Thursday, 7 February 2013

On reading a critical study of the poems of R.S. Thomas

I'm reading Daniel Westover's critical study titled R.S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography (2011) that I bought on Amazon a week or so ago, and it's very interesting reading. The reason I decided to take this course is because I'd been reading poems by Thomas published in a volume titled R.S Thomas: Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993) and I had been completely baffled as to why Thomas seemed to attract praise from so many people. Recently, also, I have been reading Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault (2003) in which poems by Thomas make an appearance. Oe is a writer I admire and he may even have been the reason for my buying the book of Thomas' poems in the first place. I can't remember.

I'm at page 27 of Westover's study. Most of this early part of the book deals with Thomas' early poems, which were metrical and rhyming. But I'm troubled by Westover's acerbic words aimed at these poems, many of which appear to have been influenced by a group of poets Westover calls "Georgians" due to their work having been published, in the first two decades of last century, in a series of anthologies titled Georgian Poets. Their poems are unsatisfying for Westover because they are "lyrical", "on nature" and somehow over-sweet, and it is Thomas' poetry that follows this framework that Westover most substantially criticises. As though sweet, lyrical poetry about nature were somehow an inadequate response to the modern world. There's a triumpal tone which deeply prefers the thematic and stylistic choices that would later become the province of Modernism, which, as we know, was the dominant aesthetic mode of the 20th century. Thomas, it appears, according to Westover, eventually came to his senses and decided to write dark, complex, disturbing poetry rather than light, lyrical, simple and sweet poetry. Good for Thomas, hooray. At last.


I think however that we're not necessarily better off for the success of Modernist informality, and of its thematic preferences. There is scads of really poor, dull and uninspiring verse being published today that seems to owe its justification to the triumph of Modernism, but that seems to have forgotten the reason for poetry itself, which is to enable us to see things in a new light, as though for the first time.

Anyway, I'm going to press on with Westover because I think that Thomas is at least an interesting poet - if not a great one - and because I simply want to know what all the fuss is about. Trouble is, I've been so intrigued with Westover's discussions of Thomas' early, rhyming, metrical poetry that I've almost become side-tracked. In fact, the poem I wrote this morning, 'A nature poem written not long after the big wet, in which a slightly uneasy observer ironically chides himself', aims to address Westover's misgivings about Thomas' early poetry, and to show that it is possible, using rhyming, metred verse, to convey highly complex and nuanced ideas to the reader. It's a response to the critical appraisal from Westover, which is in itself symptomatic of a broader bias. Being symptomatic and not entirely original, Westover's approach merits a critical appraisal itself. This I have, I think, succeeded in giving it.

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