Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Lost Thomson Poem Found

Amazing! A lost poem from cult Scottish iconoclast and poet, R.D. Thomson (1923-67), has been recovered from a torn A5 sheet of paper stuck between the covers of an old housewives’ manual on a Edinburgh charity shop bookshelf. A customer was leafing through the book and discovered the yellowing manuscript.

It would have marked a radical new direction for Thomson who abandoned poetry in 1953 to concentrate on his cardboard-abstract installations, which he exhibited to coincide with heavy rainfall, that way ensuring a necessary transience. The poem is dated 1967 and could have been written shortly before Thomson’s suicide that year. The author’s favoured themes are all present – liquid, late capitalism and latent violence – but the writing, while avant-garde for its time, is more compressed and less centred on himself than Thomson’s earlier experiments with the onomastic school.

Here is the poem, which is, as you would expect, without title:

steel gothick, penthouse lagging, this means

bones cooking on the stove beans to sludge

ex tempore coercion the hour of pinafore

off colour shotgun aimless and fragile

spend drift water spill banks of mount caramel

halfway between hubris and superego

trickle down the blossoming weed and root

cannibals kill for scrapings from sugar planes

pink depression a working pipe immaterial

hey mac shoot me shoot me in a frame baby

self consciousness becomes you takes flight

clear case of towelling institutional hidrosis

It seems that a certain Barbara G. McCreadie of the Scottish Literature Project has already condemned the poem as “obscure, pointless and enough to put any child off reading poetry for life.” She’s obviously missed the playfully ironic switches of tone and register, the subtle connections and echoes between the fragmented images and, most of all, the searing relevance the poem has in these days of recession, protest and credit crunch. And the final line is a killer.


Ben Wilkinson said...

In the nick of time, Rob. Nice.

Colin Will said...

Ah, good old "RD". I remember him from when I was a barman in the old North British Hotel. He would alight from the Glasgow train and take the lift to the NB's foyer, then pop in to the corner bar for a half pint of shandy in his custamry tankard. Sitting down the Glasgow Herald, he would make extraordinary noises behind the rustling newspaper. He told me he was inventing performance poetry, but I didn't understand it then.

Anonymous said...

My Wilkinson, I note that subtle allusion to Thomson's work with "nice", the most common word in his poetic lexicon. Thomson, as you know, refused to deploy it with irony, which earned him scorn from the mainstream critics of his day.

Mr Will, if you consult issue 5 of the long defunct Scottish Modern Review, which was given over to an appreciation of Thomson's achievement, you'll find that the newspaper in question was not the Glasgow Herald but the Sunday Post, where Thomson's brother 'DC' was chief literary critic.

RD Thomson's appointment as the Post's inaugural (and, as far as I know, only) poet-in-residence was said by some to have been purely the result of this connection, but I never believed that myself.

Mr Mackenzie, the key to the poem is in the double-spacing, the unsaid and indeterminate, the resolute inadequacy of words to delineate reality. The fact that you appear to have overlooked this crucial aspect betrays a superficial understanding of Thomson's work and does not bode well for your future as poet or critic. You ought to refresh your memory of Thomson's vision by re-reading Edgar Schunz's groundbreaking essay, 'Dead Walrus or Watermark', which you will find somewhere in the Scottish Poetry Library's lower basement.


Colin Will said...

DCT: I'm grateful for your mention of Scottish Modern Review. Its editor, N.A.N. MacLehose, was also an habituè of the NB, where his predeliction for pink gins and a sometimes indiscreet use of eyeshadow at times caused merriment, until the toilet attendant was obliged to intervene. My, the laughs we had! Does the current Scottish literary scene still boast characters as kenspeckle as these two?

Rob: Aplogies for the inadequate proof-reading of my previous comment.

Ben Wilkinson said...

"My Wilkinson"?! I really must insist, DCT, that I am nobody's Wilkinson but my own (and barely that, it must be said).

I'm glad that the irony isn't lost on you, however, as it so often was on RDT.

Anonymous said...

This was only the first draft of course. Lord Gorbals, mama's very great friend from her time in Scotland when working directly for Her Majesty as a special representitive of the palace poetry dept, kept the later notebooks that weren't shredded and gave them to me when I was elevated to the upper chamber on inheriting the estate.

Thomson is a very interesting, if somewhat minor figure in Socttish poetry. Sir John Betjamen, Auden, Hughes, Motion and Larkin, (to some degree), being the most influential figures to have affected Scottish poetry - in the 20C at least.

Steel bones and superego, gun-shot gothic
penthouse stove - halfway drift and hubris
scraping, lagging aimless trickles down.
Water frames devoid of meaning, coral
beans which turn to sludge, ex tempore
off colour towelling, consciousness in hydrosols.
The hour upon us fragile working, spills clear
weed kill root and mount, caramel becomes
coercion, pinafores on cannibals. Blossoming
banks of pink pipe sugar, shoot you down
depression comes, the self takes flight round
mac you mac me, the institution’s baby dolls.
Case to see, this RD Thompson’s immaterial.

A very interesting set of notebooks, journals and diaries Thomson left. Mother used to visit him towards the end and out a few bob his way, naturally as Her Majesty servant, this charity and deep concern for the commoners was in-bred and RD was very grateful for the kindness our family showed him. Very nice chap. If only he'd been born South of the border, he might have stood a chance. Gordan Brown for example, done marvelous things as an English patriot, absolutely super chap.

carepote - word verification, I care chaps.


Anonymous said...

My favourite of his is the early one beginning:

As hulking bampots queer my pitch
By lamplight, lord, I wax and wince ..

Much missed.


Roddy said...

That was a rare foray into tetrameter, Andy - and most likely satirical. My favourites are his nature poems, especially the sequence of forty poems all called simply 'Fortrose'. Thomson spent about twenty five minutes in the town in 1959 (commonly agreed to be the most poetic year of the century) and felt aggrieved that his (other) brother NJ (Norrie) insisted on moving on them to Inverness in search of 'better chips and young women who had heard of America'.

The best of them is Fortrose (14) which famously begins:

grampus sentinel animus thermometer

o' bile salt catheter coast numina

charge negat(or) loose loop tub

ampule in empire excorious who tamp

Anonymous said...

All so interesting for those of us to whom RDT's legend has seemed so elusive. Colin, maybe StAnza could do a Past & Present on him next year? I believe there's a film coming out about him in January, staring David Tennant (or was it Billy Connolly?), so that might fit in "nicely", as RD himself would have said - without irony.

BarbaraS said...


oh, of course!

Trig strikes again...