Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Book of Common Poetry

This post was first published at The Master's Artist.

We were in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the gift shop of the Bruton Parish Church, mostly looking at nativity sets. As I am known to do, I wandered around and found a display case with two shelves of books.

And there it was – an Oxford University Press reprint of the 1928 edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And here I was, right in the middle of a manuscript that needed references from the 1928 edition, which is very similar to the 1789 edition (the one done after the American Revolution). It met my immediate need.

It also did something else. It came to be something I read from, with its litanies and orders of services, language for uses with rites like marriages and births, and the psalter. The book connected me to Henry VIII and the first edition published in 1549 as a result of the English Reformation.

But it’s the book’s wonderful language that’s the enchantment. To read (and read aloud) some of the litanies, and Gospel passages, and scripts for burial services is to sense the late 18th century scholars and theologians who revised the earlier edition and the language that seems to lift to God (I’m convinced that this is the language spoken in heaven). I’m not the only one who’s been taken by the language – Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists have borrowed from it for their prayer books as well.

What’s fascinating is to see the language actually work. I take a passage or section, written in paragraph form, and use the same words in poetic form, to give a sense of how to read the words and what the language actually sounds like. Consider this familiar passage, the paragraph rendered poetically:

I require and charge you both,
as ye will answer at the dreadful day
of judgment, when the secrets
of all hearts shall be disclosed,
that if either of you know
any impediment,
why ye may not be lawfully
joined together in Matrimony,
ye do now confess it.
For be ye well assured,
that if any persons are joined
together otherwise than
as God’s word does allow,
their marriage is not lawful.

The rite continues through the exchange of rings, finishing with this:

Bless, O Lord, this Ring,
that he who gives it
and she who wears it
may abide in thy peace,
and continue in thy favour,
until their life’s end;
through Jesus Christ,
our Lord.

This works in virtually every section of the book – the Bible readings, the language of the rites, and the psalter. The book contains a beautiful, almost poetic cadence and rhythm that lifts and inspires. The language comes from the language of the King James Version of the Bible, and even Shakespeare, and it continues to resonate.

We speak and write more practically today, emphasizing brevity, conciseness and more utilitarian language. We’ve gained speed and immediate effectiveness, if not understanding, but we’ve also given something up – the wonder of words and language that can lead to heaven. 

Related: Copies of all of the various editions of The Book of Common Prayer can be downloaded as pdf files here

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Lost Art of Listening

For some time, I’ve been noticing an increasingly common characteristic of meetings – and that is that listening is in decline. I can’t say exactly when this started, but I do know when I noticed it. I was in a regularly scheduled meeting at work – one of those weekly meetings where you talk about what’s going on, nothing particularly unusual, and people could barely wait before speaking. I was struck by what I hadn’t realized before – no one was really listening to what others were saying.

I began to pay more attention at other meetings, watching to see if this has been an anomaly or was more common than I thought. I kept a running tally in my head, and it was more than clear. People were focused on speaking out. Virtually no one was focused on listening.  In some cases it was so bad that people would interrupt or jump in as another person was almost, but not quite, finished.

And it was happening at meetings at all levels. People were more circumspect and kept their tongues more in check when a senior executive was sitting at the table, but barely. Sometimes it appeared that the presence of the senior executive was actually encouraging the behavior.

Sometimes I found myself doing it. Sometimes meetings sounded more like a gaggle of geese squawking at each other than a meeting of adults supposed talking about serious subjects.

I’m not the first person to make this observation. It’s actually been studied, and in depth, and causes identified for the problem (and, yes, it’s a problem): we’re not interested in the topic; we find the speaker unattractive; prejudice and bias; trying to listen to more than one conversation at a time (or thinking we can listen while we send emails on our cell phones); we’re preoccupied; we’ve already judged the topic (or the speaker). The web site Skills You Need has a whole laundry list of barriers to effective listening.

