Poetry Friday: Autumn 2014

The best time of year is back—I cannot speak for where you live, but here in Chicagoland it was a glorious day, sun and light breezes, warm in the light but never oppressive, a day that makes you feel like yourself and at ease in your own skin. Each autumn’s arrival leads me to dig for a poem that captures some aspect of this wonderfully changeable season, and there are so many sides to the fall, rain-drenched and sun-dappled, drearily stormy and boldly colorful, etc., that I will probably never run out of angles to take. For whatever reason, this afternoon I feel like revisiting Poetry Friday’s most frequent poet, a man who (judging from the reactions I got) I perhaps didn’t treat totally fairly last time out. That’s right, it’s time for the Irish bard, William Butler Yeats, to sing us into autumn with his famous poem from 1919, “The Wild Swans at Coole”:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Yeats knows his way around a poetic phrase—there are better opening lines, I’ll admit, than “The trees are in their autumn beauty”, but man, there aren’t many, are there?  In those first four lines, collectively, he captures something of the cold evening air and the loveliness of a woodland path at this time of year that is almost magical—I see and feel so much more than he literally says if I just grab onto the literal meaning of each word.  He knows how to weave a spell, or least for me, he does.  The specificity of his counting—59 swans, 19 autumns—is a little jarring for me, though.  Maybe he’s playing with numerology, or perhaps just being really literal and observant.  Either way, I guess I could do without it.

But the agonizing beauty of the swans is real, as Yeats captures that tug that C. S. Lewis describes feeling when he read Norse myths as a boy.  It’s the call of something numinous: Lewis capitalizes it as Joy, but of course Yeats may have called it something else.  I love his attention to the senses—the clamor of their wings, the “broken rings” of their wheeling flight—and his simultaneous attention inwardly to the condition of his own heart, and his sense that everything changed with that first “bell-beat of their wings”.  Just what it is that changes him, we don’t know.  Yeats himself, I think, could hardly say.  He only knows that sometimes you see something so wondrous, so soul-stirring and spell-binding, that you never get over it.  And nature, in all its slime and strangeness, all its “red in tooth and claw”, has the capacity to dazzle and delight us more than almost anything that’s human.

Which of course leads to that powerful, moving fourth stanza in which the swans take on unearthly and marvelous qualities—they are “unwearied still” as though they were angels circling in Heaven, they move in concert by water and air like dancers, like lovers, ageless in heart and so self-assured that to Yeats they seem like the earth’s conquerors, above all this mortal striving.  He cannot imagine where they will next go, or what they will accomplish while his back is turned.  He is caught by their loveliness like a fly in amber, and the poem leaves with him still there, transfixed and adoring, his eyes on the swans as they move to and fro.

Autumn will not do this to us at every turn; for this, we can be thankful, since we could hardly get to the grocery store if every pinecone caught us in its spell.  But I am grateful for Yeats’s exuberance and his honesty—this kind of beauty is there for us if we will look, and Yeats helps us look by attending so carefully and in such detail to the simplicity of a gathering of birds in a forest pool.  I hope the fall’s arrival brings such moments with it for each of us, and that, sometime between now and the day when frost strips the trees of their last leaves, we can each find a moment that enthralls and haunts us with its beauty as much as W. B. Yeats was haunted, for the rest of his days, by the wild swans of Coole Park.

