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The final section was entitled “Residues” and consisted of poems unpublished when Thomas died.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:


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;
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.”

4 thoughts on “Don’t Ask Me”

  1. Great poem. Some of the best poems, though, never arrive at the intellect but stop somewhat short and do their mysterious work there. Agree?

  2. I think some of my favorite poems have only arrived at intellect after many years when I begin to think why they’ve made such an impression on me.

    But their main appeal certainly isn’t to the intellect. If I’d favored that approach I could probably have become a college professor instead of being turned off by the overly “critical” approach to poetry.

  3. For a fascinating account of the emotion so energetically concealed behind the intellect, read Byron Rogers’ Thomas biography, The Man Who Went Into The West.

  4. The first poem probably refers to the old legend of spending a night on the mountain Cader Idris in North West Wales- that if you spent the whole night up there you came back down either a poet or a madman.

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