The Greatest Poet You’ve Never Read

Taking a break from some of the serious, and perhaps dry, material of the past week (not that today’s piece has a lot of yucks), with another post commemorating National Poetry Month.

“Greatest” is a highly subjective term (and I am assuming that most are unfamiliar with this poet) but I am taking my cue here from Lawrence Durrell, a great writer himself, known for the Alexandria Quartet, who once said,

I have read “The Black Angel” and would give five years of my life to have written it. If Thompson wrote other poems as explosive and majestic as this one, he would rank amongst the greatest spiritual poets in English. And not just in this god-forsaken century, either.

Well, the poet in question did write other poems as good as “Black Angel”, a long piece which begins with these lines:

One day that black and shining angel who
Haunted my nights in Arles and at Ajmeer,
Monster of beauty loud with cruel gems,
I shall encounter in some lane at noon
Where painted demons have struck dumb the walls.

Lewis Thompson was born in 1909 in England. Early in his life he was introduced to Buddhism and began to read Eastern scriptures. He did not attend a university, instead he schooled himself, with a particular focus on anthropology and psychoanalysis. According to Richard Lannoy, who edited Thompson’s lone collection of poetry,

Thompson believed that in the West all was distorted and fragmentary, while in the East he could find what was clear, classical, and complete. He wished to travel to the East and was given money for the fare to Ceylon by Sir Arnold Wilson, a Persian explorer, who took pity on Thompson.

He left England in 1932 and traveled to India where he lived for the remainder of his life. Lannoy says that he “wandered the country living off of what others would give him in the form of food and lodging.” In 1936 Thompson entered into an intimate relationship with a guru named Jnani, or “Man of Knowledge”, which lasted for seven years. Following that, Thompson lived at the Rajghat School in Benares where he was writer-in-residence and employed as a librarian.

In Thompsons final years he battled a number of chronic health problems. For a while, he received some financial support from G. D. Birla, a businessman who was also a friend of Mahatma Gandhi’s. In fact, Gandhi was staying at Birla’s home when he was assassinated in 1948.

Thompson’s died alone in his room on June 23, 1949 from the effects sunstroke. He was 40. In addition to poetry, he also wrote a prose book, however none of his work was published during his lifetime.

As a poet, Lewis Thompson has been compared to Blake and Rimbaud. The latter was a considerable influence on not only his style but also his entire approach to writing. I was completely awe-struck when I first encountered Thompson’s poetry in the late ‘90s. It was an experience similar to the one I had reading Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, one of the greatest novels of the last century, some twenty years before, and then later, the work of Cormac McCarthy. In each case, I thought, this guy is so good, how can I or anyone possibly write anything after this? Truly powerful writing can make everything else seem like the work of rank amateurs.

Thompson’s poetry may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It can be dark, the imagery shattered and shifting, arcane. Yet he produced frequently lyrical and exquisitely beautiful works.

Here are several poems from the collection, Black Sun, edited by Richard Lannoy:

The Myth is Killed

The daylight burns itself away –
But endlessly – in a pure void;
The lusty leaves put forth in it
Live less than withered, more than dead.

All purposes, shrunk to a point
And vanished, leave nobody here –
Only a burnt-out thread of dream,
Not snapped, not binding, ripe and sere.

None ever crossed the phantom bridge,
The rainbow, or the razor-edge:
They fell who though it real, or reached
A heaven of new bewilderments.

The trammel snaps, the rainbow melts,
The dour edge sharps itself away:
None travelled there: the myth is killed –
The dream of nights, the dream of day.

Astral

All night the meteors fall –
Blossoms of future music . . .
In ships becalmed
Mirrored,
By sleeping birds.

My memories haunt the moment of my birth
And leave me nude:
Like bees in honey they forget themselves.
I walk the world in which I do not die –
Tombless, with no authentic name.

Banaras

Pure winter sun the deft and lyric light . . .
River-boats idle on the dancing wave
Laced with a ripple net of swarming fire.
Sheathed in incessant lightnings as he bathes
A jasper boy echoes the sparkling air,
The laughing mirror of water and of wind.

And as more northerly cold hardens in sheaves
Of crystal creaking like hyacinth, the bright
Fathomless atmosphere, tuned about sound
By countless sparking facet’s interplay,
Builds like the centre of a gem a spire
Crisper than frost and richer than a crown,
A carven pinnacle to house a god.

Giant causeways bear his immeasurable gait:
The implacable dancer lighted in all eyes. –
Dark with excess of splendor, like a flame
Transparent in the sun; bull-dense, adroit
With adamantine joy; his drenching gaze
Chilling with rapture whom it lights upon;
Pure calm and pure caprice – brute meteor
Blinding at noon the still, ethereal blaze.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Greatest Poet You’ve Never Read

  1. Lovely to read your comments about Lewis Thompson and his work. He was my relative. I am an artist and book illustrator so maybe inherited his love of drawing although not his amazing writing talent.

      1. Information about Lewis Thompson has only recently been discovered by my parents as a result of researching the family tree so it has been very interesting for us to read your thoughts and praise of his work. I just wish I might have met him. So sad that he died so young.

        1. Kim, I am honored that you and your family find my remarks on Lewis Thompson interesting. Until recently, “Black Sun” was the only book of his work that was available to the public. I noticed while preparing this post that there are now a couple of other books. Now that more is available, hopefully more people will able to discover him.

          While his early death is sad, I find his life itself to be rather romantic, from what little I know about it. He did what I fantasized about doing myself when I was a youth, but never got around to doing as an adult.

          By the way, since you mentioned that you were an artist, I googled your name and discovered your website. I’m very impressed. Your work is stunning. How on earth do you manage to get those big cats to stand still long enough to have their portrait painted?

          1. Hi David,
            Well those big cats take some training to get them to pose for a painting and there’s a lot of bribing with cat treats and the odd Impala steak. I also learnt taxidermy at art school and that comes in handy…..

            I do hope that Lewis Thompson’s poems become better known and appreciated. I am only just beginning to read and enjoy them although I must confess that they are sometimes challenging and beyond my understanding. Certain lines are very beautiful and some of his prose is wonderful.
            I guess his early death does lend a romance to his life although I think it must have been tough especially as his work received little recognition. I have never been to India but having read some of his poems and now that I know how much he loved the country I am intrigued to see it…. I might even get the chance to see and paint an Indian Tiger!

          2. I am not sure that his premature death was romantic, I was thinking more of the way he packed off to India to live, although as I understand, it was not a carefree lark. Some of his poetry is beyond my understanding as well. But then if I had a dollar for everything I actually get, I would be rich.

            By the way, since I know that a number of people subscribe to this blog’s comments, if anyone wants to contact me privately, you can do so by visiting the Contact page. It’s like sending an email. Messages left there are never published.

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