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Poem of the Week: Poetry for Supper by RS Thomas | Poetry

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Poetry for dinner

‘Listen, now the verse should be as natural
Like the little tuber that feeds on manure
And grows slowly from dull ground
To the white flower of immortal beauty.

‘Natural, shit! What was Chaucer
Said once about the long labor
Does it go like blood to the making of the poem?
Leave it to nature and the verse spreads out,
Soft as bindweed, if it breaks at all
The iron crust of life. Man, you must be sweating
And rhyme your strained guts, if you were building
Your towards a ladder.
‘You talk as if
No sunlight ever surprised the mind
Groping on its cloudy path.

‘Sunlight is a thing that needs a window
Before entering a dark room.
Windows does not arrive.’
So two old poets,
Leaning over their beer in the faint mist
From an inn lounge, while the conversation ran
Loudly by them, flippant with prose.

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Ronald Stuart Thomas was born in Cardiff in 1913. When he was five, his father, who had served as an officer in the merchant navy, started working for the Irish ferry service and moved the family to Holyhead, later described by Thomas as “an awful little town with a glorious expanse of cliffs and coastal scenery”. Thomas then studied classics at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). Ordained as a minister in the Church of Wales, he then left the north for mid-Wales and elsewhere, but always seems to have felt like an outsider; his ancestors were mostly southern English speakers, and English was his first language. Although he learned Welsh in his youth and chose it as the medium for his autobiographical writings, it was not the language of his poetry.

Poetry for Supper is the title poem of Thomas’ 1958 collection. Now he has established his artistic territory and can leave the farms of the windswept hills to talk poetry in the cozy inn lounge. Real or imagined, the conversation takes on a lively and familiar twist. The “two old poets” clearly feel at home. Confidently, warmly, they mount a version of the argument that fascinates many creative artists – in stark terms, the issue of spontaneity versus Slog.

Spontaneity speaker begins. Perhaps he is invoking John Keats’ famous letter to John Taylor (1818) in which the young poet announced that “if Poetry does not come as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it is better not to come at all”.

Thomas takes the metaphor to a more earthly level with “the little tuber that feeds on mud” and grows from the “dull soil” into the poem’s “white flower of immortal beauty”. Yeats, a writer of major importance to Thomas, also seems to be referenced here: “I must lie where all the ladders begin / In the heart’s filthy store of rags and bones.” (The desertion of circus animals). This “ladder” is actually cited by Spontaneity opponent Slog at the end of his own metaphorical account of the issue. It suggests the depth of descent.

Slog strikes back with the help of a handful of solid line breaks and Geoffrey Chaucer. He almost certainly remembers Fowles Parliament: “The Lyf so short, the engine so long in Lerna, / Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquest.”

To cut to the chase, who wins the argument? Although Slog has the last word in the form of a hard-hitting aphorism, “Windows doesn’t exist,” he must know, as a poet, that they sometimes do, or at least seem to. Sunlight, both poets would concede, is necessity: the dilemma is how best to invite it.

Thomas is content to leave the case as it is. He is after all a master of the irreconcilable. Along with his pragmatism as a religious poet that sometimes pushes towards agnosticism comes a resistance to treating particular poetics (including Modernism) as a God-given law, or even to treating his own poetry as sacrosanct. According to the biographers, he wrote quickly, revised little and always had a wastebasket close at hand. But he doesn’t take sides in Poetry for Supper.

I especially like the tongue-in-cheek thrust of the narrator’s closing comment that “conversation ran / Loudly by them, flippant with prose.” Did the old poets speak in some kind of higher, more poetic language than the others in the bar? I do not think so. They contributed to the noise and the patter, as long as their discussion was heated. Thomas, I think, is wryly suggesting that they might, after all, have better spent their time writing poetry than talking about it, preparing for a feud that is ultimately, perhaps, a journey of ego or a pleasant distraction at supper time, not having much to do. do with the real, uncertain business of making art.

Thomas’ early commitment to the calling of a poet owes much to the influence and creative example of his wife, the artist Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge. An exhibition currently on display at Bangor University celebrates the work and partnership of the two, and can be visited online here.

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