Book Review: Too Brave To Dream – newly discovered poems by R.S. Thomas

Too Brave To Dream - Poems by R.S. ThomasThe poet R.S. Thomas passed away in 2000, and two books on modern art were discovered in his library, with previously unseen poems inserted between the pages. Too Brave To Dream: Encounters With Modern Art brings these poems together for the first time, alongside the images themselves. The poems are varied, short and impressionistic, similar in style to the ekphrastic work published during his lifetime. They are surreal, reflecting the appearance of the art he is writing about, but they are also intriguing in their own way.   

The poems give quick, immediate reactions to each image, as if R.S. Thomas were flicking through the pages of these books, writing down whatever thoughts leapt into his mind and leaving them there, unaltered, in a raw state. I particularly like one which responds to Toyen’s Hlas lesa (The Voice of the Forest II) which begins,

“Owl, you cry,
then pause, sensing
the lack of talons,
beak gone, the hollows
where eyes should have been.”

Some of the poems are so brief (just 6 or 7 lines) that you wonder if he intended to go back and re-work them or add to them at a later stage, whilst others appear to contain multiple layers of meaning in just a few lines. A few stand out, written in a different style to the others, such as one written in response to George Grosz’s Restaurant Scene (which Thomas would have known under the title Table-talk). The poem is a collage of competing voices, echoing the modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ style, so that it is not clear exactly what is said or thought, or by whom.

It is also one of several poems which examine the uneven relationship between men and women, alongside a questioning of art itself. Thomas highlights the voyeuristic nature of art, particularly in his response to La prisonnière by Paul Delvaux:

“Art’s one prurience
is to be voyeur of a future
in which time is sheathed
as our glance is in her vagina.”

His poem in response to Edvard Munch’s House in Aasgaardstrand references the eternal presence of war, even in an apparently peaceful landscape. A covert “underground” group hide “in the corner” as if they know that a future “Gestapo” will one day hunt them out. Other poems also reference war, alongside Biblical references, and those written in response to work by Yves Tanguy are particularly bleak and post-apocalyptic:

“Yes, I suppose
that is all
that could be left:
an undulating plain
silent as
a graveyard with tree
stumps for head stones”

We can hear the self-assured voice of R.S. Thomas in these words, the direct “Yes” intimating a conversation between artist and poet, as if the artist presents his view of the world, and the poet agrees.

The poet himself is visibly present in other poems too, as if he were writing not just about the art but also about the act of looking. He wrote two poems in response to Derain’s Portrait of the Artist, both of which interrogate the notion of ‘self’ and representation, using phrases such as “muddying the distinction” and ending each poem with a confusion between artist and artwork. One of the poems ends with the lines:

“a face appeared to be soon
gone, tantalising him with
the memory of recognition.”

The book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into the thoughts and writing processes of an accomplished poet who, late in life, was seeking inspiration, attempting to uncover meaning and wrestling with anxiety. The editors (Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies) have written a detailed introduction, revealing the context in which these poems were written, during a time of uncertainty and self-reflection after R.S. Thomas had retired from his work as a parish priest.

There are some intriguing details, such as the fact that the artworks in Thomas’s books had all been reproduced in black and white, which makes you wonder whether he ever saw the full colour versions. The poems were all handwritten, mainly without titles, and it is interesting to see the few examples where he wrote more than one poem in response to the same image. Was he trying again? And which poem came first? We’ll never know.

The voice of R.S. Thomas comes through clearly in these poems – a strong, confident voice, but also a questioning voice. A voice which still speaks, though the poet himself is long gone. He was clearly drawn to the surrealist’s view of the world – distorted, sometimes frightening and dream-like, yet blunt and unashamed.

Too Brave To Dream: Encounters With Modern Art is published by Bloodaxe Books

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The two books on modern art (both edited by Herbert Read) were Art Now (1933 / 1948) and Surrealism (1936).

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Too Brave To Dream – newly discovered poems by R.S. Thomas

  1. Too Brave to Dream. I have recently bought this book edited by Tony Brown and Jason W Davies and have enjoyed it. As many of the poems are short and the pictures are so well produced it makes a pleasant addition to an R S Thomas collection.

    We hope it will be on sale at the R S Thomas Literary Festival & Poetry Competition 15,16,17 September.

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