BOOKS / Songs of God and clifftops: Martin Wroe meets R S Thomas, Wales's finest poet and a man in love with his own language

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The Independent Culture
THE DOOR of the whitewashed cottage overlooking the sea creaks open on the towering, mean countenance of the finest living poet in Wales. It is the Reverend R S Thomas, and he is about to embark on his daily afternoon walk across the bleak Lleyn peninsula in north Wales.

Thomas is not in a particularly good mood. He has forgotten his appointment with the English-speaking journalist who has travelled several hundred miles to find him. He is 80 next month, and things can slip your mind, even in your poetry - which he still writes every day. 'I don't normally re-read my work,' he says, sitting in the cold, sparse bedroom, where he has decided to conduct the proceedings. 'But sometimes you have to look back and you get a jolt when you see something you thought you'd come upon the other day which you'd already said 20 years ago.'

Still, after nearly seven decades of writing, he can't stop now. The man Kingsley Amis described as 'one of the half dozen best poets now writing in English' turns out hundreds of poems annually but counts himself lucky 'if half a dozen are any good'.

R S Thomas has published 25 main collections of poetry since 1946, as well as an autobiography, Neb, in Welsh, which he refuses to allow to be translated. He is often overlooked because of his dog-collar, forgotten because, well, he's dead now, isn't he? or laughed out of court because of his much-publicised support for extremist Welsh opposition to the English 'occupation' of Wales.

But R S Thomas has not gone away, and the shine on his stark, taut verse rarely dims. The land of his fathers - its people, culture and natural beauty - along with the land of the Spirit, have been the two main seams mined in his poetry. And their riches are evident this month with the publication of the magnificently massive Complete Poems (J M Dent, pounds 25).

Thomas was born in Cardiff, raised in Liverpool and Holyhead and recalls first writing doggerel as a schoolboy. He read Classics at Cardiff, but didn't take the poetry seriously until he was ordained a clergyman in the Church of Wales in 1936. For someone who has been wearing a dog collar for nearly six decades, he is disarmingly honest about his 'calling' to the Church. He blames his mother. His father, a sailor, was rarely home but she, raised herself in a convent school, probably pushed him into the church. He thinks his own hold on faith has always been fragile: 'It's like walking a trapeze.'

Even if it was his mother and not a Damascus Road light that pointed him into the Church, Thomas's beliefs remain central to his verse, especially recent collections like Counterpoint (1990) and Mass for Hard Times (1992). He can be pretty vague on just what he believes ('God . . . I believe that there is a will to good and beauty in the universe'), but faith blesses his poetry, however bleak, with rays of hope.

And in the midst of the faith is an idea that haunts him, the recurring image of a cross, sometimes 'untenanted' and sometimes occupied. 'Imperishable / Scarecrow, recipient of our cast-offs / shame us until what is a swear- / word only becomes at last / the word that was in the beginning.' Life, for RS, is based on this: 'In a world dominated by physics and mathematics, the cross remains contemporary.'

And like his inability to retire from the poem, he has also signally failed to retire from the Church, which, on paper, he was supposed to have done in 1978. Eighty or not, most Sunday mornings he can be found in the pulpit of the little Welsh Church in Aberdaron, preaching and administering the sacraments. 'It's just a joke,' he says, with his usual frankness. 'The organist can't play, there are only about six people present and the stuff that I'm having to read in the Bible has all been changed. I don't really approve of it. It's just to keep up this little Welsh congregation.'

And there's the other idea that haunts him, the idea that the Welsh language might be more than a mere symbol of the resistance of Wales and the Welsh to rampaging Anglicisation from beyond the Eastern borders. He is a pacifist himself, but famously won't condemn the arsonists who burn Welsh homes of English incomers, and doesn't give a second thought to those who ask him to square his vocation with this.

Actually he doesn't think he was much good at being a minister: 'I'm not all that interested in human beings really.' He prefers being alone with his thoughts and his God, walking the wild windswept country of Lleyn, the sea surging around its edges: 'When I go out tonight, the stars will be over my head, the darkness of the universe will be enormous and I would miss all that in the town with its awful sulphur glow and the racket of traffic.'

That lonely, remote cliff-top existence enriches his work endlessly: it remains an uncomfortable testament, as one review put it, 'to the long silences and brief illuminations of a lifelong faith'. But RS wants to know why it is unusual for a poet to be writing about God at the end of the 20th century.

'Donne was the last of the English poets whose mind was abreast of contemporary thought,' he asserts. 'Poetry has gradually fallen away so that intellectuals read it for titillation but don't expect it to be dealing with really weighty matters. If poetry can't cope with what God means in the late 20th century then it doesn't deserve to remain a major art form.'

(Photograph omitted)

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