Posts Tagged ‘W.B. Yeats’

Eavan Boland and W.B. Yeats – a connection that is “part scrutiny and all invention”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015
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Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

A sense of displacement

“There is a mystery and poignance to the way poets find one another. The process can never be mutual. It is always the younger poet in a later generation who does the finding. It is always left to the younger poet to work out a process built on artifice and illusion: to make a connection across time and distance that is part scrutiny and all invention. At the end of the process, after all the memorising and inscribing, the older poet remains intact in both meaning and achievement. It is the younger one who is revealed.”

We wrote about Irish poet Eavan Boland a few days ago, with her address at the Hopwoods Awards ceremony at the University of Michigan. Then I found this June 10 article in the Irish Times, “Saving grace: how WB Yeats helped Eavan Boland to become a poet.”

She discovered William Butler Yeats as a teenager: “What was revealed to me was how willing I was in this initial encounter to enter a Yeatsian world of lakes, of spirits hidden inside mountain winds and heroic legends. How easily I passed into all this, like an unchallenged ghost. Now I look back, I know the key to my first response was not the truth of his representation but the depth of my own displacement.

Yeats_Boughton

His world of lakes and spirits

“I had returned to Ireland at the age of 14 having lived for years outside the country. I knew instinctively that I lacked a secret language of location that turns a child into an adult who fits in. I missed the sense of belonging that both reveals and restricts the meaning of place. Without those signals of self I was able to accept without questioning Yeats’s artifice and invention: his landscapes filled with improbable spirits and perfect language needed no standard of proof for me. There was no other place waiting for me. I adopted his and made it my own.

“So began my late teenage years and the beginning of my 20s, when I knew many of his poems by heart. Stanzas, epigrams, exclamations guided some inner space whenever I summoned them. His words entered my mind the way melody enters the mind of someone who loves songs: a framing device well beyond the subject matter of what’s remembered. It seemed back then that I had acquired not just a possession but also a comfort zone. And I might have remained there. I might have stayed grateful for the Virgilian companionship of a poet whose well-phrased dramas and dramatic phrases brought more dignity to my everyday life than I could have provided.”

The encounter goes on. Read the rest of this beautiful essay here.

Seamus Heaney: “rhymes as important as revolution”

Sunday, September 1st, 2013
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heaney2I’ll be speaking at a private book club event next week.  On what?  The role of the reader.  So many write and write and write about the process of writing, the burdens of the writer, the writer’s obligations to society, and so on and so on and so on.  Who thinks about the reader?  I do, sometimes.  And I’m not alone.  Here’s what Seamus Heaney, who died a last week (see posts here and here) had to say on the subject … well, he starts out on the right horse, but quickly falls off.

From Stepping Stones, a 500-page Q&A with Dennis O’Driscoll:

How do you respond to Joseph Brodskys contention that ‘a reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part of the politician’? There is also Yves Bonnefoy‘s somewhat similar view that ‘poetry is a cure for ideology’.

Joseph was right to contend that a person sensitized to language by poetry is less likely to sway in the mass-media breeze; and I agree with Bonnefoy if he means that successful poetry will launch itself beyond the pull of the contingent and get into its own self-sustaining linguistic and imaginative orbit. Take a poem like ‘Leda and the Swan’.  It begins with what Bonnefoy might call ideology: Yeats starts thinking of the Russian Revolution, which represents the rule of the many, the arrival of power from below, from down to up, and that he opposes the rule of the few, the rule from above, from up to down, so the violent descent of Zeus upon Leda comes to mind as analogous to all this – but then, as Yeats himself has told us, bird and girl took over his imagining, and the poem, powerful and problematical as it is, took off.  Thinking about rhymes becomes as important as thinking about revolution.

But poems can be political insofar as they discover the paradigmatic. Think of Cavafy. Cavafy’s cameos of the ambitions and victories and defeats among various tyrannies and dynasties and satrapies during the Hellenistic age have a wonderful, clarified political wisdom, but they’re free – or, if you prefer, cured – of ideology. It’s hard to talk about this without citing examples, probably because examples tell us that the only real answers to the general problem are specific poems in specific situations. Whitman‘s hospital poems during the American civil war. Poems by Auden and MacNeice in the 1930s – ‘Look, Stranger’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’.  Derek Mahon‘s ‘Lives’.

