R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost: Before Mending a Wall . . . .

wallRobert Frost begins his poem “Mending Wall” with the observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Then he goes on to say that he and his neighbor picked a day for mending the dry stone wall between their properties, and as they worked, the neighbor kept repeating, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost is not so certain:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in and walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

The neighbor, on the other hand, is certain: His father had said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and that is good enough for him – “He will not go behind his father’s saying.”

Churches tend to mimic Frost’s neighbor, declaring, “This is what we’ve always believed. It was good enough for the Church Fathers, so it’s good enough for us.”

They will not go behind their Fathers’ sayings, will not look open-eyed at whom or what they are walling in and walling out. No; their principal concern is keeping the old walls mended.

God, meanwhile, is the One who doesn’t love a wall, who wants it down, who undermines the walls that people build, often in God’s name.

For centuries, slave owners used the Bible to support the wall they erected to protect the institution of slavery. God used the Abolitionists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to undermine that wall.

For centuries, men used the Bible to keep women subservient, to ban them from church pulpits and altars, to keep them subjected to men in society. God used Feminists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to gain full equality for women in church and society.

R.S. Thomas carted a wall with him when he went to Manafon, his first parish. This wall enclosed him as a town-bred, educated, ordained man. It walled out parishioners as uncouth, stinky, spiritually numb. But as he ministered among these hill farmers and shepherds, God, the one who doesn’t love a wall, began an undermining action, and RS, in the poem that follows, asks himself about a man with “stinking garments” and “an aimless grin”:

Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch
Morning and evening to hear God’s choir
Scatter their praises?

Soon RS was seeing people like this man as his “prototypes,” as men and women who were themselves grounded, deeply rooted in the natural world, God’s creation, and therefore able to help ground him.

When, I wonder, will churches begin to see same-gender lovers as their prototypes? For it is certain that the loving care of gay men for their partners and friends dying of AIDS is a model of selfless love in our era.

Physician and poet Rafael Campo, who is gay, writes:

                                 . . . I saw the fence

I still believe invisibly
Might fence me out; . . .

In another poem, Campo says:

No knowledge is more powerful
Than knowing love, than knowing how
To love despite a world so full

Of the intent to hate. . . .


Poems quoted in this post:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – “Mending Wall,” The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969), 33-34.

“Is there anything to show that your essential need” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.

“I saw the fence” – “So in Love,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 3.

“No knowledge is more powerful” – “Defining Us,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 13.


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.

Packing A Welsh Poet In My Bag For My Upcoming Trip to Wales

RS Thomas on SexTwenty thousand saints are said to be buried on Bardsey Island, all 445 acres of it. So to take the bones of saints to Bardsey would be like rounding up more politicians and lobbyists for Washington.

Excessive, to say the least . . . certainly un-called-for . . . a fool’s errand.

No matter.

I’m packing a Welsh poet in my bag for my upcoming trip to Wales, which will include, if weather permits, a boat trip to Bardsey. The island lies off the coast of Aberdaron, R. S. Thomas’s last parish.

I’ll take Thomas out of my bag in Aberdaron on May 28th, but he’ll come out, first, the previous weekend at Gladstone’s Library at Hawarden, also in Wales.

The story is this: I may be the only American parish minister who developed a personal relationship with Thomas, visiting him in 1992, 1993, and 1994, and corresponding with him from 1991 until his death, in 2000. Indeed, I may be the only American, no matter of what vocation, who learned to know him – I welcome comments proving me wrong.

My book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry was published in 2013, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. That publication has led to my forthcoming speaking opportunities in Wales.

An American whose tongue does back flips when trying to pronounce simple Welsh words, carrying the preeminent poet of Welshness to Wales; the preeminent twentieth-century poet of God, too.

