Monday, 25 March 2013

WORDS AND PICTURES

A hundred years since the birth of the poet R S Thomas.  The actual anniversary is on 29 March which just happens to be Good Friday this year – a felicitous coincidence for one of the twentieth century’s most important religious poets.

There’s plenty to get excited about.  Professor M Wynn Thomas has been working on a new biography.  I’ve never been satisfied by previous biographies so I’m hoping this will be the definitive life of the poet.

This month sees the publication of Uncollected poems (I like that – how else can you follow Collected Poems, Collected Later Poems and Residues?).  I’ve read that it includes poems found on scraps of paper RS left all over the place, including in his car.  The poems are edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies.  I've ordered my copy.

When I first encountered R S Thomas’s work in Six Modern Poets (edited by J R Osgerby) I was a volunteer gardener for the Keating sisters at Plas yn Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales.  Through Honora Keating I met R S Thomas.  After a Sunday afternoon’s gardening, a quick wash and afternoon tea (paper-thin Hovis, Dairylea cheese, Battenburg cake) we would get a lift in R S Thomas’s car to St Aelrhiw’s church for a bilingual service with a sermon I couldn’t understand even in an English summary.  At 17 I was a groupie – I just wanted to be in the presence of a writer, hoping I could absorb that intangible quality of writerliness. 

For years I continued to meet R S occasionally  – exchanging a few words while walking in Plas woods above Sarn Cottage, where he lived for several years, or pulling in to the side of a narrow high-banked lane to let him pass in his white Ford Fiesta.  Now when I read R S Thomas’s poems I’m taken back to Llŷn - to the wide sweep of the bay where the poet watched for a rare bird or the field where he placed his hand in a grassy hollow to find it still warm from the body of a sleeping hare.   

One day Honor showed me a bird picture painted by R S Thomas’s wife, Mildred Elsi Eldridge.  I’d picked up the fact that Elsi was an artist but I had never met her.  “She’s rather reclusive”, said Honor.  I have a vague memory of glimpsing Elsi one summer afternoon in the garden of Sarn Cottage. 

RS was a master of the short lyric and one of the most beautiful and moving poems he wrote for Elsi was “A Marriage” in Mass for Hard Times.  Appropriately for an artist who painted several pictures of birds the poem opens
                 “We met
                        under a shower
                   of bird-notes”.
Five decades later death came –
                 “ ... And she
                        who in life
                 had done everything
                        with a bird’s grace,
                 opened her bill now
                        for the shedding
                 of one sigh no
                        heavier than a feather”.
Damian Walford Davies has edited R S Thomas: Poems to Elsi and it is due out this month.

Elsi’s striking pencil drawing of R S Thomas appeared on the front cover of Ysbrydoliaeth/Inspiration, the book accompanying an exhibition in June 1995 of different painters’ responses to the poet’s work.  The exhibition was held at the wonderful Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw in Llanbedrog.  Now the same gallery is exhibiting Elsi’s work until 28 April as part of Femina/Cymru .  At last Elsi’s art is getting some recognition.  Look on the gallery website and you can see some of the pictures http://www.oriel.org.uk/en/whats-on/details/46-Elsi%20Eldridge%20Retrospective 
If you want to find out more about the R S Thomas centenary go to http://rsthomas2013.org

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