How should we regard a question like Czeslaw Miloszs ‘What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?’

hartley's jamIt’s a cry wrung from him in extremis, de profundis, the cry of the responsible human. But it’s one he answers in different ways in his work – in the witness of poems like ‘Campo dei Fiori’ and ‘Song on Porcelain’, and in the obstinate espousal of beauty and order – the calligraphy, as he once called it – of poems like ‘The World’, or ‘Encounter’, or ‘Gift’.  These latter ones, incidentally, could have as their motto Brodsky’s equally challenging declaration that ‘if art teaches anything, it’s that the human condition is private’.

Where do you stand between those two positions?

Betwixt and between them – which is, in effect, where Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky also stood. Joseph was out to save people when he suggested during his time as Poet Laureate of the United States that poetry should, like the Gideon Bible, be available in hotel rooms and should be distributed like handouts at supermarket checkouts. And Czeslaw writes about loving herring and strawberry jam as well as beauty and truth.

Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

Saturday, May 19th, 2012
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Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)

“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He was not (to start again), what one had expected.

Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers.  He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.

Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:

Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”

Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered.  As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked.  Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”

Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)

Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”

“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.”  Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991),  a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.

In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

What’s fiction’s verboten subject?  Sex.  “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex.  What else?  Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”

“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,'” he said, but those of the heart as well.  In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”

Off the hook.

Paradise Lost?  That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form.  To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)

Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”

Another question: what is Amis reading?  “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”

But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels.  The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it?  In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd.  But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.

“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject.  It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”

Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said.  John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience.  Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.

Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.”  It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said.  “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”

All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”

Literary pilgrimages here and there, and Sylvia Plath in Chalcot Square

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
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Mells, Somerset

Okay. I’ll admit it’s a habit. When I travel, I often check out literary landmarks — the place where a favorite author was born, died, wrote, or was buried.  I’ve seen Mikhail Bulgakov‘s digs in Kiev, Elizabeth Bishop‘s glorious hideaway outside Samambaia, C.P. Cavafy‘s modestly exotic flat in Alexandria, Siegried Sassoon‘s grave in Somerset — I even visited Boris Pasternak‘s idyllic dacha in Peredelkino.

Milton scholar Martin Evans shares my enthusiasm.

His journeys to London are sometimes literary pilgrimages — he’s intrigued by the fact that his beloved John Milton and (my beloved) John Donne were both born on Bread Street.  He wants to show you these and more literary coincidences for your next trip.  Hence his new website,  Authorial London.  Please, do not be daunted.  It’s not complicated at all.  It’s  a really easy site.  And if you’d rather read about it than look at it, try Corrie Goldman‘s description of the site and how it came about here.

One passage intrigued me:

Nice man, odd habit (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier. In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.”

The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar.

I was among the readers not surprised by this revelation — in fact, Plath moved to this flat precisely because Yeats had been a previous tenant.

I remember a trip to London — oh, over a decade ago — when I was writing a piece for the San Jose Mercury on the British reception of Sylvia Plath (a bare-bones, unillustrated version of it is here; the August 20, 2000 piece has disappeared from the Mercury‘s website).

The article opened:

Yeats lived here, too

IN THE Primrose Hill area of London, where Gloucester Road and Prince of Wales Road wind back on each other in a hopeless bend, one arrives at 3 Chalcot Square, a turquoise door on a five-story building painted the color of raspberry sorbet.This summer, a simple plaque was added to the building’s facade:

Sylvia Plath
1932-1963
Poet
lived here 1960-1961

Question: Why has it taken Britain nearly 40 years to offer this first, minimalist postmortem recognition for the American poet who spent her last five years in London?

One answer: The British hardly see the need for it. When it comes to Plath, one of America’s most celebrated female poets, the British just don’t get it.

Alas, since the painting of the building has disappeared over the years, we are left with these newer images.  The torquoise door remains — but raspberry sorbet?  I think not.