Friday, 8 February 2008
Poetry and biography
I finished Byron Rogers’ excellent The Man Who Went Into The West last night, and thoroughly entertaining as it is, I’m not sure I’m any nearer forming a proper opinion on RS Thomas (pictured).
I often have a bit of a problem with literary biographies, especially where poets are concerned. Even if the poet has co-operated, they too often seem to encourage the tendency to see everything the writer produced as directly autobiographical, and there’s also the danger that the details of the writer’s private life become more important than the work they produced. The most extreme example is probably Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, but there are others.
I thought I’d give Rogers the benefit of the doubt, though, partly because I loved his biography of one of my literary heroes, J L Carr (he must like writers who insist on only using their initials). I’m glad I did, too, because it’s a fine book, being unafraid to criticise Thomas where necessary, and to point out all the contradictions in this deeply complex man. And, importantly, it makes the effort to keep the writer and the man separate.
That’s probably more important than ever with someone like Thomas, because as I say, the phrase “a mass of contradictions” might have been coined with him in mind. His vehement support of the Welsh language was balanced by the fact that he wrote all his poetry in English, and spoke with such a cut-glass English accent that lots of Welsh neighbours and parishioners were unaware that he was actually Welsh born and bred. He even seems to have preferred the company of middle-class English incomers a lot of the time. He was a committed Christian pacifist, yet at times came dangerously close to espousing unconditional support for violent protest against the eradication of Welsh culture. And I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy at times about just how far Thomas took this ‘Wales for the Welsh’ mentality – a keen birdwatcher, he played a role in conservation of the Red Kite (it’s difficult now, when I sometimes see half a dozen on my way to work each day, to remember just how close it was to becoming extinct in the UK), but resigned his RSPB membership when it was decided to introduce foreign Red Kites to bolster the Welsh population and encourage its spread. There are genuine ecological reasons to want to keep a separate British population, but I'm not sure he had those in mind.
Then there’s the religion. He spent his life as a vicar for The Church In Wales (in a country which is predominantly nonconformist), and yet seems to have had what can best be described as a very troubled relationship with God. But that’s the most absorbing and moving aspect of the book, I think. Thomas took on the one hand a very pragmatic approach (he felt that he was employed by the Church, and so had no business in challenging any of its beliefs from the pulpit), while at the same time channelling his spiritual search and his struggles with his faith into some wonderful poetry. A lot of the time, in the poetry at least, the search became more important than easy answers.
And there’s the question of humour. The popular image of him, fuelled by newspaper profiles which were usually accompanied by photos of him in a windswept, wild-haired pose, was of a painfully serious, taciturn and often downright rude man. Rogers makes no attempt to gloss over any of this, but he does bring out the nervousness and shyness that contributed to it, as well as showing that Thomas could be very funny, in a dry, offbeat way.
I suppose, more than anything, the biography will encourage me to go out there and buy more of Thomas’s poetry, because it never loses sight of the fact that it was, in itself, always more important to Thomas than the purely personal, religious and political spheres. I’ve got a couple of anthologies, with largely the same well-known pieces, but he wrote such a mass of poems that it’s time I checked them out. Bloodaxe, I think, do several volumes of Collecteds, so I’ll have to have a look for them, probably when I’m in Hay on Wye in a few weeks.
Now I’m about to start reading J A Baker’s classic The Peregrine. I’m ashamed never to have read it before, but it comes very highly recommended from all quarters, and is one of those books that genuinely completely changed the face of an entire genre.