Like many of R.S.Thomas’s poems, this one is somewhat bleak and perhaps a little extreme, in, for example, the idea that nothing written in a poet’s twenties will cause the poet anything but shame later on. Keats and Wilfred Owen died at twenty-five, Keith Douglas at twenty-four, and while I am all for standards, to suggest that they, had they lived, would of necessity come to disown even their better efforts seems to me to be setting the bar a little high. But of course, the poem could be intended to be read as a soliloquy in which the poet is specifically addressing his younger self, in which case fair enough.
Either way, from a professional point of view I find it a very interesting poem, and I much admire its reticent and self-critical spirit, and its implied willingness to destroy work that does not come up to scratch. I know that some poets keep everything they ever write: drafts, variants, even rejects. I find this slightly horrifying. We have no duty to supply grist to the academic mills. Squeeze, scrap, burn, kill, say I. Did any poet ever regret destroying a poem? I doubt it. If there’s really something wanting to be said it will come back sooner or later in another and perhaps truer form. But did any poet ever regret not destroying a poem? I suspect that the Elysian fields are full of poets wandering about, oblivious of the asphodel, and muttering to themselves: ‘Crass incompetence… what on earth was I thinking of…’ My personal practice from time to time is to burn my accumulated rejects in the garden at midnight under a full moon, then cover the ashes with three spadefuls of earth. My wife says she sometimes wonders what she married. I don’t understand this at all. Some people turn into werewolves; I just like to be thorough.
Anyway, over to R.S.Thomas…
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.