“Words Bring Up the Rear in the Retreat of Meaning” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

RSThomasSepia.jpgHere I am, settled in my reading chair, a drink on the chair-side table, a book open in my hands. Abruptly, a word or phrase stands up on the page and declares: “I’d like to volunteer for your service.” Quickly, I register it as a reserve in my vocabulary regiment.

Later, while writing, I notice the roll of volunteers. Yes, I think, these’ll fit in with my conscripts. So I begin to drill them, putting them through one maneuver after another, trying to get them to say what I’m thinking. Sometimes I only discover what I’m thinking as I watch them march out of step and flatfooted across my screen.

But in the end, volunteers and conscripts alike never quite form up and say what I drilled them to say. They execute an about face, when my barked order is “at ease.”

T. S. Eliot tells us he had similar experiences, complaining, in “Burnt Norton,” that words “slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.”

Words present themselves as definitive. Black marks on white, white on black, experiments with color; carved into wood or stone; incised in crystal or ceramic.

Words have definite dictionary meanings.

The “s” appended to “meaning” points to the first reason that words “slip, slide, . . will not stay in place.” Usually the particular dictionary meaning is clear from the context. But writers often use words to wink at their readers.

Then there is the problem with you and me: Each time we read the same passage, we are not the same self. We’ve had new experiences. Read other poems and novels. I was a different reader after I sat on a boathouse dock every morning for two weeks and read Ulysses.

And our mood on the day we’re reading a poem for the umpteenth time may allow the poem to bite us or to gentle us, when all it did before was drift past our eyes.

Thomas takes us another step in our thinking about words in “Words,” a poem not published until after his death:

Words are drilled
on the parade ground
of the paper? No
they are the casualties

of thought’s war. Page
after page they
bring up the rear in
the retreat of meaning.

Thomas’s little poem has given me a new image of what is happening whenever I lean back in my desk chair, look out the window at grass and trees, and think about what I want to say next and how it fits in with the thought I’m trying to put into words.

Then I sit forward and begin to type, and there go my thoughts tumbling off of the bottom of the screen onto the mat under my computer. No wonder it’s looking smudged.

And the words I’m typing are retreating down the screen following the thoughts.

Thomas concludes his poem titled “The Combat” by insisting that God’s “resistance / is endless at the frontier of the great poem.”

Muslim rug weavers always leave a flaw in their work.

We humans never get it quite right.

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

“Words are drilled” – “Words,” Residues, 17.

“resistance / is endless” – “The Combat,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 43.