And that, if anything, justifies the packing of nine talks about Thomas and his poetry in my bag. Like RS, I’m an ordained minister; like him, I was a parish minister for forty years; like him, I’m a doubting-believer. Unlike him, I’m an American. Unlike him, I don’t write poetry. Well, an occasional limerick. So if there’s an acceptable reason for me to speak about RS and his poems, it lies in the way our similarities and dissimilarities afford me a distinctive perspective on his doubt and his belief.

These links will take you to what I’m doing at Gladstone’s Library and Aberdaron:



Who knows what’ll happen. Perhaps I’ll be pelted with leeks. Expect a report in June.

Best R.S. Thomas Poems About People | “Lore”

Peasant digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Peasant digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

R. S. Thomas, as far as I know, never had second thoughts about the things he said about English tourists in Wales. Indeed, it’s unlikely that he ever repainted his picture of them as roughshod hikers over the Welsh people and their language.

Thomas did, however, think again about the “peasants” he found on the hill farms around Manafon, his parish from 1942 to 1954. At first sniff, their “clothes, sour with years of sweat / And animal contact,” shocked his “refined / But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.” Later, that comment struck him as sniffy.

For the “peasants” had something Thomas lacked – the natural world’s ability to survive: “Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.” What had he, a town boy accustomed to “the musty sandwiches / in the library,” to contribute to their lives?

Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers
That rot in your heart’s dust, and what have you to give
To enrich his spirit or the way he lives?
From the standpoint of education or caste or creed
Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch
Morning and evening to heard God’s choir
Scatter their praises? Don’t be taken in
By stinking garments . . . .

One of Thomas’s best poems about a survivor is “Lore” (Job’s surname is pronounced Dā’ vis):

Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.

Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain’s hearse
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.

What’s living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me

Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe.

What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.

Thomas’s lines are cut off as if by the swishing of Job’s scythe. Tied together by ropes of rhyming words. All in imitation of nature’s endings, beginnings, continuities, endurances.

Some months ago, I listened to a retired bishop, the writer of many books, describe his typical day. He uses a home treadmill for exercise, which allows him to read while running and to avoid weather’s vagaries and the distractions of meeting people and noticing birds, trees, and clouds. While cooking dinner, he listens to a book, thereby, I assume, occluding any fascination with the beautiful fish he’s preparing as broiled salmon, any meditation on the soil that produced the broccoli, any consideration of the poorly paid, uninsured workers who picked the strawberries he’s serving for dessert.

If the bishop had read “Lore,” it had not taken root in him: “Stay green. / Never mind the machine, / Whose fuel is human souls.”

The bishop’s Master once said: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil or spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).


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

“clothes, sour with sweat” and “Enduring like a tree” – “A Peasant,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 14.

“the musty sandwiches” – “He rationed his intake,” The Echoes Return Slow (1988), 15.

“Ransack your brainbox” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.

“Job Davies, eighty-five” – “Lore,” Tares (1961), 35.

R.S. Thomas Wrote Poems for Doubting-Believers

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedNo doubt you’re expecting this blog to be about doubting-belief in God. A reasonable assumption, given my blog’s overall theme, but off the mark . . . .

Because I’m going to deal with R. S. Thomas’s doubting-belief in himself as a writer.

In order to write, Thomas had to believe in himself. But in order to write well, he had to doubt himself.

But . . . .

In order to go on writing, he had to doubt his doubts about himself.

Round and around from his belief . . . to his doubt . . . to doubting his doubt . . . to his doubting-belief . . .

Imre Kertész, the Hungarian writer who received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature, tells us: “I always doubt every sentence I utter, but I have never for a moment doubted that I have to write what I happen to be writing.”

Thomas, in a letter to a friend, speaks about his own writing experience: “One gets pleased at the time and then turns a sour look on the thing later.”

But he doubted his sour look and went on believing in himself as a writer.

But his belief in himself was always shadowed by self-doubt:

          . . . One
of life’s conjurors, standing
upside down on his conscience,
producing out of a hat rabbits
where his brains should have been. . . .

But Thomas also believed in his mental capacities, and never for a moment doubted that he had to be writing what he happened to be writing.

