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.


Anonymous said...

Matt - so much to enjoy and disagree with and gossip over in this post and preceding one on RST (of whom I am also a fan). Come to Edinburgh and we can spend the afternoon and/or evening drinking and talking in the way writers used to before the interweb was invented. Meanwhile, Alba gu brath (Go Scotland!) for this afternoon's encounter... cheers - James

Matt Merritt said...

I'll definitely be getting up to Edinburgh soon, James, so that would be great.
I won't mention the rugby, though!

Andrew Philip said...

Hey, I'd like to be in on that conversation too! Let me know when you're coming, Matt. It would be great to meet you.

Bloodaxe does the Collected Later Poems. Phoenix does the Collected Poems, 1945-1990.

Jane Holland said...

I'm a huge RS fan. I've already read his autobiography - some years ago now - and various other things, plus much of his Selected. (His opus is so vast, it's a work of some years reading through it.)

I shall certainly order the book once I can afford it. Meanwhile, it's a shame the Guardian puff on its Amazon page manages to place an apostrophe where no apostrophe should ever be: "This is biography that salutes it's subject's art; and is itself art."


Matt Merritt said...

Thanks Andrew, I'll have to invest in them both, I think. And it would be great to meet you, too - I'll be sure to get in touch before I come up there.
I think it's the vastness of his work that has probably baffled me slightly in the past, Jane - my loss, I now realise. I suddenly realised that I've read any number of his poems individually, in anthologies and the like, and loved them, so it's high time I got a better overview of his work.
That rogue apostrophe bothered me too. Possibly years as a sub-editor have made me slightly obsessed with such things, because they never fail to drive me mad.
On a different subject, what are your plans for publishing your translation of The Wanderer? It's one of my favourite poems, so I'd love to read it.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry to take so long replying; I only just spotted your reply amongst a vast pile of spam. Damn those spammers.

I have just sent my (rather radical) version of 'The Wanderer' off to a magazine, in the vague hope that they may want it. If that fails, it will at least be published in book form in my third collection, due out from Salt this autumn and entitled, appropriately enough, Camper Van Blues.

Hope you're now itching to buy it!


Matt Merritt said...

I am, Jane! That alone would make it worth the price of admission for me.
Just been trawling the secondhand bookshops of Hay, and managed to pick up both the RS Thomas Collecteds for a fiver each. Just need a year or two to properly digest them now.