And then I wondered, how are my listening skills when it comes to God? Am I guilty of jabbering away, telling God all of my problems, and not really listening to any kind of response?

Sometimes, God uses circumstances to teach us to listen. In The Fire of Delayed Answers, Bob Sorge describes being led through valley experiences so as to learn how to listen, really listen. “One of the reasons,” he says, “we can’t hear from God, when the darkness descends, is that God wants to retrain the way in which we hear from Him.”

Is this what we sound like to God, like we’re jabbering away at a meeting, more than ready to force our way into the conversation and almost totally unwilling to listen? Is this what I sound like?

Am I so busy talking that I ignore the cry for help, the desperate call for support, the obvious need staring me in the face? Do I have to be taken through the darkness of a valley experience to learn how to listen?

I hope not; I pray not. And yet I shudder.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “When the Lights Go Out,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I don’t feel blameless

I don’t feel blameless or innocent;
I grumble and dispute, so much dirt
on my glass that I should be called
Saul of Tarnish. Little light passes
through to penetrate or pierce;
I can’t see enough even to cry
tears, the gloom so thick that
I’m unable to cry at all. It
grasps with a strangling embrace;
grumble, grumble, toil
and trouble, I complain
while others crumble.
I hear a shout:
a kingdom for a nail,
a nail for a kingdom,
a nail, and my thumb is swollen,
a nail for theses on a door,
a nail, and a man died.

This poem is submitted for Open Link Night at dVersePoets. To see more poems, please visitthe site. The links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time.

Photograph by nuzrath nuzree via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Poets and Poems: Jean Sprackland’s “Sleeping Keys”

We all have a box or something like a box, perhaps more than one, filled with old keys to vaguely remembered locks, old coins, paper clips, the combinations to lock thrown away years ago, extra screws for the floor lamp we bought at Target (some assembly required). Rather useless stuff, really, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to throwing it all away. Something might be hidden away among the jungle.

Those Sleeping Keys constitute the subject of the title poem in poet Jean Sprackland’s new collection, published earlier this year:

Printed with old roses or tartan and thistle,
there’s a biscuit tin like this in every house.
Prise off the lid and catch the flinty scent
of old keys, decommissioned and sleeping.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by amateur pic via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, October 28, 2013

“Growth in Leadership” by Dr. Larry Little

For decades, management was considered a business “science,” a discipline that could be taught in business school classrooms and applied in the workplace. One of the primary exponents of management as science was Peter Drucker, who wrote numerous books on the subject including the business classic Management. Drucker’s writings tracked the rise of the 20th century industrial order, and management was the pinnacle of that.

Management is still taught in business schools, but the order began to fray and unravel in the 1970s and 1980s. Inflation (the prime rate hit 20 percent at one point) and OPEC took a huge toll on the industrial order in the 1970s, and helped led to the convolution of acquisitions, divestitures, restructurings, and downsizings of the 1980s and 1990s. Overlay that with the electronic communications revolution of the 1990s and 2000s, and management as a “science” seemed rather faded and shallow in the face of so much turmoil and change.

What emerged from the turmoil as the operational principle for the workplace was the idea of leadership. The difficult is that leadership can’t really be taught in the classroom. It can be studied, yes. But leadership depends on the character and abilities of the individual, applied in the right way at the right time. Leadership is less a science and more an art. You can teach principles of art, and how art has developed over the centuries, but you can’t really teach an artist the desire and passion to paint, or sculpt, or write.

One the best discussions I’ve read on how leadership functions in the workplace is Make a Difference: Growth in Leadership by Dr. Larry Little (with co-authors Melissa Hambrick Jackson and David Rupert). As the book demonstrates, leadership is easy to understand – we know it when we see it or experience it – but is not so easy to actually do.

Little divides his description of leadership into six components – gratitude, responsibility, ownership, willingness, tough calls, and health. The discussion of each if structured by interviews with leaders at all levels and from all walks of life, people who are leading in their own organizations and circumstances. What emerges from this discussion is an understanding of leadership as something very real and immediate, and something that likely exists within each of us.

