Poet's Pick April 10
Edward Thomas: "Adlestrop"
Selected by Dick Allen
National Poetry Month 2017

Letter from the Editors

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Editors


Dick Allen's Poetry Month Pick, April 10, 2017

"Adlestrop"
by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)


Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

 

        

* Dick Allen Comments:
       Some poems are instantly memorable.  Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop” is such a poem.
       And yet. . . although I first came across the poem in my early twenties, it kept slipping away from me.  I remembered that the poem took place in England, that there was a train station stop, that nothing actually “happened” in the poem.  I remembered, too, that there were delicious sounds of English place names.
       Most of all, I remembered that whenever I read the poem I was deeply moved by it, brought close to weeping by—how shall I say this—by its presence.
       And yet, down the years, I neglected to remember the poem’s title and author.  Again and again I’d come across the poem in an anthology, be deeply moved, and then forget its title and author.
       How strange.
       I think, only now, it was because I didn’t want to look at the poem too closely; because I wanted only to note, with its author, what I’d just happened upon and then move on. . . as if I was on that train, looking out, having a sort of experience I couldn’t explain and just wanted to let be.
       I’m remembering now Philip Wylie’s admonition in Generation of Vipers that one should never return to a place one has loved, because that will ruin the memory of the first time there.
       It’s similar to Wylie’s advising readers not to take photographs of such places, because they’d soon remember not the experience, not the place, but the photograph of the place.
       However, now that I’ve found the poem again (I typed “train station” plus “England” plus “poem” into my computer’s search engine) and now that I’m finally making myself examine Thomas’s poem closely, I see he’s captured a situation I’ve most likely been subconsciously mirroring. 
       Embarrassed by what can be taken as too strong an experience of what might be called sentiment, the mind may deliberately try to downplay all but the outlines of such an experience.

       Thomas’s poem is utterly casual, conversationally off-handed (part of this is in deliberate revolt against Victorian poetry):  “Yes, I remember Adlestrop—its name.”
       Why?
       Well, there really wasn’t any real reason to remember this tiny town and its train station platform:  “No one left and no one came.”  The platform was devastatingly ordinary, bare.
       Everything around, too, was absolutely usual:  “willows, willow-herb, and grass” and “meadowsweet and haycocks.”  It was a place “still and lonely” as cloudlets.
       As if preternatural?
       Then—the poem experience being like the experience of looking at an Asian landscape painting, one where the perspective so changes from the mountain hut or the tiny figure on the bridge to the high cloudy mountains and sky beyond—then, simply, abruptly, in all this stillness,
 
       a blackbird sings

       and then there are other birds singing, there is a sudden perception of all the other birds, almost all the other birds in the universe, singing.

       But then the perception’s gone in the proverbial instant.  As always, the mundane returns.
       Into the poem’s closure comes the particular again, this time those wondrous names set up by the previous trochaics, the lovely liquid iambic “Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”

       I want to say the last line again aloud, to feel it on my tongue:  “Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”

       What has happened is a moment of epiphany (as the Western world would put it) or a coming closer (as the Eastern world might say) to the experience of nirvana or satori.  A seeing through the glass darkly.
       And the poem’s closure, its abrupt slide from transcendence back into the ordinary, is similar to what happens in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge” (“One thing then learnt remains to me,— / The woodspurge has a cup of three”) and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” after the transformation of “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go.”).  In Japanese literature, the term is mono no aware, the bittersweet sadness at things passing, such as often found in Takashi Murakami’s stories.

       I’m back to that presence now.  What I remembered from the poem, what I think accounts for it being a favorite of so many, is the experience it renders of—I’m almost embarrassed to make such a claim for such a modest-seeming poem—the inexpressible.  Unlike as it is in high-pitched, difficult, self-conscious and complex art, “Adlestrop” communicates a momentary breakthrough of intuiting, simply. It’s like looking up from a cup of Earl Gray tea to realize you’re staring into the face of God.  You shake your head and God’s gone.  Simple to express, easy to parody, but nonetheless it happened.
       “Adlestrop” is one of the best examples in English-language poetry of poetry’s extraordinary way of not only knowing but revealing the ordinary as extraordinary.

       Thomas was indeed on a train that made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop (now, although the train station is gone, there’s a sign that says “Adlestrop” and a bus stop waiting bench and a plaque with the poem on it there).  He took notes of what he experienced looking out the train window.  A few of the images from these notes got imported into the poem.  He was on his way to see his good friend, Robert Frost.
       Philip Edward Thomas was killed during the Battle of Arras, in World War I, in April, 1917.


Dick Allen:
Dick Allen has had poems in most of the nation’s premier journals including Poetry, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Hudson Review, New Republic, Tricycle, American Scholar, Ploughshares, Margie, Plume, and New Criterion, as well as in scores of national anthologies. He has published nine poetry collections and won numerous awards including a Pushcart Prize, the Robert Frost prize, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Ingram Merrill Poetry Foundation, and The New Criterion Poetry Book Award for his collection, This Shadowy Place, published by St. Augustine’s Press in 2014. His poems have been included in six of The Best American Poetry annual volumes. His collection, Present Vanishing: Poems received the 2009 Connecticut Book Award for Poetry. Allen’s poems have been featured on Poetry Daily and Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, as well as on  the national website of Tricycle, where he’s been the guest poet writing on Zen Buddhism and poetry. Allen was the Connecticut State Poet Laureate from 2010-2015.  His newest collection, Zen Master Poems, appeared from the noted Buddhist publishing house, Wisdom, Inc., distributed by Simon & Schuster, in Summer, 2016.


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