Spontaneous Poetics (W.B.Yeats – 1)

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), July 15, 1911 – Photograph by George Charles Beresford, from the collection at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg, at Naropa Institute in 1976, discussing W.B.Yeats

PW: I found that one, that poem about your dewdrop

AG: Where?

PW: It’s right here.

AG: What page?

PW: Page two-four-nine.

AG: Yeah. (Do) you want to begin with that, or do you want to begin with your..

PW: I want to start at the beginning

AG: Okay, let me tear (off) a piece of paper..(for a bookmark)

PW: Yeah. (So) (W.B.) Yeats started out in life as a very traditional poet, and then he became more and more conservative as time went on. Ezra Pound tried to reform him in about the year..1911 or (19)12, somewhere around in there, and took credit for giving done something to Yeats’ head and made him get rid of, a whole bunch of out-of-date adjectives, and get rid of the Celtic Twilight and a lot of plush and fir bolgs and things that used to invest his verse. But Yeats changed Pound’s head, I think, more than the other way around, because Yeats keeps sneaking back into Pound’s lines every now and then, or, at least, keeps haunting him. You remember in the Cantos, in the Pisan Cantos (Canto LXXXIII), he’s haunted by the voice of Will, old William, or, as it might be, “the wind in the chimney”, how he saw the “great peacock/ in the proide of his oyyee” (which goes back to a poem that I’m not going to talk about right now).

But in the old days he was busy being mystical and Irish and beautiful, and beautiful in the sort of pre-Raphaelite-ish sense. His father was a painter, and then his brother Jack became a painter also, and Yeats himself studied art, studied drawing and painting, and that’s how come he met A.E.,his great friend, and other mad, magical, crazy, spirit-type poet . What was A.E’s name, I forget…?

AG: Alfred Russell, or something? (George William Russell)

PW: Russell, yeah, A.Russell – but he was always called A.E. ligature, actually, which was short for Aeon, that is to say, one of those strange spirits that hang around in Manichean mystical systems. He used to write very beautiful and charming stuff with rather elegant, uptown, vocabulary, and, or to write sort of fake Irish sentimental trips –“Who Goes With Fergus?” (W.B. Yeats’? “Who Goes With Fergus?” ) – Now this is interesting, because the hero of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Stephen Daedelus, is all hung up on this poem, and I think it’s quoted both in the “Portrait..” and maybe a line of it is in Ulysses [PW reads “Who Goes with Fergus” –“Who will go drive with Fergus now/And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade…”… “For Fergus rules the brazen cars./And rules the shadows of the wood/And the white breast of the dim sea/And all disheveled wandering stars”.]

AG: Who’s Fergus? Do you know?

PW: Fergus was one of those characters in the cycle of stories and songs about Cuchulain,as far as I know it. Aengus, on the other hand, is a love-god, a Celtic love-god.

And this one, maybe somebody knows who made up this tune for it. I don’t (know) whose tune it is, but I learned it from Lew Welch

{PW recites/sings “The Song of Wandering Aengus”] – “I went out to the hazel wood,/Because a fire was in my head,/And cut and peeled a hazel wand/And hooked a berry to a thread”…”And walk among long dappled grass/And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon,/The golden apples of the sun”

AG: That’s very poetic – “Silver apples of the moon”

PW: Yeah

AG: There’s another poem, “I carried the sun in a golden cup/And the moon in a silver bag”

PW: Yeah, yeah, Pound stole all of that for the…

AG: Do you know that? – “I carried the sun in a golden cup/And the moon in a silver bag”? – That’s sort of real faery-like

PW: Yeah, and that’s in one of the late poems, too, after he was supposedly gotten over all of this trip.

All through his life he wrote sonnets, which are very beautiful and very interesting, technically. The earlier ones are rather a more traditional kind, like this one<

[PW reads Never Give all the Heart] – “Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of..”…”He that made this knows all the cost,/For he gave all his heart and lost”.

AG: Basically, his early and late poems are extremely sentimental, actually. I picked up a lot of the sense of poetic comradeship, or bohemian comradeship, or life-long dramatic friendship, from a whole series of poems that Yeats wrote. He was in love with various celebrated beauties, including an actress Maud Gonne, who was also, like, a wild revolutionary figure. There are a lot of poems just talking about the passionate quality of friendship and how everybody is going to grow old together and get wiser, or fall apart, but, nonetheless, the shining eyes of friendship will be the final reference point for some poetic life mystery. So there’s an early poem that starts it. There’ll be, later on, others, but.. [Allen reads “The Lover pleads with his Friend for Old Friends”] – (“Though you are I your shining days./Voices among the crows/And new friends busy with your praise,/Be not unkind or proud,/ But think about old friends the most/ Time’s bitter flood will rise,/Your beauty perish and be lost/For all eyes but these eyes”) – That “old friends, the most” is..

PW: It’s used as an epigraph

AG: Yeah? who used that?

PW: (Ezra) Pound, Pound used it as an epigraph

AG: “old friends, the most”. Yeah, for what? what did he use that for?

PW: Ah.. what.Ripostes was it? Do you remember? Was it..?

AG: Yeah, I guess one of his post World-War 1 books (Lustra (1916)), as a little epigraph. “ old friends, the most”,  ”the most”, yeah.. You got anything other?

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932)

PW: Yeah, well, another early one (early Yeats) is again a scene – this time a sort of mythical scene, because he was always interested in stories of places and Irish history and Irish folklore. At one point, he used to wander up and down the countryside with Lady Gregory, collecting folk tales from old people, but then he liked to invent, also, with that feeling in the background. He would invent his own a lot of the time – like this poem, called “The Three Hermits” – [PW reads Yeats’ “The Three Hermits”, in its entirety] – “Three old hermits took the air/By a cold and desolate sea,/First was muttering a prayer,/Second rummaged for a flea..”..”..the third,/Giddy with his hundredth year,/Sang unnoticed like a bird” – And that’s followed by another beggar poem – [PW begins to read Yeats’ “Beggar to Beggar Cried”] – “Time to put off the world and go somewhere/And find my health again in the seas air” – Now, you notice how the rhythm is, all of a sudden, much snappier, much more colloquial, how he shifts over from this sort of funny, magical, or mythological, type of formal speech into actual speech – [PW begins again and continues with the poem] – “Time to put off the world and go somewhere/ And find my health again in the seas air”/ Beggar to beggar cried, being frenzy-struck,/ And make my soul before my pate is bare”/ And get a comfortable wife and house/To rid me of the devil in me shoes/ Beggar to beggar cried, being frenzy-struck/ “And the worse devil that is between my thighs..”…”And there I’ll grow respected at my ease,/And hear amid the garden’s nightly peace/Beggar to beggar cried, being frenzy-struck/ The wind-blown clamour of the barnacle glass”

AG: Those kind of poems, with the refrains, were a big influence on me when I was writing rhymed verse earlier. I did a poem (which is in The Gates of Wrath) [Editorial note – “Complaint of The Skeleton to Time”] that begins: ““Take my bones”, what is it?/Take my love, it is not true,/Pass it on to something new/Take my lady, she will sigh/For my bed wher’ere I lie,/Take them, said the skeleton/But leave my bones alone.” – I (then) used that “take them, said the skeleton/But leave my bones alone” as a refrain after every verse.

[to be continued]

[Audio for the above can be heard here, starting at approximately one-and-a-quarter minutes in and continuing to approximately fourteen-and-a-quarter minutes in]

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