Monthly Archives: November 2012

November 12, 2012

R.S. Thomas: Poems

R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
Song at the Year’s Turning (1955)
Poetry for Supper (1958)
The Bread of Truth (1963)
H’m (1972)
Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)

Roll 28 was 1575: R.S. Thomas: Poems. This being R.S. Thomas’s sole entry on the list.

The latter four of the five collections above were to be had at the local library and were pulled for me from deep, neglected storage. (They seemed to me a sufficient selection, seeing as the collected poems didn’t seem to be available anywhere in my vicinity.) I read most of them. Then I chanced across the earliest collection at a bookstore, bought it, read it, realized it clarified the others, decided I needed to start again. But didn’t. Then about a year passed (during which I renewed the four collections thirteen times – apparently the library has an unlimited renewal policy, at least for Welsh poetry). Then I read all of them over the course of about a week. Now a few more months have passed. Here we go.

Here’s a photograph of R.S. Thomas from the National Portrait Gallery:


This is a great portrait because it captures the tone and substance of the work exactly. The only essential thing missing is what he’s looking at with such apprehension. Though I suppose it’s implied. Yes, of course he’s looking at the cold Welsh landscape, the raw world and God’s silence, but first and most immediately, what he’s looking at are his weird rural parishioners.

The earliest work is basically the musings of a country priest who can’t help but notice that the flock he’s tending is made up of impenetrable, incurious, stunted people, people so ominously unlike him that his soul is troubled. The sequence of poems about the farmer “Iago Prytherch” essentially addresses the same question as American Gothic, but at its full weight: what are such opaque people thinking? Is it not terrifying to consider that they might be thinking nothing at all? Are they closer to the truth than we, or further from it?

(I feel like I should try to make a Western Canon callback to this work on a related theme but sadly, I hardly remember it. I guess there’s also a callback to be made to this one but I don’t want to.)

Thomas is haunted by the thought that his restless and philosophical mind (“the mind’s acid” is a phrase that recurs) might bar him from the real source, the solidity of the man who day after day does the same silent thing, out in a field. But such a man surely is missing out on something. Isn’t he? Isn’t he?

This seems to me as good a linchpin as any for a spiritual poetry about the meaning of life, which is more or less what I found here.


He was in the fields, when I set out.
He was in the fields, when I came back.
In between, what long hours,
What centuries might have elapsed.
Did he look up? His arm half
Lifted was more to ward off
My foolishness. You will return,
He intimated; the heart’s roots
Are here under this black soil
I labour at. A change of wind
Can bring the smooth town to a stop;
The grass whispers beneath the flags;
Every right word on your tongue
Has a green taste. It is the mind
Calling you, eager to paint
Its distances; but the truth’s here,
Closer than the world will confess,
In this bare bone of life that I pick.

If you read up on R.S. Thomas, you will quickly learn that there is a Welsh nationalist reading to be had, and that for most scholars – as well as, quite possibly, for the poet himself – the political reading is the primary one. But as you can imagine, that was of little interest to me. Thomas’s personal metaphysics are interwoven with the reality of Wales in a way that mine will never be; his politics are (like all politics) an arena for the expression of something else. So I tried to read for that something else. I feel pretty sure he was trying to write for it.

There were, admittedly, a whole series of poems that either tried to use Welsh myth overtly or else were explicitly political in their nationalism. I say “admittedly” because what I’m admitting is that I didn’t care about those and didn’t make much of an attempt. I felt like Thomas’s career-long drift toward greater abstraction and universality vindicated me.

The spiritual bewilderment of confronting a silent farmer, a person who stubbornly insists on remaining an object, an “it” in your field of awareness, is really just a crisis of loneliness. And it is in fact Thomas’s “mind’s acid” that creates this loneliness, not the opacity of the farmer. And he understands this, in time. In the later collections he cuts out the middleman; the poems become very directly about Man and Nature, God and his Creation, the terrible Machine of modernity, and above all: he himself, the poet. All informed by an expansive loneliness. But a loneliness without vanity.

Vanity I think is the thing I detest most in literature, art, or people, and certainly in poetry. It’s a kind of lie, and what are we here for if not honesty? Beauty, I know, but there’s no comfort for me in beauty contrived in defiance of truth.

I realize only now that I have never liked the two famous William Carlos Williams miniatures. “So much depends upon” is either all the wrong words, or a phony sentiment. In a poem of sixteen words, they should be the right ones. There is vanity here: why must so much depend on this? Why would we pretend to believe that so much depends on it?

