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This review is taken from PN Review 81, Volume 18 Number 1, September - October 1991.

MONOPHONY R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Bloodaxe Books) £5.95

'Counterpoint' in music is the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies. The cantus firmus is a 'given' melody against which other melodies are set in counterpoint. Despite those Sanskrit poets, such as Ratnakara, who were able to write lines, and groups of lines, that could be read in two completely different ways, and despite James joyce's experiments, counterpoint can be applied only metaphorically to the verbal arts; one might speak, for example, of the way Milton sets Classical myths in counterpoint against what he regards as the world's one true story. In performance, the simultaneous combination of two or more voices speaking different words leads usually to the result that no set of words can be understood (even in music, we do not perceive all the voices of a two-, three-, or four-voice fugue simultaneously, in the sense that we give equal attention to each, but concentrate at different times on different voices as they emerge from the harmonic space they create to take the lead for a time). The cantus firmus of R.S. Thomas's new collection is the silence and absence of God, and the melody set in counterpoint against this silence is the poet's - and by extension, mankind's - voice. So that there is only a single voice.

One thinks of words, as the writer of the blurb has, like 'austere', 'pared-down' and 'essentials'. One thinks of the word 'simplicity', and one remembers a poet like George Herbert, who is anything but simple, ...


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