But . . . yes, the buts continue circling . . . .

But he continued to be haunted by self-doubt.

In a letter to me, dated March 31, 1994, Thomas said: “I have not done much solid reading, but 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.”

Yet he retained sufficient self-belief to risk triviality and go on writing poems, more than thirty of which, with publication dates after 1994, appear in a new book titled R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies.

Dannie Abse, the Welsh poet who is celebrating his ninetieth birthday this year, created this phrase:

. . . one minute a sinner, the next a seer.

Thomas: one minute a self-doubter, the next a self-believer; and out of that tension comes Thomas, the seer, the bard, the poet of doubting-belief.

In his poem titled “Judgment Day,” which he included in Tares (1964), Thomas looks at himself in the mirror of self-doubt:

Yes, that’s how I was,
I know that face,
That bony figure
Without grace
Of flesh or limb; . . .

Thomas goes on to enumerate what this mirror allowed him to see not only of the outside of his life but also of the inside. Then he asks God to cloud the mirror:

Lord, breathe once more
On that sad mirror, . . .

Thomas’s belief that God’s mirror-misting love was always s bit stronger that his own self-doubt enabled him to go on believing in himself as a writer just a bit more than he doubted himself as a writer.

And writers who do not share Thomas’s belief in God have had similar experiences.

Kertész is such a writer: “. . . as for me,” he notes, “one doesn’t have to be a believer to be receptive to the wonders of life.”

One of those wonders is the realization that self-belief has a slight edge over self-doubt.


Prose and poetry quoted in this blog:

“One gets pleased at the time” – R. S. Thomas: Letters to Raymond Garlick 1951 – 1999, 31.

“One / of life’s conjurors” – untitled poem, The Echoes Return Slow, 59.

“I have not done much solid reading” – McEllhenney, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry, 62.

“one minute a sinner” – Dannie Abse, Running Late (London: Hutchinson, 2006), 6.

“Yes, that’s how I was” – “Judgment Day,” Tares, 20.

“My Balance of Joy in a World That Has Gone off Joy’s Standard” | The Poems of R.S. Thomas

RS Thomas Welsh poet May 1993 1993

R.S. Thomas at the Maybank Hotel, Aberdyfi, Cymru, May 1993.

I spent last weekend in Princeton, New Jersey, and each time I walked past the memorial to Einstein and the Center of Theological Inquiry, I was reminded that Princeton is one of the “towns / Where the soul added depth to its stature.”

The sidewalks formicated – one of R. S. Thomas’s words – with hand-in-hand collegians, enfleshing joie de vivre, their minds firing powerfully like the Audis, Mercedes, and BMWs on Nassau Street. And as I watched them, I projected their futures: novelist, finder of a cure for AIDS, small business consultant, Supreme Court justice, art museum curator, family doctor, playwright, engineer for desalination plants, teacher, . . .

But a voice sounds in my ear: “Why so fast, John? You’re romanticizing those students. Don’t you remember my prayer for my son?”

What shall I say of my boy,
Tall, fair? He is young yet;
Keep his feet free of the world’s net.

Yes, RS, I remember your prayer; in fact, I thought about it the other day when I read some rhyming couplets in a new poem-novel by David Rakoff. The lines are spoken by Susan, who in college joined the chorus denouncing greed, but who now carols her life in “the world’s net”:

She’d no longer be tarred by the words “shame” or “greed,”
Tossed about by the weak. No, now Susan was freed!
If she wanted to spend half the whole day adorning
Herself, well what of it? The American Morning
Had dawned! At Oberlin stuff she’d feigned being above,
Had turned into all that she most dearly loved.

I acknowledge, RS, that some of the students I saw on the Princeton sidewalks will go the way of Susan, whose post-college stomach was turned by the “frailer aspects of the human condition.” But the Princetonians are so joyful, so vigorous, so . . . .


Of course, and fair.

“You’re still in your romantic mood, John. Here’s my vision of their future:

               . . . I am eyes
Merely, . . .
. . . seeing the young born
Fair, knowing the cancer
Awaits them. . . .