Thomas writes a similar poem but in his, crucially, the phrase is “It is a matter of.” British, and without vanity. We can’t say what “it” is, only that we feel it to be a matter. It is a something. What is Williams expressing but the same thing in vain, aggrandizing, false terms?

Likewise the plums. “This is just to say” is not in good faith. A real icebox note doesn’t need to call itself “this,” to name its own humility “this is just.” “This” is to do more than just to say – it is to be something, a bit of unacknowledged self-regard. Vanity again.

Thomas is full of arrogance and self-regard, but it is all acknowledged. It is his subject and his burden. He does not derive real satisfaction from it, or believe in getting credit for it. Arrogance without vanity is entirely sympathetic to me; in fact it seems to me the correct and healthy state of mind.

“Arrogance without vanity.” Maybe that should go on my tombstone. Or as motto for this site, my living tombstone on the world wide web.

As someone in the process of trying to nurture the spirit by having less mind-acid and less commerce with The Machine, I found the essential problem here quite familiar, and the work entirely admirable and frequently affecting. But I think back to how I felt about The Seventh Seal (and Rilke) and feel something similar once again: this is the art of one who did not know a way out of what he describes. It is the art of problem, not of solution. Even in its acknowledgement of grace, of the unearned that transcends earning, all is still cast in terms of strain, risk, fragility, fatalism.

The first poem I encountered (because someone pasted it into an Amazon review) and perhaps the one that felt most valuable:


I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Yes, real wisdom is there. Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. And this past year I have found this poem inspiring, thought its tone correct. But now, having gone a bit deeper into my own process of relief, and also being on the point of returning R.S. to the stacks, I find myself questioning even this poem. The revelation here is presented in a context of desperation and regret: don’t get it wrong and pass it by like I keep doing! “I must give all that I have to possess it” is Christian but it is not enlightened even according to the poem itself. Or perhaps it is, but his religious faith and his work ethic are among the things he must give, and he isn’t prepared to mean that at all.

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. The real enlightenment would be for the poet to look up now, to turn aside like Moses not at some future moment of salvation, but now. But no, the poet R.S. must soldier on, ever straining for the answer, seeking the one true field. In his world, hope and fear are two sides of the same honorable coin. Neither joy nor despair have a proper place here; the only thing to do is keep the tightest possible grip on that coin.

Look what happened to this man:


The work is the record of the habits of thought that do this to you.

The gothic tragedy of the work is that it is quite obviously this business of poetizing that is killing him. Like in some Edgar Allan Poe story, it is the narration itself that is haunting the narrator. For God’s sake put down the pen!


That resigned look! Here I am,
it says; fifty-nine,
balding, shirking the challenge
of the young girls. Time running out
now, and the soul
unfinished. And the heart knows
this is not the portrait
it posed for. Keep the lips
firm; too many disappointments
have turned the mouth down
at the corners. There is no surgery
can mend those lines; cruelly
the light fingers them and the mind
winces. All that skill,
life, on the carving
of the curved nostril and to no end
but disgust. The hurrying eyes
pause, waiting for an outdistanced
gladness to overtake them.

For good and bad, it is all set-jaw poetry. It is run through and through with an ethos of strain that I am trying to transcend.

I am quoting a lot of it here because, yes, I liked it. I just want to be smart about how I like it. If these years of Western Canon reading have taught me anything, it’s that reading can be dangerous.


I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

He often drops the line breaks exactly where the thought most resists breaking, which I suppose can give a sense of momentum, emphasizing the magnetic pull that spans the gap. But again, even in rhythm, he aestheticizes resistance; even flow is an upstream battle.

To Thomas, even passivity is a form of strain. This one about sums it all up:


And I standing in the shade
Have seen it a thousand times
Happen: first theft, then murder;
Rape; the rueful acts
Of the blind hand. I have said
New prayers, or said the old
In a new way. Seeking the poem
In the pain, I have learned
Silence is best, paying for it
With my conscience. I am eyes
Merely, witnessing virtue’s
Defeat; seeing the young born
Fair, knowing the cancer
Awaits them. One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted.

Look at this! The BBC did a 90 minute radio drama with Jonathan Pryce as Thomas in 2009. I’d listen to that if I could find it.

Okay, I don’t need to renew these any more.

November 11, 2012

Disney Canon #42: Lilo & Stitch (2002)


BETH Okay, I will start.

BROOM Yeah, you’re the one who’s never seen it before.

ADAM And who had no idea at all, when this started, what it was about.