Leaders know how to give genuine praise – and why it matters.

Leaders take responsibility and are accountable; they know how to translate vision into reality, and then know that it happens through people.

Leaders are servants, and may follow as much as they lead.

Leaders make the tough calls, but they put others’ interests first.

And leaders know how to maintain their own and their organization’s “leadership health.”

The principles follow from having a broad array of people tell their leadership stories. The principles seem simple, and they are, but simple does not mean easy. Leadership is hard work. It’s also incredibly rewarding work.

And, as Make a Difference: Growth in Leadership demonstrates, as rare as it may be, it can happen anywhere. 

Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The words

She sits in a pew
staring forward hearing
the words mouthing
the words of the hymns
the words of the prayers
and nothing is happening
nothing sharp and cutting
nothing slicing through
the husk she envelops
herself in while
the words strike then
fall away, raindrops
scattering to her feet
puddling beneath her feet

When the raindrops cease
she stands shaking hands
murmuring and nodding
acknowledgement that
she has been here this day
somewhere this day
to be absorbed
into the heresy
of misunderstood piety
enclosed in her cocoon
she walks to the street
unaware, unwashed

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, October 25, 2013

“Weak Devotions: Poems” by Luke Hankins

In Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, editor Luke Hankins assembled a collection of poems illustrating how poets from T.S. Eliot to Ilya Kaminsky had used the poem as a devotional practice. In Weak Devotions: Poems, he’s written poems as devotions himself, and an extremely fine collection they are.

And what inspires Hankins to utilize poetry as a devotional practice? The origin of words. The sight of blood. A newspaper photograph of children in Africa skipping through a swarm of locusts. War. Beauty. Growing up in Louisiana. Instructions to “follow the instructions.” Squirrels. A father’s sorrow. Anxiety disorder.

In other words, life, all of the events and issues and problems and wonder that comprise life.

And life includes the things we envy, including the unusual things we might envy, as in Weak Devotion XIII:

I have envied , yes,
the dog that cannot think of hell—
I have envied the dust mite,
the palm tree and the stone.
And can I say
(can I tell You Something
I’ve never told You before?)
that I have envied nonthings
because they do not exist.

A dust mite, a palm tree a stone – these things cannot think; they simply exist. Even a dog, which does have cognitive abilities, cannot think of Hell. And this ability to think ultimately links us to “You,” and all the questions we want addressed, the suffering we want relieved.

Hankins groups the poems into four sections, named for one of the poems in the group: A Shape with Forty Wings, Babel’s Child, Weak Devotions, and The Voice of One Crying Out. Many of the poems read like prayers, or psalms, perhaps prayers and psalms, the prayers and psalms of a poet in the 21st century and yet timeless.

To read these poems is to undertake an exercise in silence and quiet, because that is what they impart, a stilling of the mind and heart. Reading these poems I found myself listening, listening to that stillness, that quiet.

Several of the poems have been previously published in journals like the Asheville Poetry Review, American Literary Review, and Southern Poetry Review, or published in anthologies.

Read the poems of Weak Devotions in the early morning, or before going to bed, or in the middle of the day to find respite from the busyness of work. But read them.


Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Poet of God’s Grandeur

This post was originally published at The Master's Artist.

During my senior year in high school, I had an English teacher who was diminutive, elderly and more energetic than teachers half her age. She loved literature, and especially English literature, and this senior-year class was devoted to English literature, except for one six-week period when we studied Don Quixote. (I attended a public high school in Louisiana – an all-boys public high school. Louisiana was not known for educational prowess. No one told my teachers that, and I received an extraordinarily fine education.)

It was during that year that I was introduced to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). We didn’t spend much time on Hopkins; our textbook England in Literature included three of his poems but explained that his poems were never popular with the general reading public because, for one reason, they were “religious in nature” and didn’t “deal with the problems of everyday man.” This textbook was current in 1968-69. I like the textbook, but it does have an attitude.

