England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger to my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?
(From R S Thomas’s The Old Language in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 – page 25)
I am on the train coming back from Birmingham. No one seems particularly disturbed to find someone close by reading about death and poetry.
The girl sitting next to me is probably too preoccupied too notice as she switches between her phone, her book (I wish she’d hold it at a different angle – it’s frustrating: I can’t even read the chapter heading let alone see the cover – it looks thick and interesting) and her tablet. She soon gives up on the book and ends up spending the rest of the time till she gets off the train looking at pictures of buildings on her tablet – must’ve had a tranquilising effect.
My book on deaths of the poets has been an up-and-down experience. I have sometimes skipped through several pages at Woody Allen speed (You remember the quip? “I did a speed reading course. I’ve just read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.’), only to break hard to ruminate long over other passages.
My attention is already hooked well and truly by the chapter on war poets and I’ll probably come back to that at some point in the future, but I am absolutely fixated when I get to House Calls, the one dealing with poets who have jobs.
Back at my desk, I’ve really chewed the cud of that one in an effort to extract every implication that resonates with me. I’m not sure why it pulled me in so strongly, except possibly my own past struggle to balance the prose of paid work with the unsalaried poetry of imaginative flight. I’ve blogged about this in detail in the Dancing Flames post where I wrote, ‘I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called mentally ill. I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.’
Riding Two Horses?
The chapter soon gets going with a key question. Farley and Roberts ask (page 205):
If poetry is a vocation in itself, and an all consuming, life threatening one at that, then what can life be like for poets who have vocational day jobs?
Following the prevailing pattern of the book, they visit key places in a poet’s life and they learn for instance (page 206):
How Williams himself contained both vocations within the same house: a study in the attic for the night work of poetry and a consulting room in the annex for the day work of medicine.
His life seemed an unremitting alternation between scribbling and prescribing. They wonder whether this tension fed his poetry (page 210):
In Rutherford everyone knew him. He was a pillar of respectability…. But in Manhattan he was the great modernist poet, a doctor among the Bohemians. Was it in the pull, the polarity of these two lives, these two selves, that he found the energy to write?
Why are they so concerned with the idea of vocation though? Perhaps because of the possible connection they are exploring in this book between poetry and self-destruction – a link whose inevitability is tested potentially to breaking point by the lives of the poets in this chapter. They are questioning the pain and poetry relationship (page 207):
Great poems don’t land in your lap, or so the legend says. Great poems are hewn from great suffering and risk and pain. It must be a vocation.
Finding the Right Words
Thomas’s uncompromising, pared-back poems show the clear influence of early American modernists, and Thomas admired the later, more ambitious Williams poems in particular. . . . . Thomas sought to break and reshape an English fitted to the landscape and spirit of Wales.
In Williams’s poetry it takes a shape that became associated with his work (page 217):
[Williams’s] lifelong struggle to define a new kind of authentic American poetic nature, an authentic American poetic, is still being weighed and calibrated in seminar rooms and lecture theatres. His notion of the ‘variable foot’, which marks out the music of a truly American poetic line, is – depending on your point of view – a canon-defining perception of genius or an impenetrable piece of sophistry.
I’m afraid that for me it still feels like the latter. And there were major problems for him at the time with maintaining the credibility of his pioneering approach, as the Poetry Archive describes:
What Williams did not foresee, however, was the “atom bomb” on modern poetry—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams had no quarrel with Eliot’s genius—he said Eliot was writing poems as good as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”—but, simply, “we were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellencies of classroom English.” As he explained in his Autobiography, “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself —rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.” Not only did Williams feel threatened by Eliot’s success, but also by the attention The Waste Land received. As Karl Shapiro pointed out, “he was left high and dry: Pound, who was virtually the co-author of Eliot’s poems, and Marianne Moore were now polarized to Eliot. Williams felt this and would feel it for another twenty years. His own poetry would have to progress against the growing orthodoxy of Eliot criticism.”
What’s Poetry For?
