An older poem of mine reminds me of the biography of Yeats I’m reading now. The biography of Yeats reminds me of an older poem. Not so much for what resides inside the poem or inside the book. But the act of writing itself. The act of being a poet. The act. The context of that act.
The bio is R. F. Foster’s two volume masterwork from the 1990s. I read Richard Ellmann’s essential biography many years ago, which set the standard. So far, after 100 pages, the Foster bio reads almost as well, is far more detailed, but lacks the sense of capturing Yeats as quickly as did Ellmann’s. Foster is better, however, on setting Yeats in historical context, and this has me wanting to again read more about Irish history, especially the period in which Parnell played such a crucial role.
Yeats’s early obsession with the occult, with forming literary groups, with setting up networks of like-minded friends, in London, Sligo and Dublin, is fascinating. What we in the Internet age do with a mouse click, WB did in person. This was often the only way young writers could gain a foothold in the literary world of that day. In order to get publishers to agree to print their work, they would frequently have to beg friends to help them sign up enough readers to fund printing. Subscriptions. If they weren’t well known, they generally had to go that route.
Another interesting topic Foster covers well is the “fallen gentry” aspect of the Yeatses. The decline of the Protestant Ascendancy, which has an interesting ring to it. The rise and fall of the Anglo-Irish in Ireland, primarily from the 17th to the 20th century, is enough of a topic for dozens of books on its own, but it adds layers to the bio. In the late 19th century, Ireland was changing rapidly, and old land holding families often could no longer count on making a living from their rentals, from what their land produced. The Yeatses were no exception and were often steeped in poverty. The patriarch, the artist John Butler Yeats, was supposed to be the family bread winner, but he was generally unsuccessful in doing so, which left much of the earning for his children. Willie Yeats, as a poet, was not much better at it than his father, though he seemed more determined to at least try to make ends meet.
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I’ll continue the review in bits and pieces as I read, and will discuss Yeats’s poetry as well. And now for that old poem of mine:
Virtue and the Postmodern Forest
And they are all around me
And I stand quiet
Soak-in the cold and their eyes
The scene is too normal to believe
Me in the woods . . .
The theater guards the division
The forced separation of reality and fiction
Like a house described
In a book a song
Where are the people who act?
No . . . just animals today
Just sounds of wood crackling in my fire
And hawks in ecstasy
Smoke burns the eyes the trees
Are Greek choruses tonight
Branches are poets
Moss cushions the fall of the
A flute would be nice
Screams from the balconies above me
As someone faints
That girl is in the play
And that one too
Made androgynous by audience and script
By silent breaths of writer and reader
Like unmade holy minds before we burst
Upon this scene of black and white
Up and down
Here and there
Soon the Times will rave
And the Post will praise our successes here
The Theater of Life
Will guarantee the merger of silence and waiting
Before the advent of communal storms
— by Douglas Pinson