Poetry Friday: Entering the friend zone with W. B. Yeats

Because we approach a three-day weekend, and I am loath to burden your holiday relaxations with some somber poem about the Great War, you get one more week off from World War I, which by this time 100 years ago was about to become the horrifying, human-eating trench war that almost no one saw coming.  Instead, I offer another fling with one of Poetry Friday’s favorite guests, William Butler Yeats, whose stuff is always worth talking about (and, in my opinion, almost always really good).  A blog I read has been inviting reader submissions all week long of books and poems that have profoundly affected people, and “stuck with them” long term, and when one reader mentioned this poem, it reminded me of some thoughts I’ve always had about it.  I used to discuss this poem with high school sophomores, and I always enjoyed the chat, so it seemed to me it would be interesting to offer it this afternoon, and see what your various takes are.  This is a work of Yeats’ very early career—arguably his first famous poem—written by a man in his 20s and published in 1892: this is “When you are old”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Yeats employs the style that too many imitated in poor, sing-song fashion—iambic pentameter (with occasional tweaks), end-stopped couplet rhyme, reliance on simple turns of phrase and familiar words—and shows what a master he was of words, and how in the right hands an approach to poetry that might look “greeting card” on first blush will open up and reveal some real depth of feeling.  The approach is direct enough, since each of us as the reader is the second person, the “you” who will one day be old and grey.  Yeats is gentle from the very beginning, the softest of sounds and phrases, a cadence that wraps around us like a well-worn shawl, and rocks us to sleep by the fire.  The woman is asked to imagine herself at the end of her life, looking back on who she once was, and leafing through an old book of poems written by a man she once knew.

And not just any man—not a man like all the others, who “loved your moments of glad grace / and loved your beauty” (though it’s not clear to me that those are very similar bases for love, at all).  No, this was the one man who saw something else in her—a pilgrim soul, whatever that phrase conjures for us.  Perhaps an image of a heart never quite at rest.  A woman who, despite her calm outward appearance, inwardly was forever journeying in search of some meaning not near at hand.  And he “loves the sorrows of [her] changing face”—as I used to ask my sophomores, “what, does that mean he likes it when she cries?” But of course not; instead, it seems to me that the changes here are the weathers of age that take away the outward appearance she once prized.  They may be sad to her, or perhaps some frown lines and wrinkles will arise out of sad expressions, but they only increase his devotion to her.

And then, he envisions, seeming almost eager at the scene imagined, she will bend beside the fire, murmur to herself about how she lost that one true love, who (unmarked by her, it seems) set out for the wilderness to travel lonely there, or else lost himself in the urban chaos of faces, one more pedestrian blurring past her every day.  And I would always ask my class then, and I ask you now, what is this poem?  Is it a love poem?

It seems to me (and of course I tipped my hand early on, in the post’s title) that Yeats is writing on some level about the “Nice Guy problem” that men seem to complain about online these days, or at least there is a sudden awareness of what I think is a long-standing male complaint.  It’s sometimes colloquially called “getting friend-zoned”—the nice, timid, devoted male friend thinks he’s the only guy who REALLY gets how special this beautiful girl is who spends all her time surrounded by admirers, and he feels somehow unjustly treated by her, since she never takes him out of “the friend zone”, this conjectured mental space where lovely women apparently deposit their opinions of “nice”, timid, devoted male acquaintances.  This isn’t all that nice a poem, if my thesis is right—it begins and ends where it does because that’s what’s emotionally satisfying to him.  The image of her, old and alone, staring sadly into the fire and leafing through the poetry of the guy she never gave a fair chance (but now knows was probably a little too good for her—certainly miles better than those flashy guys she dated).  Talk about some serious emotional issues, eh?

But that’s not the only reading, of course!  Usually I could count on students to advance other possibilities, but I’ll just take the clearest one (and the reason this has been one of Yeats most-anthologized poems).  The poem is simple, direct, and sweetly phrased—there’s almost no hint of bitterness in the words chosen.  It’s wistful—the poet hoping that someday she realizes what she meant to him, not because he wants to twist the knife, but because his feelings meant so much to him (drove him into the mountains and the faceless crowd, ultimately) that he wants to believe that she will, at least once in her long life, recognize them and understand.  The poem shuts no doors, draws no lines in the sand, casts no judgments, and pronounces no decrees.  So why assume it’s the claws of an angry cat?

