restricted access The Academy Reading Series Featured Poet: R. S. Thomas
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

48 The Academy Reading Series Featured Poet R. S. Thomas The work of R. S. Thomas, Welsh poet and Anglican minister, born in 1913 and, therefore, like his American contemporary Kenneth Rexroth, a bit of a throwback to pre-­ Modern standards and sensibilities, was first introduced to me by my teacher, the late Bert Meyers. I had just returned to Los Angeles from Japan at the time and was on my way to Michigan for graduate school. I had only meant to phone Bert before I got on the plane to Detroit the next day. But Bert had not accepted my excuses, would not allow me to beg off a visit, and had shamed me into making the long, hot drive to his house in Claremont by talking about how it was known that the T’ang poets of China would ride six days on horseback and mule just to read each other their new work. He knew well my love for Chinese poetry and my desire for a sense of tradition and continuity in my life. He also knew how to appeal to my sense of guilt and challenge. “So, my young friend, if Tu Fu can ride a leaky junk down the Yellow River to pay his respects to Li Po, and if Johann Bach could walk over a hundred miles on his Easter vacation to knock on the door and introduce himself to Buxtehude, then surely a Japanese American like you can drive a Chevy through mere smog and heavy traffic to see a poor and lonely Jew.” Bert was right. I owed him homage and still needed to be taught something. What he taught me was the poetry of R. S. Thomas. When I arrived in the midafternoon, Bert answered the door and immediately sat me down at the dining table where he normally faced me for these sessions. He pushed a stack of books toward me, which fanned out across the table like a deck of outsized cards. 49 “You see these books?” he asked. “These are the best books of poetry I’ve read in English in a long time. They are so good I almost can’t believe anyone who is an Anglo composing in English wrote them.” He raised himself so he was sitting erect. “They should have been written by a Spaniard, or an Arab, or a Turk, or maybe one of your holy Japanese country Buddhists. Somebody who understands beauty and oppression, somebody with heart, with a gifted tongue, and a good deal of wise doubt. It should have been a Jew!” Bert rose from his seat and stamped his foot for emphasis. “Except he has too little irony!” he shouted. Since I neither laughed nor appeared appropriately shocked for his satisfaction, Bert raised a forefinger into the air, the way the Buddha is said to have done at birth, proclaiming himself the world-­ honored one, and grabbed one of the books. I remember how blue its covering was, how handsomely it was bound with a rounded spine, and how, compared to American books, it was just undersize. “Listen to this, Garrett,” he demanded, “and you might become almost as wise as a Jew—­ or, in this case, a Welshman !” And he laughed that needling giggle, his teeth clamped over his tongue, eyes fixed on me to see if he’d accomplished the effect he wanted. He had. I was listening as if I were Ananda. Bert read a short poem out loud and praised it for its music, its cadence, its control of tone and its focus of emotion. Then he read another, praising its form and spare but expert use of rhyme. “This is a poet who understands tragedy,” he said, “who understands loss and living through it without bitterness, without stridency and self-­ proclaimed high school tough-­ guy heroics .” Bert was speaking against some of my infatuations and some of my worries. He knew I cared about real political issues and wanted literature to address them, wanted that my own poetry should be able to address them. He also knew I sought a poetry of history. And, I’m guessing, now some fifteen years after this meeting, he thought he’d found it for me. He gave me a great gift, and he underscored it with his own authority as my teacher and his own conviction as a poet. “I hear Yeats here,” Bert said. “This R. S. Thomas has appreciated and studied Yeats well, internalized and...

  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access