Hopkins studied under such varied teachers as the Catholic John Henry Cardinal Newman and the aesthete Walter Pater. He loved poetry, but felt compelled to leave his Anglican upbringing for the Catholic Church, and going so far as to become a Jesuit priest. He wrote poetry when he could, but very little was published during his lifetime. Upon his death, he entrusted all of his poems to a friend, Robert Bridges, who delayed publication for almost 30 years, when Bridges himself was Britain’s poet laureate. An expanded edition was published in 1930 by Charles Williams, the friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Additional editions were issued in 1948 and 1967.

His poetry may still not be well known, but his impact has been huge. His innovations in poetic style, which he called “sprung rhythm” for its close connection to spoken speech, influenced W.H Auden, Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas, and generations of poets after them. Hopkins became well known only long after his death, but his influence on poetry continues today.

Here is one of the three poems included in my senior English textbook (yes, I have a copy; I found it at a used book sale). I recommend reading it aloud.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared
      with toil;
   And wear’s man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:
      the soil
Is bare now, not can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and ah! bright

Poet Stanley Kunitz talks about how he discovered the poetry of Hopkins, and “God’s Grandeur” in particular, and then reads the poem.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Broken Faith

We’ve been in those places before. We’re confident that our faith is strong. We’re serving. Our desire for recognition isn’t overwhelming our motives. Life is going well.

And then, smash: the crack-up.

Sometimes it erupts suddenly. Sometimes it only appears to erupt suddenly, but there were signs (largely ignored or dismissed). But the smash happens. And for a time we stagger around, or lay prostrate, overwhelmed, feeling tossed upon an unknown and very angry sea.

Crack-ups are not limited to younger or middle-aged people. They can happen to all ages, to people in all income levels and socio-economic groups, to people strong in faith and those new to or weak in faith.

The causes or triggers are myriad: a death, a serious illness, loss of a job, upheaval at church, a personal attack, a child goes awry, a financial setback, a business fails. While all of those things often are common to life, and to our lives, it’s still a shock when it happens to us, when it happens to me.

I’m in one of those situations now. Decisions made at my workplace more than a year ago – decisions I knew were bad at the time – caught up with the organization. Then came the crisis, a series of ongoing crises, not enough people to handle them and do everything else that needed to be done, followed by organizational upheaval to address and fix the problem.

I’m past the point of overwork. I’m in what seems like a deep well of physical exhaustion. A potential resolution is in sight, but the exhaustion is so deep that I simply nod at the news. I’ve done what I have usually done in situations like this: I’ve held it together, sometimes with pieces of scrap cloth and chicken wire, sometimes with my fingernails.

My expression for times like these is “scratching my way down the blackboard of life.”

Similar things have happened before. They usually arrive with other crises, like upheaval at church, or a family problem.

This time, too.

Bob Sorge, author of The Fire of Delayed Answers, would call this a time of broken faith. He cites the example of David, and says something distinctly un-American, distinctly un-cultural: “…to produce the kind of brokenness in David that God desired, he had to break David’s faith. How did He do that? By leading David into a wilderness where no amount of faith posturing would effect any change…In this way, God broke David’s framework and understanding of faith and then began to totally rebuild it.”

I should point out that it wasn’t only the wilderness experience where God did this. It happened again, with the adultery with Bathsheba. And it happened again, with the rebellion of Absalom.

It happened a lot. This breaking and rebuilding process wasn’t a one-time affair.

It puts new meaning into the statement that “David was a man after God’s own heart.”

He was a man after God’s own heart because God broke his faith that way.

As for me, I read psalms, I write some poems, I pray. I hold on to the promise, and I trust.

Most days, that’s sufficient.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “David’s Cave,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Julie Gentry via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Poets and Poems: Billy Collins and “Aimless Love”

Billy Collins is one of those individuals rare in America – a poet who is successful and popular. The author of 10 collections of poetry, Collins was poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and of New York State from 2004 to 2006. And this past summer, he substituted for Garrison Keillor on National Public Radio’s program “The Writer’s Almanac.”

