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This review is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

KNOWING AND NOT KNOWING R.S. Thomas, Welsh Airs (Poetry Wales Press) £3.95
Sheenagh Pugh, Beware Falling Tortoises (Poetry Wales Press) £3.95
Gladys Mary Coles, Leafburners (Duckworth) £4.95

Welsh Airs, a selection of R.S. Thomas's poems about Wales, consists of a number of well-known poems from his earlier collections, a notable recent long poem, 'Fugue for Ann Griffiths', and thirteen other new poems. The 'we' of some of these poems - for example, 'We were a people, and are so yet', or 'Despite our speech we are not English' - is resonant, but R.S. Thomas is not essentially a poet who speaks with or, in that way, for others, but one whose quarrel is with himself and I do not think he is well served by this abstraction of his more impersonal or prophetic utterances about the condition of Wales from his body of work. A general weakness of his poems addressed explicitly to the Welsh is their grounding on a mythical history that dehumanizes people. Thus, his recurrent image of Wales as a dead carcass produces, in 'Toast': 'The stench, travelling on the wind/out of the west, was the lure for more/flies, befouling our winding-sheet/with their droppings'. Good poems can be made out of negative feelings, and R.S. Thomas has made some, but contempt for Anglicized Wales, with a corresponding idealization of 'inhabitants of the parish and speakers/of the Welsh tongue', gives rise to his most external writing. In fact, many different feelings, negative and positive, define his relationship to Wales, which is also the ground of the tension in him between love of nature and the via negativa, and at best he is aware of ...


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