Thomas’ “The Bright Field”

Although my favorite poem from the volumes The Way of It and Frequencies is a poem about God called “The White Tiger,” I thought it past time to focus on Thomas’ nature poems, though I suspect God is implied in those poems, too.

I’ll let you be the judge of that, though.

THE BRIGHT FIELD

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Perhaps there’s merely something about old age that makes some of us finally stop “hurrying/on to a receeding future” and take the time to see what’s in front of us. Even though my summers off as a teacher gave me more time to enjoy nature than most people ever have, I’m sure even then I used to rush past such simple beauty . Now that I no longer have to work or have a future to worry about, I spend much more time looking at those small, bright fields.

I suppose you could tell that by the number of wildflowers, butterflies, and birds I’ve photographed since retiring. Amazingly, the closer I look the more miraculous that field seems to me.

It doesn’t hurt to read poems like this that remind me what’s important.

R.S. Thomas’ “Mediations”

R.S. Thomas’ poems about God continue to fascinate me, particularly ones like:

MEDIATIONS

And to one God says: Come

to me by numbers and

figures; see my beauty

in the angles between

stars, in the equations

of my kingdom. Bring

your lenses to the worship

of my dimensions: far

out and far in, there

is always more of me

in proportion. And to another:

I am the bush burning

at the centre of

your existence; you must put

your knowledge off and come

to me with your mind

bare. And to this one

he says: Because of

your high stomach, the bleakness

of your emotions, I

will come to you in the simplest

things, in the body

of a man hung on a tall

tree you have converted to

timber and you shall not know me.

Younger I was fascinated with science, particularly with the way things seemed to fit together perfectly. I remember the magical moment when I first saw an award-winning science short which featured microscopic close-ups and telescopic shots of the universe, revealing remarkable symmetries. I used to belief the purpose of science was to reveal those mysteries, though in recent years it seems as if it serves very different purposes.

Although I’ve never been able to feel God as the center of my existence, I envy many who have felt that way. In fact, that might well be what I most admire about R.S. Thomas’ poetry.

Of course, it’s the third argument that’s most shocking, at least coming from the pen of a minister. I’ll have to admit that, though the statement rings true to me, I’m also dumb-founded by it, unable to put my own reaction into words.

“That Great Absence”

Although I’m drawn to R.S. Thomas for his views on nature, I often find myself sticking around to listen to his views on religion and God. Part of the appeal is his willingness to admit his own doubts about God.

IN CHURCH

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

It’s seems little short of amazing to have a minister writing lines like “Is this where God hides/From my searching?” or “There is no other sound/In the darkness but the sound of a man/Breathing, testing his faith.” Equally remarkable, what does one do with “These are the hard ribs/Of a body that our prayers have failed/To animate.” Of course, it’s the sheer poetry of the last five lines that holds me most in the end, “testing his faith/On emptiness, nailing his questions/One by one to an untenanted cross.”

But as I’ve mentioned in an earlier discussion, I’m also drawn to his discussion of “the quality/Of its silences,” an aspect that is more central in:

VIA NEGATIVA

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

I’m particularly fond of “the empty silence/Within, the place where we go/Seeking, not in hope to arrive or find,” perhaps because it comes close to describing my own state of mind when I take time to meditate. I never meditate with the hope of arriving somewhere or finding something. Just the opposite. I manage to free myself from things and in that freedom find revitalization, but I suspect that what I find there is very similar to the feeling I sometimes get while hiking or birding, perhaps echoes of His passing.

R.S.Thomas’ “Too Late”

All indications to the contrary, I haven’t forsworn reading this summer, even though Google brings more visitors to my images than to my scribblings. It seems strangely appropriate that I’m in the middle of reading R.S. Thomas’ Collected Poems 1945-1990 because if anyone would understand my present preoccupation with being outside in the natural world, he would.

Perhaps, then, I could use this poem to justify my break from such pursuits:

TOO LATE

I would have spared you this, Prytherch;
You were like a child to me.
I would have seen you poor and in rags,
Rather than wealthy and not free.

