Tuesday 5 February 2008

Voicing concerns

Reading that RS Thomas biography last night, I came across an interesting passage about his style in his middle period, and how it was viewed with suspicion by a number of critics, notably the ‘Movement’ figures Donald Davie and John Wain. They particularly took exception to his extensive use of enjambement, feeling that he overused it, making his rhythms awkward. Thomas, for his part, felt that he was using his line-breaks very carefully to emphasise certain words, and Byron Rogers points out that there’s no awkwardness of rhythm in the poems in question when you listen to Thomas himself reading them.

All of which throws up some interesting questions. Whether or not you actually intend to perform your poetry to an audience, you write with the idea of hearing the poem out loud. Sound is as important as sense. But when you’re writing, should you hear it exclusively in your voice, or in a more neutral tone? What you decide has implications not only for rhythm, but also for things like rhyme. My own accent, for example, would rhyme “again” with “then”, but clearly a lot of other accents wouldn’t. So do you go with your own voice (literally), or with a more universal one?

Having read about that brush with Movement orthodoxy, it was interesting to come across this piece earlier today. I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of what AN Wilson said. I enjoyed doing Larkin at school (The Whitsun Weddings), but I now tend to be pretty selective about his poems. I think it’s probably that the gloom is a bit unrelenting. That can also be true of the likes of Geoffrey Hill, or RS Thomas for that matter, but in the case of the latter especially it’s mitigated by the sense that the spiritual search that is going on becomes the most important thing in itself, even as Thomas is hinting that there’s a lot of emptiness at the end of it.

Wilson’s article also, of course, raises interesting questions about the gap between a poet’s work and their personal life, which I’ll come back to when I write about the Thomas book in detail.

Finally, the biography mentions an interesting anecdote about the seventh century Saint Beuno, who was out walking one morning, heard a man calling to his dogs in an unfamiliar tongue (English) on the far side of the Severn, and promptly packed up and moved to the Lleyn Peninsula, predicting doom for the Welsh. Something of an extreme, not to say defeatist, reaction, you might think, but they were an excitable lot, those dark age saints, no doubt partly down to living in isolated spots while subsisting on meagre rations which must have included a fair amount of hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms. Anyone who’s read Felix’s Life of St Guthlac (he holed up on the island of Crowland, just down the road from here, in the fens) will know that large parts of it are one long bad trip. Still, that’s what makes them so fascinating, too, and that’s why the Early British Kingdoms website is such a great resource.

PS. While we’re on the subject of Wales, a quick mention of Saturday’s Six Nations match (although I prefer Rugby League, if I’m honest). I’m half-Welsh, but being English-born have to cheer England when the two meet, so I should have been depressed by what transpired. All I’ll say, though, is that’s what happens when you send out an England side containing just one Leicester player (and he was gone after about 15 minutes). Asking for trouble.

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