Poet's Pick April 1
Edward Thomas: "Like the Touch of Rain"
Selected by Gibbons Ruark
National Poetry Month 2016

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Editors


Gibbons Ruark's Poetry Month Pick, April 1, 2016

"Like the Touch of Rain"
by Edward Thomas (1878–1917)

Like the touch of rain she was
On a man's flesh and hair and eyes
When the joy of walking thus
Has taken him by surprise:

With the love of the storm he burns,
He sings, he laughs, well I know how,
But forgets when he returns
As I shall not forget her 'Go now'.

Those two words shut a door
Between me and the blessed rain
That was never shut before
And will not open again.

 

* Gibbons Ruark Comments:
During the years in which I knew James Wright, I heard him say more than once, "Horace is my master, but I love Edward Thomas above all poets." I heard Wright give a reading once at which he was expected to read his own poems. Instead he said by heart, beginning to end, poems by poets he loved. "Like the Touch of Rain" was one of those poems, and after saying it Wright said, "I would rather have written that poem than go to Heaven." What is it about the poem that makes it so powerful? For Wright, of course, it was partly the desolation of the speaker's plight and in his voice, which would be echoed in poems of his own like the riveting "Speak" from Shall We Gather at the River. But I think it was for him, as it must be for all of us, also the extraordinary "rough" music of the poem. Its single tense half-rhyme, its irregular stresses and odd syllable count (as many as nine in line 8 and as few as six in line 9) make it a living thing. Emily Dickinson once replied to Thomas Higginson, who had called her verse spasmodic, "You think my gait 'spasmodic' -- I am in danger -- Sir" What is telling here is that in informing her correspondent why he might find her verse irregular, she flings back at him, not without humor, I think, two almost entirely regular iambic lines. One more bit of evidence, if it were needed, that she was not a lucky primitive naif but a supremely gifted and profoundly intelligent poet who knew exactly what she was doing. Because Edward Thomas spent nearly all of his working life writing prose for the marketplace and, encouraged by Robert Frost, turned to poetry only three years before his early death, some readers have seen him as having more of a poet's soul than a poet's touch. But they are wrong. In teaching "Like the Touch of Rain" over the years, I eventually "revised" it in a way which pretty much regularized its music but drained it of its force, so I could say to my students, "If I can do that as a classroom gimmick, surely Edward Thomas could have done it had he wanted to." But he didn't. He gave us the sound of a man's voice speaking in distress by means of a masterful roughening of his chosen form, and thus we have this beautifully heartbreaking poem.


About Gibbons Ruark:
Gibbons Ruark will launch the Irish printing of The Road to Ballyvaughan (Jacar Press, 2015) on April 7th in Dublin. His eight earlier volumes include Staying Blue (2008) and Passing Through Customs (1999). The recipient of a number of awards for his work, he lives with his wife Kay in his birthplace of Raleigh, North Carolina.


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