Wednesday, November 28, 2007

32 Poems by R.S. Thomas

Free e-book (who needs Kindle?):

Short bio & link to e-book:

I've been thinking about this poet, whose two bios by Justin Wintle, "Furious Interiors: Wales, R. S. Thomas & God" (London: Flamingo-HarperCollins 1996) and Byron Rogers, "The Man Who Went Into the West" (London: Aurum, 2006) I mean to read, although I may have to wait until the calmer reveries during winter break. Sympathetically, I can relate to his frustration. One who longed to create in a Celtic language the verse that he lacked, in his harsh estimation, the fluency to convey, even as he opted for "Nab" (nobody) as the title of his rather enigmatic biography, written in Welsh. Prose can trundle along with a second language, but how few manage poetry in their acquired tongue?

The life (1913-2000) of a Welsh vicar, a fervent republican (I found Saunders Lewis' selected writings also), and metaphysical pioneer, who wandered into the realms of pastoral, abstraction, and love in his verse that spanned nearly six decades and 1500 poems, may seem devoid of much action. He makes his wife freeze by tearing out the central heating; she got her revenge by making him at a younger age to shave his beard (which became him better in a D.H. Lawrence/ Eric Gill manner).

The blurb on Rogers' life tells of a BBC Wales Arts correspondent who countered the stereotype of this "Ogre of Wales." He ranked Thomas with pro jokesters Ken Dodd and Lenny Bruce as among the three funniest men he'd ever met. So, like us all, a Whitmanish contradictory character able to contain within one's self multitudes? Perhaps the books will reveal a man akin to some Wordsworthian figure. I find myself curious how, as with another doubting believer, Thomas Merton, one can hold fast in a religious vocation while leaving the soul open to roam and complain and revolt. While intellectually I understand the certainty of a Richard Dawkins who claims that no God exists, such hubristic confidence pales before more nuanced approaches. Dawkins appears to protest too much, although I favor his suspicion of fundamentalists.

What of those who confess the faith but remain honestly skeptical? If Pascal doubted, what of our decade's dons and pundits? Should they not gain humility? Or, as Natalie Angier suggests, will we evolve into a race increasingly more rational, as science explains it all for us? Although the newly emboldened atheist proponents condemn agnosticism as a cop-out, leaving open possibilities appears to more truly more humane, more humanistic, than denying any chance at a supernatural explanation or otherworldly force.

I wonder if such neither-or third party skepticism will be an option in our evolution into a monocultural corporate global state. Conservative critic Dinesh D'Souza recently commented on the noosphere (reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin) that allows for a dimension we can yearn to discover beyond the time-space reduction of our 3-d universe. This for me soured Marxism, Freud, and deterministic theories: they left no room for awe or transcendence within us. Darwin certainly wrestled with the grim impact on Victorian England of his own paradigm shift. Even Sam Harris, in his "The End of Faith," acknowledges the appeal of Buddhism (admittedly non-theist in the strict sense) and meditation. And, Daniel Dennett or Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking might urge us to admire the stars and evolution if we need contemplative wonder. Can a comet comfort us?

But I digress. We can learn in a week where news from Sudan finds a British teacher jailed after she let her schoolchildren vote to name their classroom stuffed bear "Muhammed," about the need for tolerance in an era increasingly bitter about atheist vs. believer, secular NPR listener vs. megachurch SUV McMansionite. Like Merton, Thomas found himself drawn to the natural world away from the urbane intellectual realm. But, neither Merton nor Thomas could escape its lure. Who of us can in this networked century that follows their cosmopolitan one? Only a few. R. S. Thomas holds in his Llyn peninsula (one of the three places I want to visit in Wales, along with the Eric Gill/ David Jones studio and a certain bridge near the center mountains) rural retreat the ability to concentrate in a manner that eludes all but the monastically vowed, the reclusively recalcitrant, the impoverished, or trust-funded among the back-to-nature crowd.

I guess we call those those below the poverty line hillbillies or trailer trash or misers, and title those independently wealthy as New Age visionaries, mystic philosophers, or midlife seekers. I recall the late John Moriarty's own rejection of academia for such a life in Kerry and Conamara. And, how like Thomas and Moriarty (if unlike Merton, who never lived so long), or such characters as the aging Francis Stuart. Gyorgy Faludy, Beckett or Pierre Klossowski, their lives of determined iconoclasm make them all look in their twilight years like maddened gurus, who have flown too close to the sun. Unlike Icarus, they have not fallen doomed after their inventive leap. Like Dedalus, they must live with the haunted eyes of those who have seen weaker free spirits, unluckier daredevils, or simply frailer loved ones earlier perish.

Image from "100 Welsh Heroes:" Ronald Stuart Thomas around 80.

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