Friday, January 05, 2007

Enjambement and R.S. Thomas

I'm reading Byron Rogers' new (2006) biography of R.S. Thomas, and though I've not quite reached the end and want to say more about the book as a biography, I've just read a fascinating, and to me exciting, section where Thomas is quoted on the development of his writing style during his last ministry in Aberdaron, where, as Thomas said, "My poetry underwent a change of style"..."I broke up the lines..." He mentioned in a letter "some people ...still nit-picking about my so-called lack of form"and goes on :"I wish they'd catch up."

His explanation of what he was about makes an immediate impression on me. "When I write, I'm listening with an inner ear to the way it sounds. I build the poem up like that. And if there's a word too many, it goes into the next line. But the thing is that I never really wrote them to be read out loud. There's a contradiction here: they may look artificial on the page, but they must sound right..."

The reason for my excitement about this? Ever since the Chrismas holiday of 1987, when, charged with making up the Practical Criticism paper for the Higher English Prelim exam, I chose Thomas' poem "Evans" as the text, I have been an avid reader of his poetry. Analysing that one poem in order to set questions on it drew me into a world where I felt at home, and influenced the style in which I would begin to write seriously. I didn't think about it at the time, but if you immerse yourself sufficiently in a poet's work, it obviously has an effect. And years later, when people had begun to read my stuff, I was asked why I used enjambement in the way I did.

My answer reflected, I now learn, the reaction of Byron Rogers to Thomas' poems: the run-overs (as he calls them) allow you to emphasise the words which come at the beginning of a line. Because I had no teacher, no mentor with me to discuss my writing, I felt shaken in this knowledge when others - including Edwin Morgan - asked me if this was something I really wanted to do. The implied answer was usually "no" - and for a while I have dabbled with metre and rhythm in a way which irritates me. Suddenly, I feel liberated.

Why am I writing this now? Because it pleases me to record it. An epiphany on the eve of Epiphany. And I'll be back on R.S.T. later .....


  1. Evans, you say? Ah! Many a time I came down his bare flight of stairs...

    The cover of your book is the picture I sat under for 4 years... blast from the past!

  2. See? I get a rare thrill when someone I've taught remembers some of it!

  3. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Hi Chris,
    I'm new to blogging, but I've found your blog refreshingly untechnical and interesting in a very human way.
    I'm not sure of the etiquette of comments. It feels a bit like barging into someone else's conversation, especially as, reading yours, you seem to know the people who leave comments here. Therefore I hope you will forgive the intrusion of a couple of questions.
    You may think me an ignoramus, but from what you've said I infer that you write poetry. Is it published? Can I read it?
    Happy New Year.
    PS I don't intend to be anonymous, but I can't get the comments to box to work.

  4. Anonymous11:23 AM

    I am Dorothy Coe and I do have a blog at edublogs. Sorry I can't get the comments box to work except by being anonymous.

  5. Hi, Dorothy! As regards "barging in" - I'm delighted to have you comment here. Duffy I know of old, but many of my contacts are from blogging, and I've met a few of them.
    You can find a sample of my poems at frankenstina but I have published two small collections which sell in a local shop or through me.
    Thanks for kind words, and happy Epiphany!

  6. My favorite use of enjambement is in the 2nd stanza of this William Carlos William's poem (it sounds so good read aloud) -

    To a Poor Old Woman

    munching a plum on
    the street a paper bag
    of them in her hand

    They taste good to her
    They taste good
    to her. They taste
    good to her

    You can see it by
    the way she gives herself
    to the one half
    sucked out in her hand

    a solace of ripe plums
    seeming to fill the air
    They taste good to her

  7. Sorlil - my next post is really a response to this, so I'll just say here that he did seem to have a thing about plums!

  8. Hi Chris. My name is Daniel Westover, and I am currently finishing a Ph.D. thesis on R. S. Thomas's style at the University of Wales, Bangor. I trace his stylistic evolution from his beginnings as a Georgian imitator all the way through his last volumes. I analyse all of his techniques, and among many other topics, I go into quite a lot of detail about his use of enjambement). I am submitting the entore thesis in September, and I would be happy to send you an electronic copy if you are interested.

  9. Daniel, that would be great! You can get me here:
    blethers (at)