Today, he’s publishing Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. It’s everything a Billy Collins collection of poetry should be, and more: funny, droll, surprising, penetrating, self-deprecating, unexpected. And stories; Collins is always often stories in his poetry.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Top photograph by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Don Paterson’s “Rain: Poems”

In the title (and final) poem in Don Paterson’s Rain, we find a clue to understanding all of the previous poems:

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face…

The clue is the world “films,” for that is the lens for viewing so many of poems assembled here, cinematic summaries of scenes and stories. The reader “watches” these films unfold imprecise, spare words, almost reading a kind of minimalist movie script.

And the stories Paterson tells, the scene he depicts, are at once familiar and captivating.

A man attempts to graft an orange tree to a lemon tree.

A swing set is erected for children.

A man stays up too late.

A boy paints a picture of outer space.

The wind pulls up and speaks.

The poems are intensely visual but go well beyond simple scenes projected on a screen. In “The Bathysphere,” for example, a man buys one at an auction, and then imagines his descent into the ocean and eventual return. The poem becomes a birth, or perhaps rebirth, from the primordial sea that raises as many questions as it answers.

When they ask me what I saw, they all expect
some blessed-out excuse for my not saying,
but I know what I saw: I saw everything
the germ and genius of its own ascent,

the fire of its increase; I saw the earth
put forth the trees, like a woman her dark hair;
I saw the sun’s stars and the river’s river,
I saw the whole abundant overflow…

It is a wonderful poem, full of story and images and beginnings, along with a subtle and mysterious understanding of life, and a life.

Paterson, a musician, editor, and poet, teaches at the University of St. Andrews. He’s won both the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Poetry.

First published in 2009, Rain is an original, a collection of poems that depict stories in the movie theaters of our minds.

Photograph by Ronald Carlson via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Driving Iowa 163

The horizon: corn fields
always corn fields stretching
brown unending waves
of brown waves waiting
patiently for the sounds
of harvest waves rolling                                       
rolling toward each other
because nothing
else is left I sail on waves
not feeling the waves
the leaves brown
and brittle tear at my skin.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Luke Hankins and "Poems of Devotion"

I learned recently I was doing something I didn’t realize I was doing. In fact, I’ve been doing it for more than three years now,

I know about the time it started – October, 2010. I know where it started – Laity Lodge, in the Texas Hill Country southwest of San Antonio. And I know who started me doing it – poet and professor Scott Cairns.

But it took poet and anthologist Luke Hankins to explain it to me (Cairns called it something else – using poetry to wrestle with difficult passages of Scripture).

“It” is the devotional poem. Not a poem of devotion, but doing a devotional through the writing of a poem.

In Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, Hankins has brought together examples of poems as devotions form a wide array of poets, and he defines “recent” as having been alive after 1950. I scanned the table of contents, and I recognized most of the poets listed – names like Cairns, Luci Shaw, Jane Hirschfield, and Nick Samaras.

These poets, or most of them, likely knew what they were doing when they write poems as devotions. I didn’t. I was just doing it, and not realizing what a history and legacy I was stumbling into. It was like writing poems before you bit into the fruit of the tree of (poetic) knowledge.

The idea of the poem as devotion has been around for a long time, but one group of poets, Hankins notes, is most closely identified with it, and that is the 17th century metaphysical poets. We read them in high school, and if we took English Lit in college, we read them there, too. Poets like John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell.

They’ve had their ups and downs from the critics (Samuel Johnson tended to sneer at them), but they had a significant impact on later generations of poets, poets we are extremely familiar with today. Gerald Manley Hopkins. T.S. Eliot. Joseph Brodsky. Czeslaw Milosz. Robert Penn Warren. Thomas Merton. E.E. Cummings. Louise Gluck. W.H. Auden. Wendelly Berry. Seamus Heaney. And more. Most of these poets have at least one poem included in this anthology.