I was far more engaged with their discussion of Thomas, a poet I have admired in spite of his modernist style. Part of the reason may lie in what they reveal of his critique of the modern world, which suggests that I am responding to the passion that lies behind the style. They quote from an interview with Thomas (page 223):
Asked about the state of contemporary poetry as we approach the end of the twentieth century, he is a bleak in his evaluation: ‘What troubles me is the superficiality, shallowness. As you know, you’ve only got to sit in the Underground in London and see this panorama of humanity passing and to glimpse behind the masks of the faces before you the joy and the glory and suffering and disappointment and frustration. Here you’ve got major themes for poetry, and they’re not being . . . . . Not all the stops are being drawn out. Contemporary poets are guilty, I think, of playing around the fringes of the human psyche.
We are back in the London of Blake here:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
He feels that this failure is costing poetry its place in the modern culture. The crucial question for Thomas is this (page 224):
‘. . . . is poetry in the twenty-first century going to maintain its position as one of the great arts, or is it going to drift further and further into what it’s already in danger of being, a minority art?
This passionate concern, Farley and Roberts feel, is rooted in his work, which confronted him with the harsh reality of humanity’s situation (page 225):
Like WCW and his patients, R. S. Thomas’s life of service to his poor and hard-working parishioners convinced him of the threats he found were gathering – in the mid-twentieth century – to our essential humanity
The trigger was similar for both poets (ibid):
The turmoil came in part from the particular encounter with humanity afforded by their secondary vocations, and in part from the language itself, which sent WCW back and back to the page in search of an authentic American poetry, and condemned Thomas to produce work of great beauty and acclaim in the language of his political enemies.
The words of Williams state his position simply but powerfully (page 226):
He wanted his readers to meet the people he met as a doctor, and challenged himself to see if he could do justice to them. ‘My words are inspired by my fellow human beings,’ he told his young trainee.
The Poetry Archive vividly captures this dynamic:
Beginning with his internship in the decrepit “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City and throughout his forty years of private practice in Rutherford, Williams heard the “inarticulate poems” of his patients. As a doctor, his “medical badge,” as he called it, permitted him “to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos…, to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.” From these moments, poetry developed: “it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.” Some of his poems were born on prescription blanks, others typed in a few spare minutes between patient visits.
I respect and admire the values he expressed through his work: I feel that his poetry in the pared down passages all too often fails to do them justice. The Poetry Archive gave me reason to look again at some of his work but I still cannot change my feeling that he ends up writing what I have called elsewhere ‘left-brain’ poetry, something that leaves me cold.
I think that Williams was himself very aware of the problem. Take this passage from his modernist epic Paterson as an example (Penguin Poets Edition: pages 113-114 – excuse the number of dots in the first line – it was the only way to get the words in the right place!):
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . So that
to write, nine tenths of the problem
is to live. They see
to it, not by intellection but
by sub-intellection (to want to be
blind as a pretext for
saying, We’re so proud of you!
A wonderful gift! How do
you find the time for it in
your busy life? It must be a great
thing to have such a pastime.
But you were always a strange
boy. How’s your mother?)
. . . . Your father was such a nice man.
I remember him well .
Or, Geeze, Doc, I guess it’s all right
but what the hell does it mean?
There are many powerful and reasonably accessible passages in this book-long poem, but there are also many pages that lose sufficient coherence to permit my understanding at least. To be fair, Browning’s The Ring & the Book, which I feel is his masterpiece, is often almost as obscure, so I may be operating some kind of double standard here. The short passage above gives perhaps a taste of this oscillation between the completely clear and the virtually opaque. I’ll probably continue to grapple with my reaction: perhaps it’s as Williams himself said (Paterson: page 100): ‘The poem moves them or/it does not move them.’
An important consideration here is that Williams seems to accept the inevitability of leaving most readers behind if he is to write as he feels he must. The blurb inside the cover of my edition of Paterson quotes him: ‘In 1920 he wrote, “I’ll right whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please…”’ I’m glad he clarified that.