The rain and wind are hard masters:
I have known you wince under their lash.
But there was comfort for you at the day’s end
Dreaming over the warm ash

Of a turf fire on a hill farm,
Contented with your accustomed ration
Of bread and bacon, and drawing your strength
From membership of an old nation

Not given to beg. But look at yourself
Now, a servant hired to flog
The life out of the slow soil,
Or come obediently as a dog

To the pound’s whistle. Can’t you see
Behind the smile on the times’ face
The cold brain of the machine
That will destroy you and your race.

It strikes me as not a little hypocritical for someone, like myself or Thomas, who has never made his living working the land to criticize farmers who employ machinery to make their farming more productive. Ultimately, though, the increasing use of machinery makes family farms obsolete, because few family farmers can pay a million dollars for a machine to harvest their crop.

Farmers who rely on such equipment may become wealthier than those who work smaller plots in more traditional ways, but in a real sense they are not free because they are either working for corporations or they owe their souls to the banks that have financed their equipment.

Many in the organic farming movement seem to draw strength not only from their natural ties to the land, but from their belief that they are part of the tradition of family farmers. My own small experiments in organic farming over twenty some years would tend to support Thomas’ contention that overuse of machinery can “flog the life out of the soil.”

You don’t have to be a farmer to wonder if “the cold brain of the machine” will ultimately lead to the destruction of our race.

R.S. Thomas “Absolution”

It’s a rather amazing poet who publicly recants his earlier poetry, but that seems to be exactly what R.S. Thomas does in this poem in “Song at the Year’s Turning” published in 1955, published three years after “Valediction,” which I cited yesterday:

ABSOLUTION
Prytherch, man, can you forgive
From your stone altar on which the light’s
Bread is broken at dusk and dawn
One who strafed you with thin scorn
From the cheap gallery of his mind?
It was you who were right the whole time
Right in this that the day’s end
Finds you still in the same field
In which you started, your soul made strong
By the earth’s incense, the wind’s song.
While I have worn my soul bare
On the world’s roads, seeking what lay
Too close for the mind’s lenses to see,
And come now with the first stars
Big on my lids westward to find
With the slow lifting up of your hand
No welcome, only forgiveness.

I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what caused the change of heart, though it must have come from Thomas’ change in attitude toward “the cheap gallery of his [own] mind” for it’s clear that Prytherch hasn’t changed. In fact, it seems to be his very lack of change, “finds you in the same field/ In which you started” that the narrator admires.

In contrast, the narrator has worn his soul “bare/ On the world’s roads, seeking what lay/ Too close for the mind’s lenses to see,” which I’d have to interpret as a rejection of purely “rational” thought. There lies something within us that is “made strong/By the earth’s incense, the wind’s song” that cannot be perceived by the mind alone.

I suspect that the narrator sees himself as the greatest sinner because he has abandoned the natural world for the mind, whereas the farmer, at least, has not abandoned that world and, thus, has a greater chance of redemption than the intellectual.

R.S. Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990

The first two books in R.S.Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990 “The Stones of the Field” and “An Acre of Land” offer a view of Thomas’ poetry that I never glimpsed in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. Some of the earliest poems seem to represent the poor farmer, “Iago Prytherch his name,” as “Enduring like a tree under the curious stars,” almost as a symbol of what we should all become, or return to.

Near the end of these two collections, however, Thomas begins to doubt that this plain peasant retains the beauty he should have inherited from his natural setting:

VALEDICTION

You failed me, farmer, I was afraid you would
The day I saw you loitering with the cows,
Yourself one of them but for the smile,
Vague as moonlight, cast upon your face
From some dim source, whose nature I mistook.
The hills had grace, the light clothed them
With wild beauty, so that I thought,
Watching the pattern of your slow wake
Through seas of dew, that you yourself
Wore that same beauty by the right of birth.

I know now, many a time since
Hurt by your spite or guile that is more sharp
Than stinging hail and treacherous
As white frost forming after a day
Of smiling warmth, that your uncouthness has
No kinship with the earth, where all is forgiven,
All is requited in the seasonal round
Of sun and rain, healing the year’s scars.

