Is That a Lump, an Olive, or a Poem Stuck in Your Throat?

Robert Frost, 1941

Robert Frost, 1941

I found this dialogue in my current bedtime mystery, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny:

Clara asked Ruth: “How do your poems start out?”
“They start as a lump in the throat,” she said.
“Isn’t that normally just a cocktail olive lodged there?” Olivier asked.
“Once,” Ruth admitted. “Wrote quite a good poem before I coughed it up.”
“A poem begins as a lump in the throat?” Gamache asked Ruth. The elderly woman held his eyes for a moment before dropping them to her drink.

Somewhere in the far outback of my mind a bell dinged.

A quote? . . . Who said it? . . . Robert Frost?


Frost writes: “A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

A poem does not begin in thought, Frost insists; it begins in emotion.

It’s like love. As you’re dressing for a first date, you don’t formulate the idea: “Tonight I’m going to fall in love.”

Later . . . unexpectedly . . . suddenly . . . as you’re looking into your date’s eyes, sipping wine, talking . . . you’re in love. And all you can say is, “Where did this splash of joy come from?”

That’s the way a poem is born, Frost maintains. A poem “begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but a momentary stay against confusion.”

  1. S. Thomas echoed Frost’s points. Writing to me on March 31, 1994, he said: “I . . . have passed the mornings in writing poetry. I don’t think it is of any significance. I have shot my bolt at last. Plenty of interesting ideas, but, as Mallarmé remarked, poetry is not made with ideas.”

In an earlier conversation, RS said that from time to time he would have, not a thought, but an impulse. Perhaps see something, feel something, while he was out walking or birding; while he was reading. And there’d be a lump in his throat. An olive of frisson.

The first line of a poem would slip into his mind, he’d put it down, listen to the sounds of the words, the rhythm of their movements, and let the poem unfold, in some sense write itself, using the words, the metaphors, the general knowledge, he had gained across the years and stored up in his mind. When he was successful, his words created a lump in the reader’s throat.

“Poetry is that,” RS says, “which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart.”

We “only know,” he tells us, “when [a poem] is about when it has drifted / by us, trailing a fragrance.”


Prose and poetry quoted in this post:

“Clara asked Ruth: “How do your poems start out?’ – Louise Penny, The Long Way Home (2014), 108-109.

“A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat” – Letter of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, January 1, 1916; The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1, 1886-1920 (2014), 410.

A poem “begins in delight” – “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (2007), 132.

“Poetry is that” – Don’t ask me . . . ,” Residues (2002), 69.

“We only know” – “Poems in Flight,” Selected Poems (2004), 343.

My Blogging of R.S. Thomas’s Poetry Nears One-Year Mark

RS Thomas at Porth Neigwl

R.S. Thomas at Porth Neigwl

This post is my last before I celebrate my first R. S. Thomas-blogging birthday. And I’ve been debating what to give myself as a present.

Webmaster lessons? Nah. I have the best of webmasters, and the price is right. Besides, trying to learn new computer tricks would amplify the gasps of my grey cells.

New eyeglasses for computer work, allowing me to move my eyes from keyboard to screen without lifting my head to relocate my bifocals? Owlish frames?

A red necktie? To wear when I’m reading R. S. Thomas’s poems. That’d be fitting, for Thomas always sported a red tie. But I no longer much care for binding my neck.

A picture of me to pop up whenever I respond to a comment on one of my posts? Perhaps a sort of Kilroy-was-here shot, in which the top part of my face looks out over an open book? Kinda like the idea. Wonder what my webmaster will say?

No matter, I’ve decided to give myself something my webmaster suggested.

It’ll be unwrapped on March 2nd.

I hope I’ll like it.

Maybe you will, too.

A clue:

The fox drags its wounded belly
Over the snow, the crimson seeds
Of blood burst with a mild explosion,
Soft as excrement, bold as roses.

Over the snow that feels no pity,
Whose white hands can give no healing,
The fox drags its wounded belly.

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

“The fox drags its wounded belly” – “January,” Song at the Year’s Turning [1955], 107; Selected Poems 1946-1968 [1973], 38.

How R.S. Thomas’s Poems Got ‘Started’

rst“As I go through my day,” R. S. Thomas writes, “at my desk, in my contact with others, or out in the world of nature, I see something, begin to turn it over in my mind, and decide that it has poetic possibilities.”

