R. S. Thomas
Bloodaxe Books, Paperback
192 pages, 978-1852248963, £9.95
Lyric poetry is unkind to completionists. The process of composing poems, revising them, preparing them for publication in journals, magazines, or as occasional pieces, and from this point shaping them into a collection, or book, even– is not one which can be bound neatly. Anthony Thwaite has edited two distinct editions of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems. In the first, the poems are in the rough order they were composed– as Thwaite says in the introduction to the second, ‘the growth of a major poet, testing, filtering, rejecting, modulating, achieving.’ The second orders the poems the same way that Larkin himself did, in the form of their published books. We gain insights and obfuscations from both means of presentation, and the distinction is worth bearing in mind as we place R. S. Thomas’s Uncollected Poems beside the voluminous Collected Poems 1945-1990, and the Collected Later Poems 1988-2000.
The thing is, Thomas is a poet for whom the Collected Poems format, ordering the pieces as the poet himself did in the published books, seems such a perfect fit. The poems divide, to this reader, at least, quite neatly. The earlier volumes take the everyman Welsh farmer Iago Prytherch as their protagonist, and the articulated tension in Thomas’s description of his toils against the landscape produce some of his most enduring poems. More political, Wales-centric poems follow, then different strands of theological enquiry (rendering religious ideas like via negativa into verse). There is then a phase of poems inspired by paintings, and so on.
What, then, can we glean from the work in Uncollected Poems? There is ‘a rigorous selection’ of Thomas’s poems which ‘have hitherto remained uncollected, and often elusive — poems published in newspapers, magazines and journals (many of them obscure), as well as in private or limited editions.’ The poems are arranged chronologically, and followed by a detailed bibliography, which lists all of the uncollected poems the editors were able to find. The ones not included are marked; these total about 20% of the list. Put bluntly, there is enough here for all but the most rabid completionist.
Perhaps the most striking difference between this book and the two collected editions is that there are occasional standout poems. You could bluntly labour through the Collected Poems like, well, like Prytherch, and yield little that deviates from the poet’s overarching vision, or the local patterns sketched above, or indeed quality: it’s hard to think of a more consistent poet. Since the poet did not make the editorial choices here, though, we get such gems as ‘I never thought’, a sonnet to his wife. Its sestet:
And then about the ending of a day
In early Spring, when the soft western breezes
Had chased the melancholy clouds afar,
As up a little hill I took my way,
I found you all alone upon your knees,
Your face uplifted to the evening star.
Star, a familiar Thomas rhyme word, does not here have its symbolism focussed around the unknowably distant God, but rather around beauty, and warmth. The gentler, slightly more tentative voice is still unmistakably R. S. Thomas, but we can appreciate his usual, heavily declarative one better having heard it. The contextual analysis of this poem in the editors’ short introduction is excellent; it’s a shame they did not do the same for many others, especially given their occasional nature.
The other occasional pieces offer further insights into the poet’s take on more wordly (or mundane) matters. ‘Filming’ from 1996 (so just at the start of the proliferation of photographic equipment) uses the technology of a camera to examine the process of introspection; a somewhat different tack from someone who preached on the evils of refrigerators. It’s also good to have Thomas’s tribute to Ted Hughes, which elegantly brings together their interests ‘looking askance / into nature’s mirror). There are, of course, plenty of poems which deal with more typical material. ‘Converse’ from 1979 uses a very delicate scheme of sound patterning to make one man alone in a church into a polyvocal dramatic piece, and almost manages to invert the concept of absence.
If Thomas’s views on the negative impacts of technology were wide of the mark, then perhaps his legacy in verse is closer to it. Writing about impossibly diverse subjects is never more than a couple of clicks away, most of it not more than a couple of inches deep. It is a rare (and often otherworldly) pleasure to read a poet whose career steadily works towards an understanding he knows he can never actually achieve; the polar opposite of instant gratification. This book reveals new aspects to that career.