John, to present it here. Great to see it in its entirety, so that once past the shock of contemporary labels, I settled in to familiar territory of praise of God, before being turned around to reflect on my own judgements. I wonder if this is being censored, I tried posting before and it wouldn’t accept it….

    • All I know, Sue, is that I did not reject your comment – and here I thought the cyber-world was not patrolled by the piety police! Not sure about my bravery, but am sure that Harry Smart is well named, in particular when it comes to his contemporary takes on the words of Jesus.

  2. Oh there goes my conspiracy theory….against right wing evangelists! in the meantime, where does the expression “hairy eyeballs” come from? I’m guessing that it means disapproval, or is it something stronger? perhaps reprimand?

    • It’s been used in my family for years; can’t remember if it’s a product of Peter’s sense of humor or stolen from outside the family. Depending on the situation and the hairiness of the eyebrows, its meaning ranges from disapproval to outright reprimand. My guess is that the hairiness of the bishop’s eyeballs was at the reprimand end of the spectrum.

  3. forgot to say, included in my first attempt at posting, that was “refused”, comparing Harry & RS’s ‘romantic’ poem, I’ll remember Harry long after I’ve forgotten RS’s “Praise”

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