The ‘starter’ for the following poem is, I think, an evening when Thomas, the parish priest, visited a parishioner and listened to her talk about her son who now knew the reason for the roaring in his veins:

At nine o’clock in the morning
My son said to me:
Mother, he said, from the wet streets
The clouds are removed and the sun walks
Without shoes on the warm pavements.
There are girls biddable at the corners
With teeth cleaner than your white plates
The sharp clatter of your dishes
Is less pleasant to me than their laughter.
The day is building; before its bright walls
Fall in dust, let me go
Beyond the front garden without you
To find glasses unstained by tears, . . .

For me, the mother is a widow living with her only son in a cottage on a remote farm. Thomas has walked up the path to call on her, and nodded attentively, over a cup of tea, to her grumbling about her son and those – perhaps “sluts” – down in the village.

Every pastor has listened to both the son and the mother. Every pastor empathizes with each of them, for they are doing what comes naturally. But only one pastor has brought this common experience to poetry, writing:

           . . . from the wet streets
The clouds are removed and the sun walks
Without shoes on the warm pavements.

Thomas chose words and rhythms to keep the experience fresh; words and rhythms that recreate it for each new reader.

Here’s the full quote with which I began:

As I go through my day at my desk, Thomas writes, in my contact with others, or out in the world of nature, I see something, begin to turn in over in my mind, and decide that it has poetic possibilities. The main concern now will be not to kill it; not to make it common, prosaic, uninteresting. If it bores me in the telling, it will surely bore the public in the reading. I must choose words and rhythms which will keep it fresh and have the power to recreate the experience in all its original intensity for each new reader. But in this very process the experience is changed, and will continue to be changed as each new reader apprehends it.

R. S. Thomas quotes used in this blog:

“As I go through my day” – “Words and the Poet,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 65.

“At nine o’clock in the morning” – “Mother and Son,” Tares, 37.

“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.

The Name of the Introducer “Will Be Forgotten Long Before That of R.S. Thomas”

Poet R.S. Thomas 1994

R.S. Thomas in 1994

By the time, 1955, that London publisher Rupert Hart-Davis launched his project of introducing Welsh poet R. S. Thomas to the English-speaking world, John Betjeman was already a ‘name’ in that world.

He’d been a film critic for the Evening Standard, an editor for the Architectural Review, and the writer of Cornwall and Devon for the Shell Guides, a series of county guides published by Shell Oil for Britain’s growing number of motorists. By 1948, he had published more than a dozen books.

When Hart-Davis asked Betjeman to present Thomas to London’s literary world, Thomas had published three books of poetry, Betjeman six. Three years later, sales of Betjeman’s Collected Poems reached 100,000.

Betjeman, a ‘name,’ was a generous and perceptive introducer of Thomas, a ‘no-name,’ writing:

This retiring poet [R. S. Thomas] had no wish for an introduction to be written to his poems, but his publisher believed that a “name” was needed to help sell the book. The “name” which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a wider public will be forgotten long before that of R. S. Thomas.

Betjeman was correct. Yes, Betjeman went on to a knighthood (1969) and to be the Poet Laureate (1972), but his name will be forgotten, I think, “long before that of R. S. Thomas.


John Betjeman

John Betjeman

To begin my response, let me quote the full stanza from which I extracted two of Betjeman’s lines in my last blog:

Your peal of ten ring over then this town,
Ring on my men nor ever ring them down.
This winter chill, let sunset spill cold fire
On villa’d hill and on Sir Gilbert’s spire,
So new, so high, so pure, so broach’d, so tall.
Long run the thunder of the bells through all

I hope you’ll take time to read those lines aloud. Give the rhythm full pealing power. Note the rhymes that ring through Betjeman’s lines like chimes: ten/then/town, men/them/down, ring/ring/ring, chill/spill/hill, fire/spire, pure/thunder, tall/all.

What a different poetic sensibility is found in the second stanza (I quoted the first in my last blog) of Thomas’s poem “The Belfry”!

But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

Again, I urge reading aloud. There’s rhythm in Thomas’s lines, a flow that’s conversational, even meditative, unlike the booming rhythm of Betjeman’s lines. And Thomas uses the merest hint of rhyme, not at all comparable to Betjeman’s cascade.

Betjeman, who was born in 1906, five years after Queen Victoria died, is a Victorian poet; Thomas, born in 1913, is a post-Second World War poet. Although they were near contemporaries, their poetic sensibilities were separated by a century.

The same was true of their religious sensibilities. Betjeman was a twentieth-century doubter whose ideal was the muscular Christianity of the Victorian era – robust belief, self-assertive faith. His hymn was “Long run the thunder of the bells through all.”

