Let's not lose his art of being awkward

The death of R S Thomas marks the passing of a particular kind of British writer. Now poetry is just another show on the road

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The death last week of the poet R S Thomas at the age of 87 deprives the British Isles, and above all his adopted Wales, not just of a very important poet, but a very important kind of poet. Living his life in the heartland of the principality of the bards, Thomas was unmistakably bardic. Like his poetic heroes William Wordsworth and Edward Thomas, he was a poet of prophecy and granite-like endurance, his verse painstakingly carved out of his own distinctive nature and his distinct and very solitary place.

The death last week of the poet R S Thomas at the age of 87 deprives the British Isles, and above all his adopted Wales, not just of a very important poet, but a very important kind of poet. Living his life in the heartland of the principality of the bards, Thomas was unmistakably bardic. Like his poetic heroes William Wordsworth and Edward Thomas, he was a poet of prophecy and granite-like endurance, his verse painstakingly carved out of his own distinctive nature and his distinct and very solitary place.

Fifty years ago, when he first won his reputation, Wales could boast two poetic Thomases. Near-contemporaries, they were often compared as versions of the poet, and versions of Welshness. Dylan was the windy boy, the widely travelling gadfly, the euphoric drunkard, metropolitan and cosmopolitan. R S was the reclusive rector-poet of his own parish in the Welsh-speaking hill country, possessing all the roughness of his arid landscape, folding a dour political bitterness about the dying of an old Celtic culture into his writing.

Dylan stood for poetry as extravagance, delight, flamboyance. His huge lyric flourishes, his vitalistic message and floppy-haired Romantic self-image made him well-known all over the world. He travelled, performed, romped, drank, and finally died of it, at the early age of 39.

Coming to notice around the same time, R S was a poet of another class, out of a deeper, more remote Wales. He was the essence of withdrawal, marginality, cultural self-protectedness; the poet of his conscience, his land, his region, the stones of the field. As he aged he grew more angry, metaphysical, prophetic. His public appearances were monitory, his pronouncements unsparing, his poems naught for our comfort. He wrote reflectively throughout a long life, some of the best work coming near the end.

As Dylan stood for Romantic modernity, R S came out of a strand of verse that preceded Modernism, with its fractured forms, mythic exhaustion, linguistic collapse, historical anxiety. Yet it was a strand that has had a long life in these islands, especially at its cultural and political margins. Like many significant 20th-century poets - Yeats, Hugh McDiarmid, George Mackay Brown, Basil Bunting - he came from the sub-divisions of Britishness, and from the need to re-seed old soils. Out of that came his feeling for language and myth, his angry politics, his testings of nature, faith and God.

Nowadays, though, we are more likely to be struck by a different kind of contrast - not between the drunken Romantic and the philosopher-prophet, but between Thomas's grainy marginality and the playful triviality and public display that flavours so much contemporary verse. Like everything else in our current post-culture, poetry seems to have adapted to flimsiness, triviality, to the age of the book as commodity, the writer as would-be celebrity, the text as seductive object of play.

Poetry now, we're often told, is neglected - and up to a point that is true. Many publishers have become distrustful of publishing it, and the cancelling of its poetry list by the Oxford University Press last year was a disastrous loss. There remain important poetry presses - Carcanet, Bloodaxe, Picador - and many magazines. But there are far fewer courageous and strong small presses than there were in the Fifties, when both Thomases won their reputations, and the competition for cultural attention is severe.

Yet poetry is still a visible presence. The battle for the laureateship drew attention to many talents and the bitter and competitive state of poetry culture. In the past few years the late Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have more or less cornered the Whitbread prize, and their more recent books have regularly made the bestseller lists. Newer poets are extensively promoted, in performance, on radio, at arts venues and cultural festivals. The present Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has been indefatigable in advancing the profile of poetry.

What has changed most is our expectations of the poet. The entire 20th century saw an erosion in the public meaning of poetry, its capacity to speak general truths. The post-modern turning of the century has seen the fading of art's private and avant-garde seriousness too. Poetry has become just another show on the road.

In post-culture, George Steiner has said, the poet's office changes, and the "hope of creating against time, of making language outlast death", has vanished, along with that "obsessive aloneness" required for the task. R S Thomas had that obsessive aloneness, which belongs close to the heart of poetry. It was the same aloneness possessed by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, for whom poetry was the momentous burden he had to carry through the age of Stalin's grotesque inhumanity, even at the cost of his life.

In our own age of commodified pluri-culturalism, poetry turns chiefly into a set of skills, talents, life-styles and attitudes making a bid to be a subject. Writers are no longer solitaries, and they have lost the protective spaces of traditional culture. They perform, compete, read verse in supermarkets, bid for poet-in-residence. Both they and their books fight in the commodity marketplace of the age.

Poetry has always been many different things: popular and serious, playful and profound. It is lyric pleasure, nursery rhyme, jingle, dramatic event, philosophical exploration, aesthetic wonder, emotional confession, public sabre. All these functions are valuable, but poetry's ultimate justification has always been deeper, in its power to explore language, culture, and the human condition.

There are still poets who carry the burden of seriousness, who explore the poet's primal relationships to nature, culture, place, history, myth and legend. Those struggling relationships explain the power of poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, or Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Derek Walcott. And, like R S Thomas, all of them are poets in some sense displaced, out of marginalised segments or regions.

Thomas himself was never an easy poet nor always a just or generous man. His angry prophecies summoned up unlikely cultural possibilities and were often at odds with the times. As he knew, the culture he so passionately protected was limited, closed and narrow. But he came from a landscape, a time and a culture that made his life urgent, his present exist in relation to a significant past, and his verse into something momentous.

The instinct of prophecy, the grainy resistance, the sense of marginality make for the urgency inside the poetry, along with the scrupulous and detailed curiosity that turns nature into subject, landscape into myth, history a force to be struggled with, and the making of form and language in the present a serious duty. Thomas's lifelong poetic resistance represents something fundamental to the real life of poetry. Let us hope it is not something our culture has now completely lost.

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