Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: RS Thomas Uncollected Poems

I have a running list of poets that I enjoy among whom are Denise Levertov, Ruth Stone, William Stafford, Billy Collins, and Edward Hirsch among others. I find new poets to read after taking suggestions by friends or if I happen to come across a poem or two in a newspaper or magazine that I like.

I recently came across the poetry of RS Thomas. I was reading a book about parochial ministry in England in which the author quoted several of Thomas' poems on the priesthood. I liked these poems because they focused on the challenges and doubts of pastors. After reading a few of his poems in this book I wanted to read more, so I purchased his Collected Poems 1945-2000 and was not disappointed. Many of his poems deal with farmers, day laborers, technology, and modernism, especially as it pertains to Wales where lived and ministered. However, many of his poems focus on the Church, Christ, ministry, parish life, and vocation. His poems are often dark and full of doubt sometimes bordering on despair. I felt drawn to Thomas because like him I am also a minister and have a small parish. While I do not live in the Welsh countryside I do live in a slightly rural area and enjoy the outdoors. Like Thomas I also question the problem of evil in this world, the interplay between faith and doubt, and the problems of the ministry.

Bloodaxe Books recently published a new collection of Thomas' poems called RS Thomas Uncollected Poems edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies. There are several volumes of Thomas' poetry that have already been published, a volume entitled Collected Poems 1945-1990 as well as a later edition of collected poems called Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. There are also individual compilations of his poems as well. Now we have a volume of previously uncollected poems that first appeared in magazines, journals, or magazines and now appear here together in this handsome volume.

These one hundred and seventy eight poems are arranged chronologically. The editors included a handy bibliography in the back of the book for readers who want to know where these poems first appeared. Like with his other books Thomas draws upon several religious and spiritual themes as we see in the poems below:

Llanddewi Brefi (1948)

One day this summer I will got to Llanddewi
And buy a cottage and stand at the door
In the long evenings, watching the moor
Where the sheep pasture and the shadows fall
Thick as swathes under the sun's blade.
And there I will see somewhere beyond the wall
Of the old church the moles lifting the ground,
And think of the saint's cunning and how he stood
Preaching to the people from his secret mound,
A head's breadth above them, and they silently around.

Sick Child (1993)

We prayed hard;
we believed true.
All I remember
is fair hair, blue
eyes, looking at us
without seeing.

We held hands.
He remained dumb,
the would-be conductor.
Faith's alternating
current was switched on.
We buried her smiling.

Coming True (1979)

Not God, but a feeling of belonging
all places. The water at the Poles
circulates in us as the light does
from the Great Bear. We remember

the future as we anticipate
the past. We watch the weevil
at work as we do the hand
of a great sculptor. We are at home

with violence, but sallying
forth we find ourselves under
a serene sky. We fly our experiments
in the sun's face and the wax does

not melt. The universe is
our parish, and each of us
in his own church with an altar
waiting for the sacrifice of the superstition.

After reading most of his poems now I can see that Thomas did not have an easy faith. His ministry in a small farming village in Wales with its harsh seasons and climate provided the backdrop for his writing ministry. His faith is the faith of Thomas in the Gospel of John a skeptic and doubter. He does not have a quiet faith, but a complex and complicated faith which wrestles with truth, justice, and modernism, very much like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis. I can imagine Thomas standing at the altar in his parish Church early on a Sunday morning shaking his fist at God demanding answers to his questions!

However, like with most collections these poems are of uneven quality. Most artists create a substantive amount of work but not all of it is noteworthy or of the same value. Needless to say fans and readers of RS Thomas need to purchase a copy of this new volume of Uncollected Poems to round out their  collection of Thomas' poetry. The front cover is also very beautiful showing Thomas' family above and then two pictures of him below, one younger dressed in his clerical attire and then one of him in a suit.

RS Thomas' Uncollected Poems is distributed by Dufour Editions in the United States.

For more information about RS Thomas and his books click here