March 26, 2006

W.B. Yeats

The poor fellow looks a little gormless in most of the photos I've found of him, but that's by no means a judgement of character!

from A General Introduction for my Work

This essay is personal compared to Pound's objective essay outlining his fundemental principles for anyone writing poetry. Nonetheless, there are moments which I thought worth relaying to you.

A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always phantasmagoria…He is part of his own phantasmagoria.

Yeats steeped himself in classical literature and was of the belief that literature should show the mark of the traditions that came before it. He was also a spiritual man and pursude various branches of mysticism throughout his life. This inevitable affected his writing and the following quote is an example of hoe he uses mystical influence to express his beliefs about the tradition of literature:

'When mind is lost in the light of the Self,' says the Prashna Upanishad, 'it dreams no more; still in the body it is lost in happiness.' 'A wise man seek in Self,' says the Chandogya Upanishad, 'those that are alive and those that are dead and gets what the world cannot give.' The world knows nothing because it has made nothing, we know everything because we have made everything.


I am a crowd. I am a lonely man. I am nothing.

The second quote is particularly resonant of mysticism. I recall a Sufi saying: 'One should be alone in the crowd.' It means to live a life of devotion to God among society, not in seclusion. Similarly, Yeats says that one should write new poetry in the context of literary tradition, not by introducing "originality" that is not connected to anything that has come before.

…romantic literature…had one quality I admired and admire: they were not separated or individual men; they spoke or tried to speak out of a people to a people; behind them stretched the generations.
I hated and still hate with an every drowing hatred the literature of the point of view. I wanted…to get back to Homer…I wanted to cry and all men cried, to laugh as all men laughed…
Style is almost unconscious. I know what I have tred to do, little what I have done.

This quote makes me hark back to my previous argument about criticism – how reliable is it that we take the words of critics for granted when even the author himself did not know exactly what it was that he had written? Sometimes critics seem to me to be more like psychoanalysts than literary analysts, deducing what the authors subconscious wrote rather than what the author was conscious of writing. Just a thought.

I tried to make the language of poetry coincide with that of passionate, normal speech. I wanted to write in whatever language comes most naturally when we soliloquise, as I do all day long, upon the events of our own lives or of any life where we can see ourselves for the moment…It was a long time before I had made a language to my liking.

With regards to the importance of form:

…all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.
'Tragedy must be a joy to the man who dies.' …neither scholars nor the populace have sung or read anything generation after generation because of its pain. The maid of honour whose tragedy they sing must be lifted out of history with timeless pattern…imagination must dance, must be carried befond feeling into the aboriginal ice.
When I speak blank verse and analyse my feelings, I stand at a moment of history when instinct, its traditional songs and dances, its general agreement, is of the past. I have been cast up out of the whale's belly though I still remember the sound and sway that came from beyond its ribs…The contrapuntal structure of the verse combines the past and present.
What moves me and my hearer is a vivid speech that had no laws except that it must not exorcise the ghostly voice. I am awake and asleep, at my moment of revelation, self-possessed in self-surrender; there is no rhyme, no echo of the beaten drum, the dancing foot, that would overset my balance.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Georganna Hancock

    This is an interesting series of posts. Learning to analyze poetry (more recently called "deconstructing") when I was an undergrad almost spoiled poetry for me and vice versa. Fortunately, the university years are soon over, and we can return to loving poetry just for itself.

    26 Mar 2006, 19:22

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