Your realism in those lines is the sovereign antidote for my romanticism, RS, and you say something similar, although in a different key, in your poem “A Marriage”:

We met
…… under a shower
of bird-notes.
…… Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
…… in a world in
servitude to time.
…… She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
…… closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
…… ‘Come’ said death,
choosing her as his
…… partner for
the last dance. . . .

I think, RS, that I’ll call you a realist but a romantic, too. In fact, there are times, rare ones to be sure, when I see you as a young romantic, perhaps on the Princeton campus:

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 known you
of old. Come, my eyes
said, out into the morning
of a world whose dew
waits for your footprint. . . .

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

“towns / Where the soul” – “The Letter,” Poetry for Supper, 26.

“But a voice sounds” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30.

“What shall I say of my boy” – “Ap Huw’s Testament,” Poetry for Supper, 29.

“She’d no longer be tarred” – David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (New York: Doubleday, 2013), 67.

“I am eyes” – “Petition,” H’m, 2.

“We met” – “A Marriage,” Mass for Hard Times, 74.

“My luminary” – “Luminary,” Uncollected Poems, 169.

A Thinker Without Final Thoughts on God | R.S. Thomas and His Poetry

rs thomas with birdwatching glassesOne of the rarest of human birds is the thinker without final thoughts.

I can picture R. S. Thomas reclining in dry grasses among the rocks on a hillside overlooking Bardsey Sound, his high-powered field glasses trained on the sky, waiting for a thinker without final thoughts to fly by. Many days. Most days. No luck.

Meanwhile, Thomas has time to think about cuckoos – cocksure people who think they have thought their final thought about everything.

In particular, God.

Some people think they have thought their final thought about God: God is – They think they can prove it.

Other people think they have thought their final thought about God: God isn’t – They think they can prove it.

And Thomas, as I see him at his birdwatching, continues to think about a poem by his favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches,
Not in a single world,
In things said well in music,
On the piano, and in speech,
As in a page of poetry –
Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos, . . .

As a thinker without final thoughts, Thomas goes on thinking about God, and out of his thinking comes the insight that God cannot “be penned / In a concept.”

I’ve loved that “penned” ever since I came upon it many years ago in Thomas’s poem “After the Lecture.” We cannot use a pen to get God down in black letters on white paper. And we cannot pen God – cage God – in rational formulations, in theological concepts, in dogmas and doctrines and creeds.

God resists our every effort to contain God in our rationality.

In his poem “The Combat,” Thomas stands the biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling match with an angel on its head. Jacob wrestles all night with the angel in Genesis 32:24-30, and at daybreak, when the angel is unable to pin Jacob, they begin to talk, and eventually Jacob asks for the angel’s name. The angel declines to give it, leaving Jacob and the modern reader wondering if Jacob’s wrestling partner is, in fact, God.

Thomas, in his poem, tells the wrestling partner:

You have no name.
We have wrestled with you all
day, and now night approaches,
the darkness from which we emerged
seeking; and anonymous
you withdraw, . . .

In both Thomas’s poem and the Bible, the wrestler insists on remaining anonymous; on not revealing a name that might allow us to pen this mysterious being in a concept.

Jacob got a hand on the wrestler, but he never got a handle on this mystery.

Thomas concludes his poem with these lines:

 . . . We die, we die
with the knowledge that your resistance
is endless at the frontier of the great poem.

Thomas never says outright that the “you” addressed in his poem is God. But everything Thomas does say points in that direction.

And the poem makes clear that God resists thinkers who suppose they have thought final thoughts about God. God stops these thinkers at the border, shouting “Halt!” before they can enter into the “great poem.”

Poems quoted in this blog:

“We live in a constellation” – “July Mountain,” Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (2009), 317.

“be penned / In a concept” – “After the Lecture,” Not That He brought Flowers, 22.

“You have no name” – “The Combat,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 43.