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A Day of Poetry

Still in Seattle, I had lunch today with my cousin Christine Deavel and her husband John Marshall. Besides being my flesh and blood, Christine (along with her husband) are literary people and fun to talk with about the joy of words. They own Open Books--A Poetry Emporium, the only all-poetry book store west of the Mississippi. For those of you who care about such things, they are an independent operation. The store takes up the bottom floor of a two-story building, and it's a delight to walk in and simply browse their shop, looking both for classics and for things one might not notice ordinarily. Of course, given that we had both boys with us, browsing was a bit more complicated, but Gus, my three year-old is fascinated with books and poems of all kinds, so he was easy to entertain. (Last night while waiting for him to pee in the potty I read him Canto I of the Inferno [John Ciardi's translation]; he was fairly excited about the story--leopard, lion, and wolf appear--but became bored when Vergil showed up.)

In the time we were there, though, I bought a used copy of Dana Gioia's famous book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?, as well as a copy of the famous Welsh Catholic convert David Jones's In Parenthesis with a new foreword by W.S. Merwin. For those who think of Catholics as disrespected among the intelligentsia I'd like to note that the new volume is published by the New York Review of Books Press, a pleasant surprise.

But what I brought home and started greedily reading tonight is an Everyman edition of R.S. Thomas's Selected Poetry. I was under the impression that Thomas was a Catholic priest, but found out from the introduction that he was actually Church of Wales (Anglican) and suffered from the sort of theological doubt common in that communion.

No matter. The poems are exquisite. The first "big" edition of Thomas's work, Song at the Year's Turning (1955), came with an introduction by John Betjeman, a future poet laureate of England. Betjeman wrote:

This retiring poet had no wish for an introduction to be written to his poems, but his publisher believed that a "name" was needed to help sell the book. The "name" which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a wider public will be forgotten long before that of R.S. Thomas.

As an admirer of Betjeman myself, I take this as high praise. While I've not come across the sort of flippantly humorous tones that Betjeman is able to play with, the Thomas poems I've been able to sample have a penetrating elegiac honesty that is greater than Betjeman's. Perhaps it's the real estate mantra, location, location, location, but Thomas, long-time pastor to tough Welshmen, evokes the hard peasantry, afflicted by the more rigid forms of Reformation Christianity, that "affront, bewilder, yet compel my gaze" (as he says in "A Priest to his People"). A favorite of mine, small-town boy that I am, is this one called "The Country Clergy":

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun's ligh, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little gree
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men's hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.

Whatever Thomas's struggles with doubt, there is a deep faith that comes out amidst the Job-like wrestling with God. And there is a great craft for making lines that capture me--". . .rather they wrote/On men's hearts and in the minds/Of young children sublime words/Too soon forgotten. . ." I can't imagine a better poem to send to a pastor in a country parish, particularly with the affirmation that God will correct the bad memories of those served faithfully by pastors outside the spotlight of the city.

Thomas's appreciation of the Welsh peasantry is all the more appealing to me since he embodies the contradictions of modern life. Not growing up speaking Welsh, he learned it as an adult, yet never felt competent to write poetry. He realizes he is not like the Welshmen he serves, but he also realizes the difference is not one of superiority or inferiority. His culture and intelligence are gifts that would enrich their lives, but their closeness to the land is something that he can observe but not share in. In "Affinity," he asks about a rough peasant:

From the standpoint of education or caste or creed
Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bareheaded in the woods' wide porch
Morning and evening to hear God's choir
Scatter their praises? . . .

The need of our world is great--our need for ears to hear God's choir, our need for charity to recognize those who have such ears, and our need for poetry to put into words our deep longings, desires, and prayers. Take a few moments to read some poetry today.

And buy it from my cousin, would you.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 11, 2005 11:18 PM.

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