Unnatural and inhuman, your wild ways
Are not sanctioned; you are condemned
By man’s potential stature. The two things
That could redeem your ignorance, the beauty
And grace that trees and flowers labour to teach,
Were never yours, you shut your heart against them.
You stopped your ears to the soft influence
Of birds, preferring the dull tone
Of the thick blood, the loud, unlovely rattle
Of mucus in the throat, the shallow stream
Of neighbours’ trivial talk.

For this I leave you
Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies
Into a sock to serve you for a pillow
Through the long night that waits upon your span.

From personal experience I rejected Thomas’ earlier views that these poor Welch farmers, practicing farming as their ancestors had, were closer to God than the rest of us because the farmers I’ve known too often see Nature as a force to be overcome. I suspect that the less control the farmer has, the more he is subject to the vagaries of weather and natural pests, the more he sees Nature as “Enemy.”

Instead of learning from the “beauty and grace that trees and flowers labour to teach” the farmer turns to “the dull tone of the thick blood, the loud, unlovely rattle of mucous in the throat, the shallow stream of neighbours’ trivial talk,” penny-pinching money for an uncertain future rather than appreciating the beauty that nature offers for free.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve never been as critical as Thomas is of those who don’t see the world the way he does. That last stanza seems rather unforgiving to me.

Don’t Ask Me

I finished R.S. Thomas’ Collected Later Poems today while waiting to have my Tacoma Pickup serviced at two different shops. It’s amazing how much reading you can get done in 2+ hours if you leave the noisy waiting room with the TV blaring away and sit in the parking lot.

The final section was entitled “Residues” and consisted of poems unpublished when Thomas died. Though there was several poems I liked, there probably wasn’t as many as in earlier sections. Though it was interesting to see how Thomas reacted in the face of death, I actually preferred two of his poems about poetry. The first one would resonant with anyone who’s devoted much time to poetry:

LEGEND

I went up the holy mountain
thinking to be at dawn
a poet or a dead man,
but not mad, not mad:
I was that already.

I came down from the mountain
where the tempter had offered
in exchange for my poetry
the kingdom of this world.
My insanity saved me.

Poets don’t make money writing poetry, but I can’t remember ever hearing a poet express any regret about choosing poetry over money, which isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a few complain about how little poets earn. It’s that last line, though, that makes the poem effective. If “insanity” saved him, how can it be insanity? Perhaps this last one appeals to me because I just started reading Levertov’s essays, and this bears on what she has to say in the first essay and on my earlier discussion of a vague feeling I had that Levertov’s poetry didn’t quite measure up to what I most love in poetry.

‘DON’T ASK ME…’

Don’t ask me;
I have no recipe
for a poem. You
know the language,

know where prose ends
and poetry begins.
There should be no
introit into a poem.

The listener should come
to and realise
verse has been going on
for some time. Let

there be no coughing,
no sighing. Poetry
is a spell woven
by consonants and vowels

in the absence of logic.
Ask no rhyme
of a poem, only
that it keep faith

with life’s rhythm.
Language will trick
you if it can.
Syntax is words’

way of shackling
the spirit. Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.

Considering the relative “informality” of most of Thomas’ poems, it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t have a “recipe for a poem,” but it would also take an obtuse reader not to realize that these are poems merely by looking at the line breaks, especially with metaphors like “Poetry/ is a spell woven/ by consonants and vowels/ in the absence of logic” and “Poetry is that/ which arrives at the intellect/by way of the heart.”

What I most found lacking in Levertov’s poetry was the “spell woven by consonants and vowels,” something which almost gives Thomas’ poem a “traditional feel.” Look at the last two stanzas where three words begin with “s” and three words end in “t.” You could almost swear the poem ends with a rhyme, or, at the very least, a near rhyme.

It doesn’t hurt that he ends his poem with a sentence that, for me at least, captures the essence of poetry, “Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.”