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To a Young Poet -- R S Thomas

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul
(Poem #1726) To a Young Poet
 For the first twenty years you are still growing
 Bodily that is: as a poet, of course,
 You are not born yet. It's the next ten
 You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
 For your brash courtship of the muse.
 You will take seriously those first affairs
 With young poems, but no attachments
 Formed then but come to shame you,
 When love has changed to a grave service
 Of a cold queen.

 From forty on
 You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
 Of poems that have come to pieces
 In your crude hands how to assemble
 With more skill the arbitrary parts
 Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
 A new impulse to conceal your wounds
 From her and from a bold public,
 Given to pry.

 You are old now
 As years reckon, but in that slower
 World of the poet you are just coming
 To sad manhood, knowing the smile
 On her proud face is not for you.
-- R S Thomas
I've always been an admirer of R.S. Thomas's poetry. He has a voice that is
at once gentle and precise - the voice of a country vicar who understands
sorrow and offers, if not hope, than at least consolation. But there is also
a hardness to the voice, a tough, sinewy sort of wisdom blended with an ear
both polished and exact. The result is poems that possess few things to
startle us with,  but impress with their very simplicity - the ring of plain
truth married to fine, high speech.

This poem is an excellent example. As a description of the difficult craft
of poetry - its triumphs and failures, its enthusiasms and disappointments -
it is perhaps unmatched. Thomas captures so perfectly the simple fact that
anyone who's ever seriously tried writing poetry has experienced - that
poems you thought were brilliant when you were twenty now seem foolish,
almost embarassing, and that you have to write for years and years before
you can turn out even one true poem, and even then it's never good enough.
But Thomas also manages, through his careful phrasing ("poems that have come
to pieces / in your crude hands"), to convey the intense labour it takes to
write a poem, the sense of wrestling with parts of a complex machine,
without blueprint or instructions, hoping that the cogs will somehow come

And finally, Thomas expresses so well the sense of resignation that comes
with knowing that you're never going to be as good a poet as you thought you
could be. Keats writes somewhere "'Tis a gentle luxury to weep / That I have
not the cloudy winds to keep / Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye" -
it's the same note of acceptance mixed with a sense of self-irony that
brings this poem to a close.

A young lady who fancies herself a poet recently sent me a set of her own
poems, asking me for feedback. While the poem I initially reached for in
reply was another R. S. Thomas masterpiece (one I couldn't find on the web,
though. Something about - I quote from sketchy memory - "thank you for
sending me your poems / But they are no good / I understand why you wrote
them / But why send them to me? / Why not bury them, as the cat its faeces?"
Full text anyone?), this is the one I would eventually settle on. As advice
to anyone seriously considering writing poetry, I can't think of anything


43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Matt Chanoff said...


Would that R.S. Thomas was right - it would give hope to middle-aged
doggerel writers like myself. Alas, a lot of the decent stuff is written
early. The Keats lines you quote, e.g. are from the Elgin Marbles poem,
written when he was (gasp) 22. It's like the Tom Leher line, "It's a
sobering thought, that when Mozart was my age, he'd been dead ten years."

FYI, there's another great poem on the pain of writing poetry, by Billy
Collins. Something about taking his skin off - now I've got to go look it

Matt Chanoff

Joanne Nakaya said...

I love this poem too, but I disagree with the ending stanza. Thomas
was a wonderful poet, too bad he wasn't appreciated. Did you really
send that poem to that young lady? I hope it was done in jest. How
horrible to discourage someone from writing only because you don't
think it was good enough. Fragile egos fly in the face of threat ...


"Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who
feel." Horace Walpole

Gavin Barrett said...

I am inclined to agree with Matt. This poem (which I liked very much -
thanks Aseem) is great advice to people who have not been blessed by destiny
with great natural poetic talent (which, in fairness, is the vast bulk of
us) but I would hesitate to categorise it as universally applicable. The
world is a big place. There must be a lot of Byrons and Wilfred Owens out
there for whom this advice would not be correct. Glad that you found this
poem and not the other one for your lady correspondent, Aseem, as I am not
sure anyone would appreciate having their poetic offerings compared to what
the cat left behind!

Best wishes


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