Thomas is different, I think. There is an intriguing link to the Mass that Farley and Roberts flag up (page 226):
In the old rite of the Mass, the priest would stand at the head of his congregation with his back to them, leading his people in the incantations and prayers, representing them. Once the rules changed and the priest turned around to face the congregation, Thomas felt that something crucial had been lost. As did David Jones. Fortunately, his poetic vocation still permitted RST to take on that role, to turn and face the emptiness on behalf of his people, to cast words into the void of God for them.
I’ll use an example of the power with which Thomas is able to capture accessibly the bleak reality of his subject without lapsing into traditional modes of expression (Collected Poems 1945-1990 Phoenix Edition – page 464). I’ve picked a poem that illustrates how strong Thomas’s love for and commitment to the Welsh language was: he deeply regretted that his strength in it was not sufficient to carry his poetry.
They were irreplaceable and unforgettable,
inhabitants of the parish and speakers
of the Welsh tongue. I looked on and
there was one less and one less and one less.
They were not of the soil, but contributed
to it in dying, a manure not
to be referred to as such, but from which
poetry is grown and legends and green tales.
Their immortality was what they hoped for
by being kind. Their smiles were such as,
exercised so often, became perennial
as flowers, blossoming where they had been cut down.
I ministered uneasily among them until
what had been gaps in the straggling hedgerow
of the nation widened to reveal the emptiness
that was inside, where echoes haunted and thin ghosts.
A rare place, but one identifiable
with other places where on as deep a sea
men have clung to the last spars of their language
and gone down with it, unremembered but uncomplaining.
As the Wikipedia article on Thomas puts it:
Fearing that poetry was becoming a dying art, inaccessible to those who most needed it, “he attempted to make spiritually minded poems relevant within, and relevant to, a science-minded, post-industrial world”, to represent that world both in form and in content even as he rejected its machinations.
(Their quote is from Daniel Westover’s R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography – University of Wales Press, 2011.)
My sense is that he succeeded.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of my preconceptions about the value of their poetry, an important implication of both their lives is the possibility that their work protected them from the harmful myth so many post-Romantic poets have succumbed to (page 226-27):
Both poets struggling to hold their lives in balance – outward facing lives as pastor and doctor, and their inward-facing lives as poets. . . . . . Perhaps, in both cases, their sense of duty to the people they served help them to avoid the meltdown of poetic self destruction.
All in all, though the experience varied in quality, this book as a whole was a richly rewarding experience that deepened my understanding of the complex relationship between poetry, the poet and the life. I’m glad I read it.
 From Wikipedia: ‘Williams referred to the prosody of triadic-line poetry as a “variable foot”, a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse. Each of the three staggered lines of the stanza should be thought of as one foot, the whole stanza becoming a trimeter line. Williams’ collections Journey to Love (1955) and The Desert Music (1954)  contained examples of this form. This is an extract from “The Sparrow” by Williams:
Practical to the end,
……………….it is the poem
………………………………of his existence
(The dots are the only way to get the words in the right place! I’ve copied the arrangement from my Paladin Edition of his work Volume II – page 294: it differs slightly from that found on the Wikipedia page.)
 From Poetry Archive: “Elsewhere Williams’ social conscience is to the fore, in the act of imaginative empathy of ‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ and the more overtly political vision of ‘The Yachts’ and ‘To Elsie’. The former is radical in a different way from the experimental minimalism of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ as it presents an image of capitalist oppression: Williams captures the exhilaration of the yachts’ triumphant progress, but he also sees the ruthlessness of privilege which they represent. ‘To Elsie’, its twenty two stanzas poured out in a single sentence, constructs a powerful critique of a modern world in which the lower classes are degraded by lust and exploited by the better off. The final poem, ‘The Dance’, celebrates movement and Williams’ great love of art. Here he does use a traditional metre, the dactyl (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed) which gives the poem a powerful forward momentum. The whirling energy of the peasants is also intensified through the enjambment of each line which doesn’t allow a pause for breath. It feels especially important to be able to listen to this great celebrant of American speech, his light clear voice relishing the different kinds of music created by each poem.”