Bear with me, guys – I cannot think straight. Thus the theme of circling and spiraling. Pop the Dramamine now.
Though he isn’t always the first poet I think of if you ask me who my favorites or biggest influences have been, and though I read him less, return to him less, than to some of my other touchstone writers, the first poet I ever fell head over heels in love with was William Butler Yeats.
I was two. We had this book of poetry illustrated for children, one of those large-format coffee-table guys with weird, stippled early-seventies watercolor illustrations. The book contained everything from Chaucer to Ogden Nash, Blake to Dorothy Parker. My parents read to me from it, from the minute I was old enough to sit still. There was, basically, everything else in the book, and then there were the two short Yeats poems (“When You Are Old” and “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water”) in a world unto themselves.
Nothing else caught at me like Yeats’s rhythms, his elegiac strangeness, which at a young age I already associated with Being Irish, because the same tone suffused gatherings of my father’s family (though it must be said, in somewhat lower diction and much aided by rum-and-diet-cokes), and the portentous beauty of his phrasing. Whatever it was, other poems were funny or pretty or sad or happy – Yeats was trance-inducing. Reading him again as a high school student, I began to feel I was in over my head with the subtleties of political movements and religions and artistic schools into which I had not been indoctrinated – but the music was still always there, and the eerie feeling of meanings behind meanings, connections waiting to be made. Symbolism isn’t cool these days, and hasn’t been for a good long time. But there is something in it all the same, isn’t there? I wouldn’t call myself a Symbolist, or an –ist of any kind, but as Official Torch-Carrier for the Uncool I will say that I seriously dig the idea of the transpersonal in poems – and perhaps even more, the wonderful organizing principles of homophone and synesthesia, seeming accidents of sense and of language (like the possible mistranslation in Genesis that gave us the idea that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was an apple: the Latin for apple is malus; for evil, malum – mala in the plural for each). Even the word “symbol” has mixed heritage, deriving from Latin symbolum (a sign of faith) and symbolus (a sign of recognition) – both of which come from the Greek symbolon, which is: an object, inscribed and cut in half, with the halves given to ambassadors of allied cities as a sign of their connection. In other words, faith and recognition.
How d’ya like them apples?
As an adult I find Yeats more perplexing than ever, though I know a bit more now about his life. He was something of a shapeshifter – poet, playwright, statesman, mystic. He was indisputably a master of the century-straddling preference for accentual-syllabic meter, though in his later years there’s a clear shift toward the Modernist esthetic of Ezra Pound. He was an Anglo-Irishman passionately devoted to Irish nationalism and its mythologies and folklore. Symbolist, occultist, member of the Golden Dawn and sometime disciple of Emmanuel Swedenborg, who was a hardcore Symbolist in his own right and greatly informed Yeats’ sense of mysticism:
"It was indeed Swedenborg who affirmed for the modern world, as against the abstract reasoning of the learned, and discovered a world of spirits where there was a scenery like that of earth, human forms, senses that knew pleasure and pain, marriage and war, all that could be painted on canvas..."
He finds a correlation between Swedenborg’s theology and the beliefs of the rural west of Ireland, noting:
"In the west of Ireland, the country people say that after death every man grows upward or downward to the likeness of thirty years, perhaps because at that age Christ began his ministry, and stays always in that likeness; and these angels move always towards the springtime of their life, 'and grow more and more beautiful' the more thousand years they live; and women who have died infirm with age, and yet lived in faith and charity and true love towards husband or lover come 'after a succession of years' to an adolescence, 'for to grow old in heaven is to grow young'."
Cyclical time remains a preoccupation of Yeats’ long after his poetry begins to trend toward Modernism. His occult poem “A Vision” (written with his wife and said to have been dictated by spirits), is an interesting precursor to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. It, and many of his shorter works, contain the image of a gyre, or spiral, which for Yeats represented the development of the mind, at both individual and societal levels.
Speaking of cycling back, I think my first-ever post to this blog was about music, though at that time my preoccupation was with gibberish lyrics – scat singing, The Cocteau Twins, and the invented language of Sigur Ros.
Here’s another twist, if you will, on that topic: setting poems to music. Have any of you done it, and were you successful? I sing. I write poems. It’s a rare, rare day that I find myself able to write a song. People tend not to understand this, but though they seem at first blush to be the same thing, and though “lyric” obviously derives from the early oral tradition of poetry set to lyre playing – they ain’t, any more than a screenplay is the same thing as a movie or a blueprint the same thing as a building. I know lots of poets who are also songwriters (enviably good ones!) and at least a couple of fine poets who have tried their hands at libretti.
It’s hard, right?
I leave you with the text of Yeats’ very Swedenborgian poem The Two Trees, and an adaptation sung by Loreena McKennitt. Ponder.
The Two Trees
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Joves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For ill things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.