When Liam Neeson plays the role on Broadway of a man broken in body, mind, and spirit by hard-labor imprisonment after being tried and convicted for the ‘crime’ of loving men, we do not say that Liam Neeson is gay. We say Liam Neeson is playing Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss.
So why, when poets say “I” in a poem, do we assume they are telling us something true about themselves? Perhaps they’re playing a role on the stage of poetry. Perhaps they’re imagining what it’s like to be another person. Even a man looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman at a café in Paris.
R. S. Thomas published a poem titled “Chat” in Poetry Wales in 1971. When I first read it, in 2013, I wondered what subscribers to Poetry Wales thought about it four decades earlier. Did they stop to ask, “Is RS the priest telling us about his one-nighter in Paris? Or is he role-playing?”
If they knew RS, as I learned to know him in the 1990s, they recognized that this often austere man had an appreciative eye for feminine beauty. But that does not mean that RS is the man in “Chat” who is dining alone in Paris with a soignée woman:
What’s that you say?
No never. Well, just once . . .
Oh, in Paris or somewhere.
She was so pretty. Imagine
Yourself in an hotel
Dining-room; the tables engaged
All save yours. There comes in
A woman, young, soignée;
Looks around, summons the head
Waiter. They confer. He approaches:
Would Monsieur? I arise;
She is seated. Slowly the conversation
Develops. She is well-informed.
I incline; would she allow?
Good. Waiter, some more
Claret. Over the glass
Rim a momentary fencing
Of eyes. . . .
“Is Mademoiselle engaged for the evening?” the poem’s “I” asks. Non. They leave the hotel, walk, the young woman indicating the way. “In the spring gardens / All the birds of the city / In song.”
Then the streets narrow, the buildings change. “There is no / Birdsong now; my rhymes / Falter.” A door at the end of an alley. Baudelaire remembered. The “laughter of the whores / Of Paris.”
. . . What was that
That you said? Well, yes,
I was taken in, I suppose.
Taken in through the door? Taken in by the Prostituée Parisienne, but before going through the door, bidding her Adieu?
Is RS taking us in?
The answer to all these questions is: “We, the readers, must decide for ourselves.”
The poet has written the poem; now it is ours to interpret . . . or to let it interpret us.
Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:
“What’s that you say?” – “Chat,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, 2013), 83-84.