I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea
R S Thomas "Retirement"
This weekend I attended the festival held (mainly) in Aberdaron to celebrate the life and work of R S Thomas and his painter wife, M E (Elsi) Eldridge. It is this westerly tip of North Wales that is most associated with the poems of R S Thomas. As you drive down the steep lanes which lead to the village which ends at the sea, it is indeed a place suspended between sky and sea. The festival went very well, thanks to the excellent organisation by Susan Fogarty (thank you, Susan!). Here are some of my highlights. (This is not an exhaustive list - there were a few events I couldn't attend).
The festival started with a fish and chip supper and an open mic poetry evening. I'm not a great fan of open mics but I enjoyed this fairly low key one (that's a compliment) - no one tried to do a star cabaret turn! Having been asked over the salt and vinegar, "Who were the Miss Keatings?" I read my Mirehouse "Beech Trees" poem and followed it with Gillian Clarke's "Fires on Lleyn" for its R S Thomas allusions and local geography. Other participants read a good selection of poems, including Michael Longley's "Ceasefire" which echoed Clarke's allusion to The Troubles. It's always interesting to see the apparently random connections which come up at open mic nights!
Day 2: Friday
The morning started with a visit, in the company of Llifon Jones, to Sarn Cottage at Rhiw (where R S Thomas wrote many of his later poems). Llifon is the National Trust head gardener at Plas yn Rhiw. The garden has been much neglected in recent years but now there are plans to restore it - with a light touch to provide good habitat for wild flowers and animals (the subjects of some of Elsi's paintings). The views of the wide bay at Porth Neigwl were spectacular and I thought of R S Thomas's poem "Sea-watching":
" ... There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled."
In the afternoon the sailing club meeting room was filled with an attentive audience listening to the American academic, Daniel Westover, speaking on the unusually titled "R S Thomas: Poetic Astronaut of God Space". He spoke for two and a half hours (including 10 minutes questions). I was most impressed with his meticulous scholarship which looked in close detail at the craft of R S Thomas's poems (an aspect of his work which I have always admired). and how it reinforces and illuminates their meaning.
He gave an example from "The New Mariner". The first line of the poem is
"In the silence"
and the line ends with silence - no following words on that line just the silence of the white paper. Further down the poem are the words
"But there is the void
over my head and the distance
The line breaks and white space after "void" and "distance" enact the meaning of the words and the void is visually "over my head" in the lineation of the poem.
In the evening Glyn Edwards shared his appreciation of R S Thomas's poetry in the atmospheric story-telling space of Porth y Swnt. It was good to hear Jack Rendell, a young Aberystwyth graduate student read some of his work.
Day 3: Saturday
It was back to the sailing club on Saturday afternoon for Sam Perry's lecture on the relationship between the work of Ted Hughes and that of R S Thomas. Two aspects that emerged were that both poets were rewriting creation myths (or myths of the fall?) and both did not shy away from the problematic subject of violence in the natural world.
In the evening there was standing room only in St Hywyn's church, Aberdaron, for a concert by Cor Meibion Carnguwch and harpist Morfudd Parry Roberts. Cor Meibion Carnguwch grew out of a small group of Young Farmers singing for a competition. They are now a fine young male voice choir with a varied repertoire of Welsh music. They clearly enjoyed singing and were very good at it. The applause at the end said it all - they had touched our hearts.
[You can hear my poem on Youtube by googling Mary Robinson reads Beech Trees]
For more about the R S Thomas and M E Eldridge Society go to
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