A few days on the Llŷn Peninsula last week and I delighted in the prolific spring flowers. Blackthorn blossomed along narrow lanes; wood anemones, primroses and violets flourished on grass verges. Beneath the trees of Nanhoran woods bluebells were a deep azure blue as far as the eye could see, the colour like a haze hovering above the ground (Christine Evans’ poem ‘Bluebells in Nanhoran’ – in Growth Rings – captures them perfectly). And of course everywhere there was the coconut scent of gorse and brilliant splashes of yellow gorse flowers. To me gorse gold is a separate colour.
Graham Sutherland’s ‘Gorse on a Sea Wall’ is on the cover of Too Brave to Dream, the latest posthumous gathering of poems by R S Thomas. These previously unpublished poems were discovered between the pages of two books, Art Now by Herbert Read (1933) and Surrealism, essays edited by Read (1936). The poems have been dated to between 1987 and 1993, and were interleaved with the paintings to which they refer. The dating is evidenced by the reverse of the poems which are typed on previously used paper (the notes in the book reveal the fascinating minutiae on the reverse of the reused paper – letters, draft poetic fragments, jottings).
The book is beautifully produced by Bloodaxe in a perfect-bound square format paperback with good reproductions of the relevant picture alongside each poem – excellent value at £12.
Ekphrasis (a verbal description of a visual work of art) is a good escape from writer’s block and R S Thomas admitted that he sometimes wrote poems on paintings ‘to get myself back into writing’ during ‘a blank period’ of ‘poetic dryness’.
R S Thomas’s wife, Elsi, herself an accomplished artist, was not enthusiastic: ‘A painting is paint not words ... I think Between Here and Now [an ekphrastic collection published in 1981] is not a good idea because it deals with the meaning behind the painting, not with the paint – for he had never seen any of them. What a tangle, quite impossible to express.’ Perhaps these comments suggest the tensions within the Thomas household rather than the quality of the poems.
In Too Brave to Dream it is the meanings Thomas finds behind the paintings that make the poems so interesting. They are ‘a conversion experience, since [they] involve translating one’s response from one medium, one language, to another, which is profoundly different’ (as M Wynn Thomas said of the reverse process of artists producing work to accompany R S Thomas’s poems in the exhibition Inspiration held at Plas Glyn y Weddw in 1995).
In Edvard Munch’s ‘House in Aasgaardstrand’ (1905) the poet makes us observe the figures in the bottom right hand corner:
‘who, in anticipation of time
as though like the Gestapo
it would arrive in
its van to take them away,
have gone underground.’
Some of the poems have an added dimension of intertextuality. On Eugène Berman’s ‘Evening in Venice’ (1931) R S Thomas writes of ‘the author/of the death of a young man’, an allusion to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. There are references in other poems to Plato, Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek myth, Dostoevsky, Wallace Stevens.
The poems have the economy and simplicity of form and the intuitive fracturing line-breaks that are hallmarks of R S Thomas’s work. Unusually there are only three references to God. Here is the poet on Yves Tanguy’s ‘The Extinction of the Species’ (1936):
‘... the appearance
is of a landscape God
looked at once and from which
later he withdrew his gaze.’
Several of the paintings – and their accompanying poems – are disturbing. The title of the collection is taken from the poem on Henry Moore’s ‘Shelter Drawing’ (1941) of sleepers in the London underground during the Blitz. Survivors poke amongst the remains of ‘others/who were too brave to dream’. Dreaming here suggests escapist fantasy and not facing up to reality. Perhaps the most shocking poem is the scatological response to André Derain’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’.
But there is ‘love that will bring on the thaw’ at the end of the poem on Jindřich Štyrský’s ‘Man Fed on Ice’ (1934) and the poem on Graham Sutherland’s ‘Gorse on a Sea Wall’ (1939) is one which came alive for me this week:
‘Gorse is gorse.
It never goes off
the gold standard, smells
warm and insinuating
as a creature with fur.’