“Out There” by RS Thomas.

Out There

It is another country.

There is no speech there such

as we know: even the colours

are different.

When the residents use their eyes,

it is not shapes they see but the distance

between them. If they go,

It is not in a traveller’s

Usual direction, but sideways and

out through the mirror of a refracted

timescale. If you meet them early,

you would recognise them by an absence

of shadow. Your problems

are in their past;

those that they are about to solve

are what you are incapable

of conceiving. In experiments

in outbreeding, under the growing microscope

of the mind, they are isolating the human virus and burning it

up in the fierceness of their detachment.

 

 

This year is the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth, and while I like some of his stuff, I prefer the work of Wales’s other Thomas, R.S.

Both men are great poets, and as such their work can be described and assessed in many different ways. One superficial description will do for this post for now, however. If the more familiar works of Dylan Thomas are verbally rich and dense, then the work of R.S. Thomas is lean and heavy.

That’s heavy in the hippy sense of being very, very, very serious. A lot of his verse has the quality of a zen riddle. I’ve blogged about R.S. Thomas before (click here if interested) and mentioned that for this reason I can only read a little bit at a time. Most of his poems are on the shorter side, and I always find that a little goes a long way.

A lot of his poems are about a specific subject (as a clergyman, many of his poems are meditations on religion and the nature of God for example). However, he often writes in a different mode, something approaching allegory, where the subject matter is open-ended. While on one level it can be frustrating if you are in the mood for clear cut descriptions and meanings, on the other it’s perfect if you want a challenge and like to make the meaning for yourself.

 

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“Good” by RS Thomas

The old man comes out on the hill

and looks down to recall earlier days

in the valley. He see the stream shine,

the church stand, hears the litter of children’s voices. A chill in the flesh

tells him that death is not far off

now: it is the shadow under the great boughs

of life. His garden has herbs growing.

The kestrel goes by with fresh prey

in its claws. The wind scatters the scent of wild beans.

The tractor operates on the earth’s body. His grandson is there

ploughing: his young wife fetches him

cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.

(Note: I’ve always liked this poem, just as I’ve always admired RS Thomas for his clarity and his strength. I first encountered this poem years ago, when one of my teachers invited me to take part in a reading of poems on the theme of Autumn. Now Autumn is almost over for the year, this poem came to mind the other day. Looking at it closely again, though, I think that in literal terms it makes more sense for me to read it as taking place in late summer, or at least that period of slow wind-down as summer blends into autumn. Either way, I think we’re invited into the world of a man who in symbolic terms has personally reached the season of winter, which strengthens the poem’s juxtaposition of life and growth in the outer world with the man’s inner feeling that his life is soon to be over. The wisdom of this poem for me, however, is that it isn’t seen as a cause for panic or overwhelming sadness. Instead it’s presented as part of the general pattern of things.  “To every thing there is a season” as the Good Book says, something Thomas perhaps referred to in his sermons over the years.)