We make think of a poem of devotion as a kind of psalm, and it can be – several included here read like a psalm of David. But they are also struggles, and ventings, an occasional rant, a love poem – all of the ways we approach God, except translated into written poetry.

I found myself marking many favorites in the volume; so many good ones are included that’s it difficult to name one as the best. One I liked immensely was this one by Ilya Kaminsky:

Author’s Prayer

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
Ina language not mine, speak

Of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
says must I praise.

It’s something of a surprise; you don’t expect to land in a poem of devotion until you’re right in the thick of it. Once you see the reference to God, you go back to the beginning and your understanding of the poem changes. (By the way, I did a short post on Kaminsky in 2011 for Tweetspeak Poetry.)

It’s an excellent compilation of poems and poets, some dead and some in the 20s, with every other age group in between. Gathering them in this way demonstrates a connection, a continuance of this poetry (and devotional) form.

Sitting there on the banks of the Frio River at Laity Lodge, little did I know that I was reaching back four centuries to John Donne. Luke Hankins and his Poems of Devotion connected me to those still tolling bells.

Photograph by Bobby Mikul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Poems of R.S. Thomas

This article was originally published at The Master’s Artist.

It’s rather jarring to be reading poems about Welsh farmers and the Welsh landscape and come across one entitled “The Peasant.” Or find a rather unsympathetic and critical eye when you’re expecting something more akin to a romanticized view.

And yet, there is love here, and kindness, and an understanding of the people who populate these poems. There’s a kind of protective fierceness here, too, the shepherd watching over his flock even if the flock doesn’t realize it needs protecting.

I’ve been reading the Collected Poems 1945-1990 of R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), Anglican clergyman, Welsh nationalist, neo-Luddite (he didn’t like any of the modern conveniences, like vacuum cleaners), and poet. I read a shorter, “everyday poems” version first, and then turned to the Collected Poems. Rarely have I been so moved by what at first glance seems more like pastoral poetry but soon becomes a kind of love song to rural life and its people. 

Thomas was born in Cardiff, Wales, and ordained in the Church in Wales. He married in 1940 and he and his wife Mildred had one son. He began publishing poetry in 1945, and achieved literary and critical notice with his fourth book, Song of the Year’s Turning, which included an introduction by poet John Betjeman, who would eventually become a poet laureate. Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1996 but the award went to Seamus Heaney. (Heaney would speak at Thomas’s funeral service in Westminster Abbey in 2000.)

Thomas’s love and regard for the people he ministered to have a kind of stark bleakness to them, but they are there nonetheless. Consider his poem “Evans:”

Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle’s
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.

It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth that appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.

This understanding of the reality of daily life extends to the group he knew especially well, because he was a member of it – the country clergy, quietly serving far from the excitement of the cities and the politics of the church. From “The Country Clergy, the poem that is likely my favorite in the whole collection:”

I see them working in old rectories
By the Sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
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.

Thomas writes of farming and the landscape; of Welsh history and the church. And individual people – men and women, old and young. Very little escapes his eye, or his heart.

He even writes of poets and poetry, and I can almost picture him imagining his own end in “Death of a Poet” that includes several subtle references to death in the first stanza:

Laid now on his smooth bed
For the last time, watching dully
Through heavy eyelids the day’s colour
Widow the sky, what can he say
Worthy of record, the books all open,
Pens ready, the faces, sad,
Waiting gravely for the tired lips
To move once – what can he say?

His tongue wrestles to force one word
Past the thick phlegm; no speech, no phrases
For the day’s news, just the one word ‘sorry’;
Sorry for the lies, for the long failure
In the poet’s war; that he preferred
The easier rhythms of the heart
To the mind’s scansion; that he now dies
Intestate, having nothing to leave
But a few songs, cold as stones
In the thin hands that asked for bread.


The BBC obituary.

Top photograph: Welsh Lake by Patrick Garrington via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.