BETH I had no idea. I thought it was so unusual for Disney to have a movie that looked and was like this. The script was so strange. The script was great and it had nothing to do with anything Disney had ever done before.

BROOM It had to do with The Ugly Duckling.

BETH Okay. I guess I’m just thinking superficially.

ADAM It was so sad! I teared up multiple times.

BROOM It was really sad.

ADAM Her parents died in a car accident! There was a lot of social realism that we’ve never seen before and will never see again. This is like All Dogs Go to Heaven territory.

BROOM I’ve never seen that so I don’t know.

ADAM I’m kidding.

BETH It had more to do with the real world.

ADAM Yeah… except for the aliens.

BETH Of course it had aliens, but it had a social worker, it had Elvis… I mean, when have we ever acknowledged outside culture in a Disney movie? Never.

BROOM Is that true?

ADAM Well… What was that short? Set in old New York?

BROOM Alice Bluebonnet?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM But has there ever been a pop-culture reference like this? There were those weird Beatles vultures in The Jungle Book, but that was more like an inside joke. I don’t know why we’re talking about this. Yes.

BETH There’s never been anything as overt as Elvis.

BROOM The tone and spirit of the script was completely different from the norm, but in being about real emotions in the way that it was – which I think is so great – it was tied into the original Disney tradition. Essentially, this is the movie that I’ve wanted them to make, for the last thirty years of movies. And they only did it once. I don’t know why.

BETH Well, no, I think we can find examples.

BROOM But there’s a kind of…

ADAM … realism. And it’s really effective. But it’s effective in part because it’s paired with the surrealism of the aliens. It would be actually really depressing to watch a movie about a little girl whose family is rent apart by uncaring social workers. But the fact that there are aliens in it saves it from being too depressing.

BETH It felt like it was more the story of one person than of a team. All of the 90s movies felt like a bunch of people working on a concept together, and this felt like a very personal story that they managed to tell very well, I thought.

ADAM The Descendants, but with aliens.

BROOM Yeah, a little bit.

BETH It kinda was, kinda.

BROOM I mean, it was like E.T. but with Hawaii. And where the alien is the one learning things, instead of the kid.

ADAM It was really funny, though, in consequence. I thought all the jokes were really affecting. The interaction between the sisters was satisfyingly real but funny, in the way that the interaction between the family members in The Emperor’s New Groove was just alluding to. Remember we talked about how they had that jokey interaction?

BROOM I’m not going to knock The Emperor’s New Groove for not having been this; the tone there was different. But yes, this was – it’s just so obvious, watching it, that the feeling behind it is in good faith, and is not some kind of concocted simulacrum according to a formula like every other Disney movie’s sentiment in so long.

ADAM I thought it was great. I thought it looked really pretty but without being over-the-top beeeautiful.

BROOM It is beautiful. The backgrounds are all watercolor; I remember them being proud of that at the time, as they should be. And it’s a reference to their Ugly Duckling short – not part of our series – but when they look in that picture book, it looks like the 1939 Ugly Duckling Silly Symphony, and the backgrounds are all in that style. They haven’t used backgrounds like that since the 30s, and it gives it such a lush, human feeling.

BETH Also, the way the bodies were drawn was completely different from how they’d been treating women up until now.

BROOM Loving but not fetishized.

ADAM Huge legs.

BETH Yeah, but I feel like they were going for something realistic: very strong legs, unbalanced features, not completely proportionate.

BROOM There was a real spirit in all the designs. I thought it was particularly interesting when they had that Pamela Anderson lifeguard, and it was like they were saying “this is our version of a sexy body, within this worldview.” It wasn’t fetishistic. It was like the whole movie had a worldview, and nothing was going to break it.

ADAM I like that there’s all this Hawaiian dancing, and it seems like it’s going to be Disney orientalism, but actually they work at, like, a tourist resort. Which is satisfying, and felt legitimately what it would probably be like to live in the particular milieu of being working-class native Hawaiian.

BROOM Well, their house was pretty nice, until it got blown up.

BETH But it was small. I liked all the details of how the sister wasn’t keeping it together. I thought it was great.

BROOM I was feeling like it was one of the very very best – I may still feel that way – but I was thinking that this was a five-star masterpiece for the first two-thirds of the movie, and then once the house blew up, I felt like the denouement had a lot less conviction behind it.

ADAM It gets a little mawkish when he learns to speak English.

