Sunday, March 6, 2016

On poet RS Thomas

One of my favourite columnists, the writer known as Barnaby ffrench, contributes an article to The Galway Advertiser each week, which elevates this free local, commercial paper to glorious heights. (Incidentally, the paper boasts some other wonderful journalists and includes fascinating articles on local and national history, etc). This week, in his ‘Through the Glass Darkly’ column, ffrench turned his attention to one of my favourite poets, the Welshman RS Thomas. One of the first poems I read by Thomas was ‘Sick Visits’. This poem literally stopped me in my tracks with its arresting imagery and the peculiar language the poet uses to describe his visits, as an Anglican parson, to the infirm, elderly women of his parish.
Poet, RS Thomas (1913-2000)

Sick Visits

They keep me sober,
The old ladies
Stiff in their beds,
Mostly with pale eyes
Wintering me.
Some are like blonde dolls,
Their joints twisted;
Life in its brief play
Was a bit rough.
Some fumble
With thick tongue for words
And are deaf;
Shouting their faint names
I listen:
They are far off,
The echoes return slow.

But without them,
Without the subdued light
Their smiles kindle,
I would have gone wild,
Drinking earth’s huge draughts
Of joy and woe.

RS Thomas

The artistic detachment required for the poet to manifest such stark, compelling phrases as ‘blonde dolls’ is offset by his attentive kindness to the women he describes. If, as the Russian formalists have argued, literature and art is created when ‘the familiar’ is defamiliarised’ in artful ways, then Thomas’s oeuvre is surely a case in point; his work transfigures the mundane with its startling imagery. The force of the poet’s humanity is powerfully felt in the last stanza where he discloses his debt to these women with gracious humility. Sometimes the 'subdued' illumination we need is kindled by unexpected sources. The poem demonstrates how we can reframe the world around us and make the best of every situation by looking with eyes of love and harnessing the transformative power of the imagination. It calls to mind Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Hospital’ in which the speaker ‘falls in love with the functional ward / Of a chest hospital’. On a linguistic level, I am struck by the syntactical skill of the opening lines where Thomas could have written ‘The old ladies / keep me sober’ but chose a more indirect approach instead, yielding a stronger impact and drawing the reader in. This deliberate ordering of words is reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s opening lines in his ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’: ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / the Old Masters’ (which is included in an earlier post on this blog). The vision of the old ladies ‘Wintering’ the poet is also quietly potent.

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