I attempted to post this as a reply to a Heaney ref. I made in the last post. I typed a Heaney quip off the type of my head, and I misquoted. I believe the correct phrasing is "long live form, mendicant and convalescent." It's from a volume of his called SEEING THINGS. I must have leant mine to someone, or perhaps it's sitting in an MTA lost and found...Unfortunately I can't check. Personally I think SEEING THINGS is Heaney's best work, the sturdiest tree on the property for sure; as far as what I've read, which is a pretty good amount, I'd say it's the best single volume of English language poetry to come out in the last 20 years. I can't think of a single volume of individual poems that forms such a cohesive whole, and in terms of of the ideas it puts down, (and the way it manifests these ideas in poetry) I'd put it right there w/ the best of Stevens.
The lines are from the long 4-part poem Squarings, which forms the second half of the volume. The poem is made up of four twelve poem sections, the best known being an anecdote about a vision that came to monks at Clonmacnoise. An individual section of the long poem "Squarings" is also called "Squarings," and it's my hunch that the lines are from that section. I could be wrong.
At around that point in the poem, Heaney takes up a brief commentary on form, and essentially offers a rebuttal to Yeats' preference for marble, towers, eternal golden Byzantiums, etc. It's serious, but there's also a little of the twinkling eye about the way he does it. You can sniff out, from reading Heaney's prose, that he gets a kick out of the ridiculous Romantic trappings to which the young Yeats was prone. In preparing his apartment to receive a journalist, the young Yeats, for instance, wraps himself in the green cloak symbolic of the Romantic poet, spreads around a number of books, flopped and face down, as it were, and sits in their midst reading Homer. A bit heavy-handed w/ the art direction, you might say....
I too, I must admit, think about the young Yeats. Not so much as I think about the young Rilke, or rather, thought about the young Rilke; Rilke is a poet at whom you inevitably rage at if you do manual type labor. You want to find him and cough soot on him at the moment his contemplation of a flower is most pure. I'd love to see him chain bags of heavy wet food trash for fifteen minutes at the end of a catering event, or even sit hunched at a cubicle, entering data into spreadsheets. I envy the time he has. Would Yeats where a gold chain with his name on it? That is what I would like to know. I think he would. Yeats liked gold. He liked solid, ornate, well-made, lasting things. His proclivity was to look at say, a marble arch, and see it as the outward and visible manifestation of an invisible grace. Heaney's proclivity is, to a degree, to be troubled by such spectacles, and by the very idea of pomp. This is one of the spots where they don't see eye to eye.
Getting closer to the quote, Heaney is asking the question throughout the volume, "Where does spirit live?" Does it live in the world, inside things, twisting through roots of our physical world as it does in, say, Rilke? Or does it live outside things, outside even Time. Or is spirit, simply, the things of this world in and of of themselves, as it was originally, when Jove was the thunder, and the thunder was Jove? Yeats shuddered hard at the idea of the body dying, "an aged man is but a paltry thing," etc., and his vision, of a soul that strengthens almost in indirect proportion to the decay of the body, seems to make almost too much sense. It creates in some ways the strength of the late Yeats, at least as far as I read him. The poetic soul is refined into perfection with age.
Heaney's way in the long poem is unique to him; he's good at it as he is at practically every other aspect of poetry. His approach is informed, for one thing, by the practice of the Stations of the Cross. His book Station Island references this directly, but the concept of stopping before a series of panels, at a series of points, and meditating briefly and completely on each vignette is also all through "Squarings." In practice, what makes this different from a typical serial poem is that there is a sense of destination, a strong pull towards the end, towards the completion of form.... At the end of SEEING THINGS, Heaney delivers too, arriving at a statement that is among the most beautiful that I know, which I'll also no doubt misquote. "That day, I will be in step with what's escaped me." It's a similar statement to Paul Valery's "There is a thing in me that is equal to that which is beyond me," which is also a beautiful line.
When I read Yeats, one thing that I have noticed, and maybe others have noticed it too, is that the experience of the poems changes little. The poems of Yeats always seem to be exactly as I remembered them when I last read them. This as opposed to someone like Ashbery, who changes so much each time you read him. Of course this is neither a good quality nor a bad quality, and the variety is in itself on the side of the good.
(ed note: this post originally appeared on June 2, 2009)