And I turn it over to you—what kind of poem is this?  Why did Yeats write it, and what are we to make of it?  Is it a bitter “friend-zoned” poet soaking luxuriously in the thought that the woman who spurned him will one day ache with sorrow over it?  Or a nostalgic wish from a man who will always remember that girl with the haunted look and wish her well, wherever she is?  Or something else entirely?  Perhaps the Labor Day weekend will afford us all time to mull it over, and to offer a comment or two here on this post, if you like—thanks, as always, for your attention to this humble space and the poems that fill it!

Poetry Friday: Our farewell to W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats, one of the giants of early 20th Century poetry, has been one of Poetry Friday’s constant companions since I started doing poetry from the year of the Pulitzer-winning novel I’m reading, back in 1918 (the year of the novel, not when I started this blog, obviously).  I’ve shared a wide range of his poetry—sweet words spoken to his daughter, mystical verse on the Virgin Mary, musings on old age and death.  Last week I shared a poem by W. H. Auden about Yeats’s passing in 1939, and so this week I feel it’s a nice coda to add the last poem published by Yeats, posthumously appearing in a collection of his poetry released in 1939.  It is his look back over his career and an attempt to give some image of what it means to be a poet: he titles it “The Circus Animals’ Desertion“:


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. 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.

I won’t pretend to understand every word of what Yeats is after here, but it’s clear enough at times to make me feel a kinship with him.  Part I is a release of poetry’s gift, it seems—an admission that the old fire is dying out, and that the words do not come as they used to.  Everyone who writes feels this way at times, wrestling with writer’s block, but there’s an added weariness to the lines here that makes me think Yeats is breathing out for the last time, and accepting that his best work is behind him now.  The use of circus images is curious and intriguing—is he making light of his work, self-deprecatingly, as though it was all gloss and silliness?  Or is he describing how it felt to ride that wave when the poem came, the riot of emotion and passion that erupts inside when a really wonderful image or idea strikes, and suddenly the pen cannot move fast enough to keep pace with the mind?  The circus animals (given their presence in the poem’s title) are clearly a part of the origins of his art, but are they the poems themselves, or only the heralds of poetry?  I don’t think Part I is precise enough to make me certain.

Part II is the most elusive for me—Yeats is reminiscing about poems of his that clearly meant the most to him, but to be honest none of them are the works of his that speak most to me.  I find his language about them very evocative, though.  He is sympathetic to his poor figures—Oisin who, at Yeats’s behest, was forced through all sorts of peril because Yeats was “starved for the bosom of his faery bride” (what a great line!).  Cathleen who, due to Yeats’s turmoil, destroys her soul.  Cuchulain at war with the “ungovernable sea”.  All of them mythical figures, which I think is important—these aren’t the creatures of his own invention (like Crazy Jane, for example), but folk he inherited from the distant past of his people.  It feels a little like Yeats as a medium, calling the spirits back out to dance.  There’s something like ambivalence here about his motives, for me—I feel like Yeats is a little shy about having dragged them into his art.  But maybe I’m over-examining his phrases.

The strength in this poem, in my opinion, arrives in Part III—Yeats’s last words to us, and some of his best.  A lauded poet, respected by his contemporaries and emulated by the generation who followed, he accepts that his work was “masterful”, but he turns our attention to the fallow ground from which these seeds grew—the darkness and the earthy smells that surround a thing coming to life.  The pageantry of the circus animals, the wonder of these mythic beings and their adventures, all begins with a climb out of the muck in which we all begin.  I don’t know exactly how to allegorize all these images—who to cast in the role of the raving slut, or what significance to assign to the old cans.  I know only that I, and all of us, have been there in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart—picking over the cast-offs of memories past and moments that never lingered as long as we wished.  I know a little about the exhilaration of climbing the ladder up and out, but much more about the long wait in the shadows when the ladder is gone.  I am struck by the power of Yeats’s bluntness about where beauty comes from, and what we endure to get it.  If we had been left nothing else by him, this alone would be a thought worth saving.

