Is there a place
here for the spirit? Is there time
on this brief platform for anything
other than the mind’s failure to explain itself?
(R S Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990, page 362)
A couple of weeks back Poetry Review (PR), the magazine of the Poetry Society, dropped through my letterbox. I skimmed through it quickly to see if anything immediately caught my eye. It had an article about a poet I have too long neglected after buying his Collected Poems in 1995. The poet I’m talking about is Thomas – not Dylan, but Ronald Stuart.
The article is by Gwyneth Lewis. It hooked me straightway. She begins by saying how much she had initially been repelled by his work, and not just once. The first time she couldn’t accept his portrayal of the Welsh: then she discovered that how he had described them wasn’t really how he saw them which she summarily dismissed as bad faith (PR Summer 2013, page 92), ‘So, for a second time, I thought I’d wiped my hands of his work.’
But that was premature. On meeting him she was taken by his charm and subsequently by his later themes (op. cit.: page 93), such as ‘the Machine as an enemy of man.’ She quotes Thomas in an interview (ibid.):
It is not pure science and religion that are irreconcilable, but a profit-making attitude to technology… If pure science is an approach to ultimate reality it can differ from religion only in some of the methods.
For me this was an irresistible mixture of the Bahá’í idea that religion and science are completely compatible and of McGilchrist’s antagonism to the ‘machine mind.’
And as if that was not enough she quotes him liberally in ways that strengthen the attraction, for instance (ibid. page 95):
I have this that I must do
One day: overdraw on my balance
Of air, and breaking the surface
Of water go down into the green
Darkness to search for the door
To myself in dumbness and blankness…
Another obsession of mine.
During her article Lewis mentions a book that Thomas had edited in 1963: The Penguin Book of Religious Verse. The poets she lists Thomas as including create such an unlikely congregation that I felt I just had to get hold of a copy of this book. What on earth were Byron and Swinburne doing in a book of religious verse, for example?
I had to place my plan on hold for a while until the friend in the photo at the top of this post came on a visit. We planned to go to Hay-on-Wye, the world’s biggest bookshop, occupying as it does virtually the whole of the town. And I knew that in this town lay a delightful poetry bookshop that seemed stacked to the rafters with secondhand poetry books. And I also knew that in the middle of her stay rain was forecast for the whole day – a perfect time to spend indoors between shelves bending under the weight of every possible kind of book.
In the afternoon, after a light lunch, with a soft rain falling, I left my friend with her preferred temptations in the Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, and headed off to the Poetry Bookshop. After a couple of wrong turns brought on by the difficulty of managing an umbrella and a map at the same time, I found intoxicating shelter among thousands of poetry books. I was on a mission not only to find the Thomas anthology, but also to track down books by a poet I had never heard of until recently – Jorie Graham. I found examples of her fusion of metaphor and metaphysics without much difficulty – but that is another story.
After that I found the shelves stacked with anthologies, but with no sign of the Thomas book, even after much bending and kneeling. So, after what seemed an eternity of unwanted yoga, I decided to defy my conditioning as an Englishman, and ask the proprietor if he had a copy of the book I was looking for.
‘It’s on the top of that set of shelves over there,’ he said before diving behind his desk again.
And there it was indeed in plain sight, its tiny size compensated for by the vibrant purples and reds of its cover. It was carefully encased in a transparent plastic jacket. I picked it up gently and opened it carefully as the years had browned and dried its pages giving them the feel of fragility. I looked inside the front cover. The label read ‘£15.’
‘It’s a first edition, then,’ I shouted in shock to the owner.
‘That’s right,’ he smiled. ‘And it’s never been reprinted since to my knowledge. It’s very rare. I’ve never seen another copy.’
I was a bit stunned.
‘It’s not the kind of book I usually buy,’ I explained. ‘I read books with a highlighter pen in one hand and a pencil in the other.’
‘You can’t buy that then,’ he shot back. ‘I couldn’t allow it. Attacking a book like that with a highlighter pen – it’s unthinkable.’
I was in a quandary. I really wanted the book but how could I gain possession of it with a clear conscience when my intention was to take it away and deface such a national treasure?
I turned over each and every page and the names of a pantheon of English poets passed before my eyes: Hopkins, Thompson, Herbert, Skelton, Byron, Donne, Vaughn. The list went on and on. I had to have a copy but couldn’t buy this one, not because he had said in jest that I mustn’t but because I couldn’t let myself. I’d feel too guilty to enjoy the book. It’d stay on my shelves in its plastic tabernacle far too holy to be disturbed until they buried me with it.
‘I’m looking at every page,’ I told him, as I slowly leafed through the slender volume.
‘That’s a good idea,’ he murmured sympathetically. ‘At least you’ll have experienced it and will have something to remember.’
I got to the end of the book knowing I wouldn’t buy that one, but that I’d have to find another copy somewhere that I could buy. There was no escaping its pull on me.
I paid for my Jorie Grahams and went out into the street. The rain had stopped. I got out my iPhone and checked on Amazon. £32. Perhaps I should have bought the book after all. I nearly went back but something stopped me.
When I rejoined my friend after nearly an hour she was amazed I’d come back so soon. ‘You’ve only been gone five minutes,’ she exclaimed. I empathised. Time stops in libraries and bookshops.
When I got back home I went straight onto the web after unloading my purchases from the car. These included a couple of books on William James, another of my current obsessions, and a biography of Teilhard de Chardin.
Frustratingly there were no sites that had soft copies of the book that I could download permanently. I trawled some more. Then, as if by magic hardly daring to believe my eyes, I found a hard copy at GBL books. £4! I looked again. £4. It was real. The blurb said it had the previous owner’s name inside the cover – obviously another book vandal. It was also a bit stained along the bottom apparently.
Perfect for me. Not a national treasure I couldn’t carry around in my bag. Not a precious relic that I needed to handle with white gloves. Not an illuminated manuscript I couldn’t lay an unlawful pen upon. Instead, something I could interact with, without fear, in the same way as I related to all my books when I wanted to absorb their contents. And all I had to do was press a button and send a cheque. And the lady behind the site explained in her response to my phone message that when she received the cheque she’d send the book, and when I phoned her to say I was happy with it, she’d cash the cheque. All in all a delightful experience.
Too good to be true? Not a bit of it. The photograph below proves that I have now in my possession to paw and peruse as I please, this rare and never since republished classic exactly as described and about which you may hear more later.
I can’t think of any better way to close this post than to quote from Thomas’ introduction (page 9):
Roughly defining religion as embracing an experience of ultimate reality, and poetry as an imaginative presentation of such, I have considered five aspects of that experience: the consciousness of God, of the self, of negation, of the impersonal or un-nameable, and of completion. . . . The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.