R.S. Thomas

Well, I know a little more about the suspicion for the machine (that Paul Kingsnorth channels) now. I should say the literary suspicion of the machine. It depends on symbols, and these are conjured by literary means. The most powerful symbols are stories. After reading him, I have found that R.S. Thomas set about suggesting stories with his poems.

Is it just me or do others find modern poems characteristically enigmatic? My experience has been that one has to struggle to read and re-read and to apply concentration because modern poetry is in some way more grudging. There is a surliness to the thing, and something of a camaraderie of misanthropy about being a reader of a modern poem.

Why don’t they elicit attention more? In some ways it has to be a response to the saturated world of advertising and self-promotion that thinking persons shrink from. And yet when I read modern poetry first and then pick up something old I always feel a contrast. I find the old far more accessible, there is a charm and winning appeal to it. Now this is not altogether true, only mostly true–when I look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and some other things I find a density that requires persistence on my part. It is true enough, however, because what I don’t find is the enigmatic surliness that seems to me a deliberate feature in modern poetry.

I don’t mean to suggest that the fundamental character of R.S. Thomas is surly. I think more fundamental to R.S. Thomas is ambivalence and because of that a winning honesty and a persistent fortitude. The surliness is there though, often ironical and persistently featured. At the Poetry Foundation’s page on Thomas a critic is quoted describing the poet’s approach as a “cold, telling purity of language.” To me this sounds like praising him for his grudging approach.

And it makes him a grudging story teller. One who suggests stories rather than telling them. He is not sure the soil that represents the farmer’s hard and bitter life is better, but he is even more ambivalent about the machine than the soil and more persistently ambivalent about the machine, even, than the persistent dubieties of the religion which he has not the fortitude to abandon.


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