And what does it mean that he lies down there, where the ladders start?  Is he waiting for one more climb?  Or is he admitting defeat and taking up citizenship there in the slums of his psyche?  I am of both minds.  And I hope that, if you come to any musings about the poem yourself, that you’ll share them below.  May the circus animals find you, wherever you are.

Poetry Friday: 1939

Ah, 1939—a year full of poems to choose from, and in that regard a much better year than 1938.  Of course, it is not a good year in many other respects, the invasion of Poland being high on the list of reasons why, and I’ll be selecting a poem or two eventually (I expect) that deal with the violence of the year.  But to kick us off, I have to start with one of the first poems I learned to love: in fact, it captured me enough that I loved it even though I didn’t understand what it was about.  It was early in a battered red paperback anthology simply entitled “Poetry”, the book I’d picked up (at a Value Village, maybe?) when I decided that a guy who was going to be an English major should read poems more often.  I didn’t know who this “Wystan Hugh Auden” was, or why he would be moved to write a poem about the death of somebody named “William Butler Yeats“, except that, from context, I figured Yeats must be a poet too.  The poem itself is in three very different parts, all of them lovely in their way, but for today I’m only going to handle the section that first won me over, and still is critical to the archetype called “poem” that lives in my head.  This is the final section of a poem entitled “In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)” by W. H. Auden:

“Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.”

Auden’s verse here is an attempt to do what the poem’s first two sections (available here, if you’re interested) have not yet done, which is to embrace the old-fashioned way in which English poetry used to act—short phrases, often end-stopped, with perfectly consonant rhymes (none of that “slant” rhyming in this section).  A style that can definitely seem trite and sing-songy in the hands of lesser poets, and which Auden himself loses hold of in other works, captures here that magical incantation-like power that modern poetry sometimes forgets it can wield.

The section for me is built in two even parts.  The first three stanzas are an address to the Earth.  What is at first an elegant instruction to the Earth as to a servant or heir—“receive an honoured guest”—becomes a meditation on the Earth as a space inhabited by violence.  The dead body lies emptied of its art, and beyond it stretch the battalions of the nations, all of them ready to rain down destruction upon one another.  This is a place characterized by chaos—the darkness of nightmares, the cacophony of angry dogs—and hate, which has become a rigid wall that locks out the rest of humanity.  Whatever was noble or praiseworthy in the human condition, we have in some way lost access to it, in Auden’s eyes: the Earth seems beyond saving.

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

William Butler Yeats, whom “Mad Ireland hurt into poetry”, according to Auden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then the final three stanzas push back against this vision by an appeal to the poet, who, standing outside the Earth and its physical cares and limitations, still has the power to redeem us by means of art.  Rather than sending Yeats off with a “thank goodness you got out when you did”, Auden draws him back to us, and sends him down to the bottom of the dark, into the nightmare-space already invoked—not to compel, but to persuade.  By means of his art, Yeats can still call forth joy within us.  More than that, art can remake the world—Auden alludes to Genesis and the fallen Adam in the idea that humanity’s curses can be “farmed” into fruitful ground.  This isn’t a withdrawal from the world’s problems into some airy-fairy happyland of poetry: he specifically names “human unsuccess” as one of the topics for singing.  In making these extravagant claims, Auden is explicitly rejecting his own words from the poem’s second section, where he semi-famously remarks that “poetry makes nothing happen”—here he envisions poetry as a means of making sense of the dark side of humanity, of giving us a stairway out of the caverns into which we fall.

And culminates the vision in that final stanza that is still, to me, close to perfection—the vision of a redeemed world where the gladness arises directly out of sorrow.  It is not that waters will flow outwards from some lush, green place, or that the free men will unchain the bound.  No, in the very deserts we inhabit there are wells waiting to spring up, and our liberty and joy emerges from that evocative “prison of [our] days”.

