To a young poet
For the first twenty years you are still growing
Bodily that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It’s the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you,
When love has changed to a grave service
Of a cold queen.
From forty on
You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
Of poems that have come to pieces
In your crude hands how to assemble
With more skill the arbitrary parts
Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
A new impulse to conceal your wounds
From her and from a bold public,
Given to pry.
You are old now
As years reckon, but in that slower
World of the poet you are just coming
To sad manhood, knowing the smile
On her proud face is not for you.
I realized the other day that this site is yet to include a single poem by R.S. Thomas – an omission I simply had to set right.
I love this poem not only because it’s such a wonderful and wise description of the patience and dedication that the pursuit of poetry requires, but because over the years, it’s become a kind of personal touchstone, a talisman of a poem that I turn to for comfort each time I read poems I wrote ten years ago and find myself embarrassed by them, or every time I consider how little I’ve achieved as a poet at 28 and wonder if it’s all really worth it.
It would be easy to find counter-examples to Thomas’ central thesis here – Keats springs to mind, as does Rimbaud – but for every boy genius that you can think of there are dozens of perfectly respectable poets who arrive at their best poems after years of apprenticeship to the craft. These are not, perhaps, the great poets of the age, they are the people who will turn out, in their entire lifetime, a dozen, or perhaps only a half dozen truly brilliant poems, and whose collected works, coming in at a little under 200 pages, will be the kind of book that you borrow from the library, read through with pleasure and have forgotten a month later.
There was a time when the prospect of being one of these poets would have depressed me – today it is an aspiration. And it’s precisely this knowledge – this idea that what matters is not whether poetry is loyal to us but whether we are loyal to poetry – that Thomas’ poem celebrates. And to see it expressed so simply and yet so eloquently is something that those of us who know we are not Keats, not Byron, not Rimbaud, can only feel grateful for.
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