Not many people think of themselves as readers of poetry. Yet when facing threshold occasions such as falling in love, marriage, the birth of a child, illness, and death, we often look for a poem to express feelings for which we don’t quite seem to have the words. Why is this?
One reason is that poems can encapsulate a sentiment that cannot be grasped or expressed in any other way. John Keats alluded to this when he said that a poem ‘should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance’. Another is that poets are fascinated by words and spend enormous time tracking them down, pondering them, and putting them into memorable form. W.B. Yeats had an extraordinary ability to intuit the sometimes puzzling emotions that hover over recurring life experiences and to distil them into unforgettable words. His phrases seem tailored to our lives because they arose directly out of passionate moments in his own life. Believing that ‘a poet’s life is an experiment in living’, he sought ‘not to find one’s art by analysis of language or amid the circumstance of dreams but to live a passionate life, and to express the emotions that find one thus in simple rhythmical language.’ Robert Frost could have been describing this aspect of Yeats’s work when he wrote that a poem ‘ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion’.
Memorable Yeats lines clarify a wide range of subjects, including the meaning and comforts of friendship; the proper balance between work and life; our relationship to the universe; the intervention of a spiritual world in human life; the possibility and nature of life after death; and the role of religion in a good life. Yeats’s words illuminate the path when we are pursuing or engaging with a lover; responding to hostility; finding purpose in life; searching for meaning in daily routine; growing old; suffering loss; and, inevitably, facing death. The subjects are as varied as life itself.
Many of Yeats’s lines are so striking that they’ve taken on a life of their own and stand ready to help us express ourselves in moments of intense emotion or troubling doubt. Time and again, Yeats seems to have just the right words for the occasion. When Samuel Beckett was walking from his friend Con Leventhal’s cremation, he stopped to recite lines from Yeats’s ‘The Tower’ about death and the death of friends. The young James Joyce, lost for words at the death-bed of his fourteen-year-old brother Georgie, sang his own setting of Yeats’s ‘Who Goes with Fergus?’. Confronting serious illness toward the end of his life, the painter Richard Diebenkorn found creative energy in Yeats’s admonition,
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 …
Yeats’s words often have the magical air of an incantation or a spell. This is no surprise because he believed that poetry has its origins in magic. ‘Have not poetry and music arisen’, he asked, ‘out of the sounds the enchanters made to help their imagination to enchant, to charm, to bind with a spell themselves and the passers-by?’
Yeats the enchanter is at work in his much-loved poem ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. We can hear rhythm, rhyme and repetition cast a spell in the lines describing the cloths as
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light …
The mesmerizing sounds suggest that language has magical powers, and thus prepare the reader to accept the talismanic conclusion,
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Patti Smith was enchanted by the magic of this poem when her mother read it to her at age five. She asked for a book by its author, and Yeats became an important influence on her life as a poet, songwriter, singer and memoirist.
Part of poetry’s magic is that its words are linked together so skillfully that they lodge themselves in the memory, ready to be retrieved in response to a new experience. In addition, Yeats’s poems were written to be spoken, and their rhetorical quality is a big part of what makes them so memorable. We can hear Yeats insisting on the importance of rhythm in a 1932 recording in which he warns, ‘I’m going to read my poems with great emphasis upon their rhythm and that may seem strange if you are not used to it.’ He tells of the poet William Morris raging about a public reading of one of his poems: ‘“It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble”, said Morris, “to get that thing into verse!” It gave me’, Yeats added, ‘a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.’
Yeats was so strongly committed to the oral performance of his poems that, after hearing a recitation by Florence Farr, he wrote, ‘I have just heard a poem spoken with so delicate a sense of its rhythm, with so perfect respect for its meaning, that if I were a wise man and could persuade a few people to learn the art, I would never open a book of verses again’.
Yeats’s words are meant to be listened to in both senses of the word: they are to be both heard and heeded, even when heeding opens a dialogue that ends in disagreement.
Great poets can bring coherence not only to our personal lives, but also to bewildering events in the world around us. Yeats’s poems often reflect what Virginia Woolf called ‘the poet’s gift of turning far, abstract thoughts, if not into flesh and blood, at least into something firm and glittering’. Indeed, some of Yeats’s words, such as ‘the centre cannot hold’ from ‘The Second Coming’, are quoted so often by politicians and journalists that it has been suggested that they be retired. This is a bad idea. The recurring attraction of Yeats’s words is actually a testament to their magical ability to channel swirling currents of thought and emotion into memorable form. Yeats believed that the form – the style – in which ideas are expressed, quite apart from their content, can make ‘us live with a deeper and swifter life’.
A sense of the magic his words could work informs Yeats’s assertion that a lyric can gain ‘a second beauty, passing as it were out of literature into life’. This book seeks to capture that second beauty in a compendium of words from Yeats that can help clarify and articulate our response to the world around us. The words are placed in the context of the poem, but this book focuses on the words themselves, the building blocks of poetry. To be sure, reading the complete poem will convey more of Yeats’s ideas, but, as Mallarmé reminded Degas, poems are not made out of ideas; they are made out of words. Joan Miró expressed the same concept from the painter’s perspective: ‘I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.’ Susan Sontag may have had this in mind when she told her diary, ‘I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words. Not with ideas.’
In the poem opening his Collected Poems, Yeats proclaimed, ‘words alone are certain good’. Trying to explain to himself his endless quest for Maud Gonne, he wrote a poem entitled ‘Words’ that reveals how, for him, the great life force of Eros was inseparable from language. Reflecting on all the words he had used trying to persuade Gonne, he wondered what might have happened had he succeeded, and answered, ‘I might have thrown poor words away / And been content to live’. Toward the end of his life, as he looked death in the eye, his impulse was to tame death with words by composing his epitaph and announcing it in a poem that describes his tombstone and declares, on its face, ‘By his command these words are cut’. In life, love and death, words alone were certain good.
Focusing on some of Yeats’s words enlarges the imagination and pulls us more deeply into life. This is what William Carlos Williams had in mind when he wrote in ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.