William Butler Yeats Taught Poets How to Serve
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who would be 150 today, wrote poems that stick with you through life. He also set the standard for poetic public service.
In Ireland, they put James Joyce’s picture on the 10 pound note, and for a good many years authors were allowed to pay no income tax. They take writing seriously in that country.
More precisely, they take words seriously, and storytelling, and song, not least because for hundreds of years, that’s all they had to work with. As the American country singer and songwriter Roger Miller once said, “We were so poor, words were our only toys.”
When I was there studying years ago, a friend and I were riding the bus late one night and carrying on a (probably well-lubricated) conversation about William Butler Yeats. We were talking loudly enough to be overheard by a fellow passenger, a rather rough looking old gent who at last leaned over and asked conspiratorially, “Do ye know about his operation?”
From the gist of his conversation, I gathered that while he’d never actually read Yeats, our new companion did know all about the “Steinach operation,” which supposedly increased virility in older men. Essentially a modified vasectomy, the procedure’s effectiveness was later discredited, but placebo or not, Yeats was convinced that in his case the operation fueled not only a second puberty but also an outpouring of great late-life verse.
But no, the Irish do take writing seriously—and sometimes for all the wrong reasons: as late as 1960, when Edna O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, was published, it was banned and burned because it spoke openly about extra-marital sex. And when Yeats was elected an Irish senator, he was castigated by the Catholic church for defending divorce.
Safely dead since 1939, Yeats, who would turn 150 years old today, is a virtual saint in his native country now. His belief in spiritualism and mysticism doesn’t get a lot of play, but his campaigning for Irish folklore and a homegrown theater have put him firmly on the right side of history.
He was uneasy with militarism of any kind, but he shared his country’s yen for independence of the English. When he was born in 1865, Ireland was a colonial backwater. Thanks to him, and John Synge, and Lady Gregory, the dream that Ireland could embrace and support a culture all its own became reality. Joyce chose exile, Yeats stayed and fought—with his pen, not a gun—and no one has forgotten that.
Of course, he does not belong strictly to the Irish any longer. He is a world figure in literature, and nearly everyone, poetry lover or not, knows a line or two of his work.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” “Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” “Now that my ladder's gone I must lie down where all the ladders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
The thing about Yeats—the genius of the man, really—is that for all the mysticism and obscure Irish folklore references that cloud his poems, his writing is surprisingly accessible. He is almost never confessional, but the sense of a man trying to make the world make sense in words is palpable. There is music in those words, yes, but music, when things go right, is always wed to sense, as though he were speaking to you directly, trying to work things out. It is, to employ a word not often heard in English classes, useful.
Of all the poetry I studied in school or read as a young man, it’s the poems of Yeats, and William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop, that have stuck with me the longest and get reread the most.
Years ago, on the night my daughter was born, I finally left the hospital, came home to an empty house, and too wired to go to bed, opened my copy of the Collected Yeats, and read “A Prayer for My Daughter.” And while I don’t believe in spooks or spirits, it was impossible not to believe that there, in a house in Florida at 4 a.m., there were two of us together, new fathers beset with hope and terror and love.
The night I ran into the old man on that Dublin bus, it occurred to me that the average bus rider in the U.S. couldn’t so much as name an American poet if you put a gun to his head. (Or maybe the Irish are just better informed: a few years ago, I rode in a Dublin cab whose driver knew far, far more about the O.J. Simpson trial than I ever will.)
But by golly we do have a poet laureate and the Irish don’t. This is probably because they don’t feel the need. Americans, or at least the poetry community, are a little less secure, seeking approbation wherever they can find it. In this regard, Billy Collins, himself a former U.S. poet laureate, once called out such insecurity by noting that we do not feel obliged to have a National TV Month.
The position was once more humbly designated as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, a less pretentious and more American title, but about 30 years ago the title got an upgrade.
Now, in Juan Felipe Herrera, we have our first Chicano laureate. The son of migrant farmers, Herrera is a fine poet and a man committed to taking poetry out of the academy and into the streets, as it were. Formerly the poet laureate of California, he wants poetry to be accessible to more people, and bless him for that.
And while he may be no Yeats (no knock there—who is?), Herrera shares with Yeats the knack of blending poetry’s music with plain language that anyone can appreciate.
So, perhaps now is not the time to criticize the office, at just the moment when a fine poet assumes the chair—and if that office helps him spread the word, where’s the harm?
Yes but … something about this—and nothing to do with Herrera—still doesn’t sit right. The idea of a state-sanctioned writer seems insidious at best. It just makes you think of those oxymoronic jokes about military music.
Maybe it’s just the pompousness implicit in the name on the door. Maybe it’s simply a matter of returning to the old title, with its connotations of service and expertise and being on call (one imagines the poetry consultant being summoned in the middle of the night to set the president’s speechwriters right).
And if you are still looking over your shoulder, note that in England, they were criticizing the laureateship long before they got around to bewailing the idea of a monarchy.
In the historian Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), there is this footnote:
“From Augustus to Louis, the muse has too often been false and venal: but I much doubt whether any age or court can produce a similar establishment of a stipendiary poet, who in every reign, and at all events, is bound to furnish twice a year a measure of praise and verse, such as may be sung in the chapel, and, I believe, in the presence, of the sovereign. I speak the more freely, as the best time for abolishing this ridiculous custom is while the prince is a man of virtue and the poet a man of genius.”
Yeats was a poet without portfolio, yet that “smiling public man” did more for his country’s culture and literary life than almost anyone before or since. Surely his is the example we should copy, and not that of his (and our) former English overlords.