BROOM I think you get this effect in a lot of animated movies where they’re obligated to have the climax be climactic, and there’s a sense of exhaustion. I think they tend to leave that stuff until the end of the production, and it’s obligated to be hectic and to trump everything else, and it ends up feeling arbitrary. Here, so much attention had been lavished throughout on the little details, to allow the movie to be about little details, and then at the end it was like, “okay, we’re going to do some movie stuff so you know it’s an ending.” And I felt like the care dropped out of it a little. On the Little Mermaid commentary track, Alan Menken says it stresses him out to watch the end of the movie where the boat’s going around in the whirlpool, because he had to compose the cues in a crazy stressful rush.. and I think that’s going on in a lot of the final sequences of these movies. When the witch gets really big, turns into a dragon, whatever – those sequences often have a kind of grudging quality to them. And that’s what I felt here; some of the air came out at the end.

ADAM When the genie gets too big.

BROOM Actually, that’s one of the very best of those types of endings, the ending of Aladdin. But here, when they were chasing each other around in the spaceships at the end, it felt like “let’s just wrap this up, please.” But up until there it was on a much higher level.

ADAM I liked the personalities of Stitch’s alien pursuers.

BROOM I love that one of them is an obvious Dr. Seuss reference.

ADAM The skinny one?

BROOM Yeah, the little one, with the epaulettes for no reason and the little Dr. Seuss Adam’s apple.

ADAM But the big one seemed like a Rocky and Bullwinkle reference. He seemed like Boris and Natasha.

BROOM The Russian accent.

ADAM I like that the aliens all look like animals, and that they’re all horrified when they see Stitch revealed for the first time.

BROOM The whole setup is really good, and I was especially enjoying thinking of Beth watching it and having no idea where this movie was going or what the attitude of the movie was, as it was revealing itself.


BROOM And yes, as we said right before starting this recording, they really paid to get real Elvis songs.

BETH That had to be incredibly expensive.

BROOM It was built into the movie.

ADAM As a kid I loved the effect where you had animation but then you had a real photograph in it, which was an effect you got in both Tiny Toons and in Bloom County.

BROOM I don’t think it’s been done in one of these before, has it?

BETH It has not.

ADAM I loved it in both of those places and I was childishly tickled to see it here. Both when he watches the cartoon, and the photo of Elvis.

BROOM He in fact watches a non- cartoon. He watches the only thing that is not a cartoon.

ADAM Yes, he watches a disaster movie. Which is very much like a Tiny Toons joke. And maybe was an homage to that. So, thank you.

BROOM Just you wait for Chicken Little. So the character designs are thoughtful and interesting and satisfying, but the animation itself is some of the most fluid, loving animation we’ve seen in a long time. Especially coming after Atlantis.

BETH It seemed like an entirely different staff worked on this movie than worked on the past five. I mean, I liked The Emperor’s New Groove.

BROOM You know I think The Emperor’s New Groove is great.

ADAM But this is different.

BROOM This has real heart. This is something good for kids. Not that Emperor’s New Groove isn’t.

BETH But this is one that I feel like, “oh, I would want kids to watch this!”

BROOM I think the message is a really good one.

ADAM That’s why I say it all the time!

BROOM In fact, by being more specific than something like Bambi that just has very general ideas about family, it makes itself valuable. Here they’re saying, your family is a place where you understand each other, even though in the outside world…

ADAM I teared up when she said that she knew his parents must be dead because that’s why he breaks things. Aw.

BROOM And then that they made it his story. They’re struggling because they have a small family, but he’s struggling because he’s existentially abstract.

BETH He has no roots.

BROOM Which reminded me a little bit of this movie’s contemporary, A.I.

BETH Which I have not seen.

BROOM It’s very dark and it’s nothing like this. But that they made Stitch be the protagonist, even though he can’t be the protagonist by any normal rules. Because he’s a joke character.

ADAM I like that this is a movie set in Hawaii but the protagonist is not a clownfish.

BROOM What other movie is set in Hawaii, besides The Descendants?

ADAM Uh, probably Blue Hawaii with Elvis.

BROOM Now, is it accurate that everyone on Hawaii would just be able to surf? That doesn’t seem likely.

BETH No, they really do.

BROOM Even this ordinary teen girl would be able to surf like that?

BETH I think it’s common, yes.

ADAM Barack Obama can surf.

BROOM Can he?

ADAM I believe he can.

BROOM Did anyone else think about the birth certificate when they showed the official State of Hawaii document?


ADAM Which played such a crucial role in the movie.

BROOM Right.

ADAM The movie is great.

BETH It is. I don’t understand why your sister thinks it’s boring.

BROOM She doesn’t remember it. I think she might have been thinking of something else.