Thomas was a twentieth-century doubter who knelt in silence, waiting for the hard spell of weather that was between God and himself to pass. His hymn was “Prompt me, God; But not yet. . . . The meaning is in the waiting.”

Does this imply that I don’t like Betjeman’s poems? Not at all. It would be great fun to stand in a church tower and belt them out over the countryside. But they do not feed my soul.

I was born in the twentieth century but am a twenty-first-century believer. Betjeman was born in the twentieth century but was a nineteenth-century believer. For the nourishment of my spirit, I need Thomas’s poetry, not Betjeman’s.

Betjeman was a hangover from the strident believing of Queen Victoria’s times, Thomas a harbinger of our willingness to be still and wait for God.

Poems quoted in this blog:

“Your peal of ten ring over then this town” – “On Hearing the Full Peal of Ten Bells from Christ Church, Swindon, Wilts.,” Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse, 104.

“But who is to know? Always” – “The Belfry,” Pietà, 28.

“Prompt me, God” – “Kneeling,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 32.

“It Is Lovely to Lie in Wales” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

church yard of St. Michael and All Angels, Manafon, Wales

The church yard of St. Michael and All Angels, Manafon, Wales, where R.S. Thomas was rector, 1942 to 1954.

The first line of one of R. S. Thomas’s poems is “Come to Wales”

Just “Wales” – not followed by a period. For while the line ends, the sentence does not. It’s like a cliff that forces you to stop and, for a split second, not look down. And before you do look down to the next line, the poet would like you to guess what words you’ll find.

“Come to Wales” . . . to go fishing . . . to find a cheap B&B . . . to visit a slate mine . . . to climb Mount Snowdon.

Let half of your mind play with the reason you’d give for inviting someone to come to Wales, and train the other half on this:

The cliffhanger at the end of a line of poetry is like a pause in something being said – a pause that is long enough to allow our mind to supply the next word.

At lunch after church one Sunday, when my son was about five, he told his mother and me what happened in Sunday school: “Mrs. Wood taught me to screw . . . . . drive. His pause was just long enough to send my wife and me over the cliff into barely suppressed giggles.

Mrs. Wood was showing him how to use a plastic screwdriver to screw plastic screws into a piece of plastic wood.

When someone is speaking, their pauses between words give us a chance to guess what their next word will be. These breaks in the flow of words add drama, hence memorability, to what is being said.

Line breaks and the versatility and ambiguity of the English language do something similar in poetry.

One day in early May of 1993, as Thomas and I were walked close to grazing ewes and their lambs, I slipped “lambs cushion his vision” into our conversation. Thomas smiled, then commented on the versatility of the English language for the writing of poems.

Thomas’s smile acknowledged my quote from his poem “The Priest”:

He goes up a green lane
Through the growing birches; lambs cushion
His vision. . . .

The line break after “cushion” is one of those cliffs that stop our forward movement, prompting us not to look down into the next line until we have imagined what will come next. For me, “lambs” and “cushion” remind me of my favorite stuffed animal – a lamb whose fleece was as wooly soft as a real lamb’s, the perfect cushion for a little boy’s head.

What is cushioned in Thomas’s poem is the “vision” of an Anglican priest who is walking from cottage to cottage in his rural parish.

“Vision” can refer to the eyesight of the priest: what he sees in the stone-riddled pastures is softened by the lambs.

“Vision” can also refer to what the priest sees with his inner eye. Perhaps the lambs remind him of the Lamb of God – Jesus the Christ, and so his seemingly unredeemed parish is illuminated, at least momentarily, by rays of redemption.

In another poem, Thomas works with the versatility of the word “frame.” The poem’s speaker is Welsh, the person spoken to is English:

You knock with the wrong
tongue. Between you
and our kitchen the front room
with our framed casualties

in your fool wars. . . .

Those five lines provide examples of all we’ve been talking about. There’s the little cliff after “wrong,” the big one after “casualties.”

The problem with the visitor was not wrong clothing, not wrong address, but wrong language. So he will not be invited into the kitchen, the room for entertaining family and friends who speak Welsh.

The English knocker will be detained in the parlor, where there are framed photographs of the family’s young men who were framed by the English . . . (chasm between “framed casualties” and “in your fool wars”) . . . into fighting and dying for England.

With five lines of poetry, Thomas reminds us of the versatility of the English language and of what carefully placed line breaks can accomplish.

