Spontaneous Poetics – (W.B.Yeats – 2)

W.B.Yeats (1865-1939) in 1910 – photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn

AG: Early on, he (Yeats) began to realize transitoriness, and the withering up of his youthful powers, or, at any rate, the withering up of his youthful imagination. (He was), I guess helped by (Ezra) Pound, who took all his early poems and blue-pencilled them – underlined every word that Pound thought was abstract. Yeats, in his preface to A Vision, (talks about how Pound criticized anything) that didn’t satisfy (his) notion of presentation rather than reference, (of) presenting concrete facts, as in “No ideas but in things” (rather than some) abstract reference, or vague.. murmurous Irish twilight, Irish Renaissance,bullshit.. Donovan.. or, in (y)our terms, Donovan-style flower power image. In those days, Celtic Twilight rhetoric (was), I guess, an outgrowth of (the) Yellow Decade. 1890’s sentimental Romanticism, or Pre-Raphaelite prettiness.  Yeats said that, after Pound had underlined all the abstract words, he hadn’t realized how far the younger generation had gone towards concreteness, or toward a totally different view of poetic reality and realism. It began affecting him early, actually. He has, in an early book, 1910, The Green Helmet “The Fascination of What’s Difficult” – [Allen reads Yeats’ “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”] – (“The fascination of what’s difficult/ Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent/ Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart…”…”….My curse on plays/ that have to be set up in fifty ways,/ On the day’s war with every knave and dolt/Theatre business, management of men/ I swear before the dawn comes round again/I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt”) –  He had actually been involved with Irish politics, and still was, and the management of the Abbey Theatre is what he refers to here, writing plays for the Abbey Theatre.

Philip Whalen: Well, he invented it, actually.

AG: Yeah, well with Lady Gregory. Just as we are now investigating, say, local American place myths, Amer-Indian myths, so there was a revival of Irish mythology and Celtic folktale, or Celtic legend, land-rooted. Yeats, remembering (William) Blake’s injunction to remove those “dark satanic mills”, saw in the Industrial Revolution as it had come to flower, the destruction of all valuable traditions, and was willing to cut himself down to some nervy resonance, (which is his word), (a) drier realism, to face his own aging and the decline of his own imprecise self-mythologization.

There’s a little poem from the same time (1910) ”The Coming of Wisdom with Time”. You can dig this in relation to (William) Wordsworth’s aging process. As Yeats got older, he got sexier, actually, and more concrete. (as Wordsworth got older he got more abstracted, actually, spaced-out, in a way. [Allen begins reading “The Coming of Wisdom with Time”] – “Though leaves are many, the root is one/ Through all the lying days of my youth/ I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun/Now I may wither into the truth” – Then, also, having been involved in the world (of) business, he has a little note in the same book –“All things can tempt me” – “All things can tempt me from this craft of verse/One time it was a woman’s face, or worse-/The seeming needs of my fool-driven land,/Now nothing comes but readier to the hand/Than this accustomed foil. When I was young,/ I had not given a penny for a song/Did not the poet sing it with such airs/That one believed he had a sword upstairs./Yet would be now, could I but have my wish,/Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish” – So, actually, it’s, in some respects, parallel to some of the Buddhist progress we’ve all been making here. This next book, interestingly, is called “Responsibilities” – [to PW]  – Do you have anything from that?

PW: Yeah, The Balloon of the Mind”, which I like.

AG: Yeah – “Hands, do what you’re bid/Bring the balloon of the mind/That bellies and drags in the wind/Into  its narrow shed.”

AG: A little before that, actually, there’s “September 1913”

PW: Yeah, yeah.

AG: Let’s see, when was the big Irish Revolutionary movement?

PW: 1915. It started in and around there. It really got going in (19)14 and (19)15..

AG: It went on to massacres and bombings (as in this generation). So, a comment on his own interest in politics, Irish politics particularly, and on his own youthful  idealism about it [Allen begins reading “September 1913” ] – “What need you, being come to sense./But fumble in a greasy till/And add the halfpence to the pence/And prayer to shivering prayer until/You have dried the narrow from the bone?/For men were born to pray and save;/Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,/It’s with O’Leary in the grave./ Yet they were of a different kind/The names that stilled your childish play..” – that is, the heroic names of the Irish Renaissance, which led to political revolution – [Allen continues – “Yet they were of a different kind/The names that stilled your childish play/They have gone about the world like wind/But little time have they to pray”…”…They weighed so lightly what thy gave/ But let them be, they’re dead and gone,/ They’re with O’Leary in the grave”.

John O’Leary (1830-1907) – Portrait by John Butler Yeats, National Gallery of Ireland

PW: Yes, John O’Leary was a professional revolutionary, who was one of Yeats’ teachers, or, he always looked up to him as a great man and got him to back up some of the… he sort of used him as a center around which he could organize his own political outfit. O’Leary had come back recently to Ireland after having been in jail for a decade or so (he was supposed to be exiled, at one point, thrown out of Ireland completely), and he came back as an old man to Dublin, and Yeats got to know him, through his father (Jack Yeats) and just sort of sat at his feet for quite a while, learning about what the revolution was about. I think after O’Leary died, he made this poem.

AG: There’s a lot of defeat there..

PW: Yeah

AG: ..as there is, in certain respects, now [1976] . So there was a retrenchment and a withdrawal somewhat, and looking out into an inner world, and beginning to look for (a) more eternal, or (a) longer-lasting reference point than the waves of politics. There’s the beginning of dealing with defeat and failure, as the starting place, or beginning, of wisdom. There’s a poem like that [Allen reads Yeats’“To A Friend whose Work has come to Nothing” , in its entirety] – “Now all the truth is out/Be secret and take defeat /From any brazen throat/For how can you compete,/Being honor bred, with one/who, were it proved he lies,/Were neither shamed in his own/Nor in his neighbor’s eyes?/Bred to a harder thing /Than Triumph, turn away/And like a laughing string/Whereon mad fingers play/Amid a place of stone,/Be secret and exult/Because of all things know/That is most difficult”  – Of course, at this time, Yeats was a member of an alchemical circle, a hermetic circle..

PW: That was earlier.

AG: (The) Theosophical Society? The Society of the Golden Dawn?

PW:  Yeah, that was earlier, that was much earlier. Now he’s talking about Augusta (Lady) Gregory and she’s having a scrap with John Redmond, and some other people, who threatened her life, and she said, “Listen, I’m going to be sitting here in the front window of the house, writing, every day, from five to six..” (or six to seven, something like that), “and, you know, I’ll be right here, just go ahead and do whatever you’re going to do”. She was feeling very sad, and (so) it was harder for her to sit there than not. He didn’t find out about it until later, but he was doing a big turn-around then. He was trying to make his work more public by working in the theatre and trying to get across to an audience something that was going on. He was also responsible for getting (J.M.) Synge’s early things produced “The Playboy of the Western World” to get that stuff on, in a language people could understand –  but that, at the same time, was rich poetic material – and, of course, people thought it was immoral when it was produced.

[to be continued]

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.