ADAM I actually did not remember any of the first twenty minutes, in space. I didn’t remember that that happened.

BROOM I did. I remember being sort of tickled by how unusual the movie was, at the time, but I don’t think I was as moved or as grateful as I was now. Maybe I just wasn’t as invested in what was going to happen to Disney. Or maybe I just didn’t realize that Disney was about to really lose it, yet again, so it didn’t seem so significant. But now it seems significant. I don’t know how they squeezed this one out; I don’t know how the guy whose idea this was – based on an idea by, and then he was a co-director – got this to happen. I don’t know how this movie happened, but it’s cool that it did.

BETH I’m glad it did, too. What year is this?

BROOM 2002.

ADAM All I really remembered about it was “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind.”

BROOM You’ve said it like four times in the course of the project, and it always seemed funny to me that you remembered it at all, because I didn’t remember that. But I do now.

ADAM And I remembered the hunky boyfriend and his fire-dancing routine. He was sort of a himbo, in a way that was endearing.

BETH He had fancy hair.

ADAM “She likes your butt and your fancy hair.”

[we read the review]

ADAM How strange that I made a Ving Rhames joke right before we started watching this.

BROOM Did you not know he was actually in it?


BROOM What did you say?

ADAM I said it starred Ving Rhames and Anne Hathaway.

BROOM Right before I restarted the recording, you said that that was a weirdly earnest review, but I think it was an earnest movie, in its private way.

ADAM There just weren’t a lot of pyrotechnics in the wording of that review.

BROOM I think A.O. Scott’s gotten bolder in recent years. His mean reviews now have some fire to them. Anyway, I think we agree that the review was right on.

ADAM I’d totally let my children watch it. It seems totally post-9/11.

BROOM Does it? What does that mean to you?

ADAM It has an emotional earnestness.

BETH But don’t you think they were developing it prior to 9/11?

ADAM Yeah, I know, I’m being silly.

BETH No, I like that we bring it up every time.

BROOM Well, this is the one to say it about.

ADAM If you had to guess which came before, and which came after: this, and The Emperor’s New Groove

BROOM Guys, let’s not forget Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

BETH Atlantis was nothing.

BROOM Now, Adam, it’s been a couple weeks since we saw Atlantis. Do you still feel that we were too hard on it?

ADAM Yeah. I just remember it being exciting.

BROOM All right. I was just curious.

ADAM All I can remember is the exciting visuals.

BROOM This one was like a feast for the eyes.

ADAM This was better. Of course this was better.

BETH So much better.

ADAM This was probably the best one after the classic ten. It’s the best non-classic one.

BETH I agree.

BROOM Honestly, while I was watching this, I was thinking…

BETH You think it might be “a classic”?

BROOM No, I think maybe I like it better than, like, Beauty and the Beast.

BETH So what are our top ten?

BROOM Thus far? Because let’s save some room for Brother Bear!

[We then proceed to try to make a list of ten, but after some consideration, I am omitting this section of the conversation because I deem it to have been premature (see below) and, more importantly, under-prepared. Our fuzzy memories of our own opinions diverge, arbitrarily and sometimes drastically, from our actual opinions as documented on this site. We will return to this exercise as a future date.]

BROOM I like how we’re doing a post-mortem because we feel like the true story is over and all that’s left is to claw our way through the rubble.

BETH Who knows, maybe Bolt will belong on there.

ADAM I’m actually really excited for Frozen.

BROOM How do you feel about Drop Dead Fred, or whatever? Wreck-It Ralph?

ADAM The title didn’t seem promising, but the previews and the posters that I saw looked pretty good.

BROOM I’m worried that it’s going to be too tied to actual video game characters and will feel commercial in a way that will grate.

ADAM I think it’s gonna be a lot like Toy Story.

BROOM Maybe, but Toy Story was… well, Mr. Potato Head was a real toy.

ADAM And Barbie. And the little green army men.

BROOM You’re right. But those things are all each several decades older than Mario. Just the idea of Mario showing up in this movie kind of creeps me out.

ADAM He’s probably too expensive.

BROOM Oh, no, he’s gonna be in there.

ADAM He is?

BROOM I’m pretty sure they’ve got Nintendo characters in there. It’s good business for everyone. Who doesn’t want to be in a Disney movie?

ADAM I’m just saying I think Frozen will be good. And I think that The King of the Elves will be good.

BROOM I don’t know enough about what those are.

ADAM I read the synopsis on Wikipedia of the story on which it’s based.

BROOM Well I am not un-looking forward to Treasure Planet. It could be fun.