Now, back to what the other half of your mind has been doing. What follow-up words have you picked for “Come to Wales”?

Here’s what Thomas wrote:

Come to Wales
To be buried; the undertaker
Will arrange it for you. . . .

Why is Wales a good place to be buried?

. . . Let us
Quote you; our terms
Are the lowest, and we offer,
Dirt cheap, a place where
It is lovely to lie.

At the poem’s climax, a simple three-letter zinger – lie.

A word with all these meanings: be dishonest, be located, be present, extend, falsify, lie down, ride at anchor.

Is Thomas’s hinting that there’s something false about his whole poem? Is he suggesting that the English, who had come to Wales for centuries, had lied about their intentions? Is he saying that Wales is a pleasant place for our body to ride at anchor? Is he saying, “Watch out, when you come to Wales; the Welsh are mendacious?

The versatility . . . and ambiguity . . . of the English language for the writing of poems – Its precise imprecision.

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

“He goes up a green lane” – “The Priest,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 29.

“You knock with the wrong” – “The Parlour,” Welsh Airs, 40.

“God Is a Young God” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen, overlooking the river Wye

R. S. Thomas liked-human built churches that seem to be pushing up out of the ground as naturally as a rock formation.

Although he never visited the adobe church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico, I think he would have liked Georgia O’Keefe’s painting of it. For the church appears to be rising from the desert soil – the soil that is the basic ingredient of the mud-bricks and mud-plaster used by its builders.

Two of Thomas’s favorite Welsh chapels, Maes-yr-Onnen and Soar-y-Mynydd, are constructed with stones gathered from nearby fields and mountains, and they nestle into their settings as integral parts of the landscape.

Thomas tells us that he visited both chapels during the summer of 1947, attracted by their “lonely wild romantic settings.” Each chapel, by the time he wrote an article about them the next year, had taken on a symbolic significance.

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen, from the cemetery

In his brief piece titled “Two Chapels,” Thomas calls Maes-yr-Onnen “The Chapel of the Spirit” and Soar-y-Mynydd “The Chapel of the Soul.” I’ll save the latter for another blog; for now, “The Chapel of the Spirit.”

“I went [to Maes-yr-Onnen],” Thomas tells us, “on a sunny morning in August with the East wind chasing the clouds across the blue sky. . . . The chapel stood in the fields, amidst the waving grass, its roof covered with a layer of yellow lichen. There were tall nettles growing around and at its side there swayed a big old tree like someone leaning forward to listen to the sermon.”

Thomas translated that prose into this poem:

Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel
Left stranded in the hurrying grass,
Painting faithfully the mossed tiles and the tree,
The one listener to the long homily
Of the ministering wind, and the dry, locked doors,
And the stale piety, mouldering within;
You cannot share with me the rarer air,
Blue as a flower . . . .

Because no one was there to unlock the door, Thomas stretched himself out on the grass and “had a vision, in which [he] could comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the mystery of creation.”

“It might have been the first day of Creation,” he continues, “and myself one of the first men. Might have been? No it was the first day. The world was recreated before my eyes. The dew of its creation was on everything, and I fell to my knees and praised God – a young man worshiping a young God, for surely that is what our God is.”

Centuries of Christian art and theology have left us with an old-god image of God – white-haired, long-bearded, the Ancient of Days. If a color were to be assigned to this God, it would be gray. Green, however, is the color of Thomas’s young God, the God of Springtime, the God of re-emerging life.

In the section of Thomas’s poem that we looked at above, the poet tells us we cannot share with him the “rarer air / Blue as a flower” of his visit to Maes-yr-Onnen. At the poem’s end, he writes:

You cannot hear as I, incredulous, heard
Up in the rafters, where the bell should ring,
The wild, sweet singing of Rhiannon’s birds.

To search the web for Rhiannon’s birds is to discover what Thomas experienced at Maes-yr-Onnen “on a sunny morning in August.”

The hymning of Rhiannon’s birds suspends time. Their “wild, sweet singing” opens a window in the mundane through which rays of eternity flow.

When R. S. Thomas heard Rhiannon’s choir, he experienced a dream-vision, in which he received the revelation that “God is a young God: the God of the fresh Spring.”

Like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thomas could say: “I felt / The universe feel Love.”

Quotes used in this blog:

The prose quotes are from “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 36-40.

“Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel” – “Maes-yr-Onnen,” An Acre of Land, 10.

“I felt / The universe feel Love” – Dante, The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James, 60.