Poetry can teach us what this means—how to look for it, and where to find it.  In January 1939, Auden sees a world on the brink of self-annihilation, and mourns a fallen comrade whose strength he had relied on.  But the wonder of writing, of course, is that it can endure, and that Yeats had a part still to play on Earth long after his body returned to dust.  I don’t know if this poem works on you the way it works on me, or if my odes to it seem excessive to you.  It may be that poetry is nowhere near as powerful as I’m claiming it can be, or as I see Auden claiming it to be.  But I personally am convinced that artistry is at the vital heart of what it means to be human, and art (whether poetry or song or sculpture, or what have you) is in fact a critical factor when we consider the question of whether we can learn to live at peace with one another.  This question has always plagued us, and 1939 made it more urgent, of course.  It keeps me thinking, and I’m glad I have Auden as one of my muses when I do.

Poetry Friday: William Butler Yeats

Christmas approaches.  Like most other holidays, it will be the subject of some personal reflections here on the blog, but that’s a few days off.  For this, the penultimate Advent Poetry Friday, it seemed to me there were many wonderful poems to explore—if you’ve never seriously explored the world of Christmas-related poetry, trust me, there’s a lot more out here than “Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap”.  There’s a lovely Galway Kinnell poem about death and life that I almost chose, but then I stumbled into this Yeats poem in an anthology I own (a poem written only a year after my current novel), and I had to share it.  The title is “The Mother of God”:

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Yeats is a powerful poet—probably most powerful when he deals with the real world, the world of muck and mire. He himself acknowledges this, charting the origins of his poetry to what he calls “the rag-and-bone shop of the heart”. (An aside: poets, who of us would not give up a limb to have coined that phrase?)  And what he touches in this poem is the physicality of what it might be like to experience what Mary does in the stories told in Matthew and Luke.  I am fascinated (and sometimes unsettled) by this sensory detail—the feeling of the Spirit fluttering at the eardrum as it arrives, the nostalgia for the tread of foot on wet cloth, the chill in her bones as she gives life to something not exactly human (yet hers).

Yeats spins his phrases again—I am as envious of “the three-fold terror of love” as I was of his heart imagery—and yet part of the poem’s beauty for me is that it feels somehow unstudied.  As though this woman is simply saying what happened to her—the fear, the wonder, the dreamlike quality that now pervades all her emotions.  She uses plain words to articulate something no one on Earth could really understand.

That’s the feeling I like best, and the one I want to begin to examine, as I reflect on the coming holiday.  Most of our public holidays—the ones I’ve written on before—begin with the mundane.  A country is founded.  A war is ended.  A people express their gratitude.  This holiday, however it may be celebrated in many homes across the nation, begins somewhere else.  It begins with the image of that solitary woman in a room.  The sound of wings unseen.  The idea that the ordinary may be raised up, that the mundane sometimes contains the miraculous.  It’s an idea that pushed Yeats to write this strange and ambiguous poem, and I hope it inspires something in you this coming week.

Poetry Friday: 1928 (part 2)

I know, I know, this is a blog about American literature, and so I ought to focus on American poets.  But some of these guys are just too good.  1928, among other things, was the year W. B. Yeats published The Tower, a little book that contains many poems of real note—“Leda and the Swan”, “A Prayer for my Son”, “Meditations in a Time of Civil War”—but perhaps none more moving (for me) than the following piece.  As we head for Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and beyond it, Easter, I think it’s a good night to envision a journey to a holy city—W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Something brief to tide you over…

I don’t know why spring break is a time not to blog, but it’s certainly been slow!  My apologies to those few of you who look in on me.  I just have a brief chance here (leaving work and on my way to a dinner appointment) to say that the weekend will bring you many things—a poem later today (courtesy of the mad Irish bard, William Butler Yeats), and at least two blog posts (I’ve read ahead of myself) on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which is gripping, beautiful, and strangely aloof all at once.  I have plenty of thoughts, and will make enough time to share them.  So, until a little later, au revoir.