The Fisherman

Complaints about the size of the audience for poetry are far from new. So too, complaints about the quality of its audience. Throughout the course of the 20th Century, one increasingly common theory was to assume that a quality audience for poetry is likely incompatible with a quantity audience for the art.

We’ve just about used up two decades of our century, and that theory is still around. This quantity/quality audience-linkage belief is not always stated plainly, but it’s not hard to see its presence. Poets that rise to modest or surprising audience size will sometimes face some degree of backlash from critics. It may naturally be so that their poetry is less worthy by some criteria. This could be coincidental, honest criticism. It may be that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry criticism, as it is for poetry, so writing about better-known practitioners who have failed in some way helps grow the audience for the critic.

Another way to hold to this theory is to limit what poetry is allowed to do, to narrow its practice or even its definition. Spoken word or slam poetry? Not really poetry, or it encourages a poor selection of poetry’s virtues. Song lyrics? Self-evidently a different art, though given that the consensus canon of poetry is so different among itself, surely difference alone cannot be the criteria. Mix those two as rap or hip-hop and risk both  explanations of why it’s not poetry. Short, aphoristic poems? Too insubstantial. Long poetic forms once much in evidence, like the poetic epic or verse drama? No longer living forms of the art for the most part, if for no other reason than the type of poetic techniques the modern academic poet often uses can wear out an audience in a matter of minutes.

Myself, I don’t disagree or agree with those judgements in particular cases, and they could even be theoretically correct, I just viscerally dislike the idea that this thing poetry is so small and limited, that it’s a desert island disc for a few scattered islands, deeply loved by solitary coconut eaters with a very constricted shoreline.

When I break out of those narrow roles and rules for poetry, I will fail, and I do get discouraged. My limitations are bothering me two years into this project; and now 240 published audio pieces later, I may be running out of rules to break and the motivating pleasures of audacity.

William Butler Yeats with cat

Also dreaming of catching fish. Are cat pictures the secret to gathering an Internet audience for poetry?


Here’s a piece today using a poem by someone who somewhat agrees with me: William Butler Yeats. In one way it’s specific to him, and his time. I’ve recently honored two working-class sport fishermen in one of my favorite pieces so far this year, but the fisherman in Yeats’ title, the simple man working his craft on nature to help feed himself rather than for hobbyist enjoyment—well, he, even in a much poorer Ireland of 1916, is admitted as imaginary.

Otherwise, how about those folks listed in the middle section of today’s piece that are harshing Yeats’ mellow? How little imagination is needed to see them today?

I admire Yeats in this poem, embracing his failure, even though he brought immense poetic talents to his work, so much so that I should be embarrassed to admit to that admiration. In one way, the fisherman here is Yeats, casting with deft wrist or verse, but not in the course of the poem catching anything. There’s a saying with the fishermen in my family, “It’s called fishing, not catching.”

But the imagined fisherman is also that audience Yeats seeks. Maybe once, Yeats says at the end, maybe once,  he can please an audience correctly, with a single valid poem and valiant audience—even if he can only see that audience in his imagination. I surely hope (and Yeats’ life helps me here) that the singular fisherman is an image for a possible greater audience, and not a headcount. After all, to write for something as large as “his race” (by which he means Ireland), is too small a target to hit, while that tweedy imagined fly-fisher inside his jacket might possibly expand to more countries, more times, more genders. In Yeats’ case, as with all artists, he failed; but he failed reaching for a larger audience with a larger poetry, a poetry which he risked allying with other arts. Many of us will not be able to accomplish that failure, but I’m glad Yeats tried.

You can hear my try to alloy William Butler Yeats “The Fisherman”  with a rock band by using the gadget below.


5 thoughts on “The Fisherman

  1. HI thanks for following my blog, The Violent Ink.

    I’ve been reading some of your posts and thought this was brilliant: “We got off the ferry and had a tasty early lunch of hip-casual fusion food in a place with a patio covered in sand that had a view of the beach, and past that to the ocean that which can’t be bothered with time, which is always visiting, and therefore isn’t a visitor.”

    And I enjoyed your comments on Mina Loy – coincidentally had just referenced her in a piece I wrote and your comment about Jakob Dylan’s father’s punim made me smile:-)


    The Violent Ink


    1. Because so much before the copyright cutoff of 1923 is now available (and re-usable without needing to negotiate rights–don’t get me started…) I’ve somewhat fallen down the rabbit-hole on those early 20th Century Modernists. I had sort of skipped over Loy earlier on, though the name kept coming up in browsing recent Modernist scholarship, but the Provincetown Playhouse, W. C. Williams and Futurist connections made with think of working up a performance, and once I looked at performing her work (a parallel act to deep textural analysis–similar in ways, but different) I really started to appreciate what she was doing.

      The ways the panoply of Modernists touched all the various radical political movements of the time remains interesting to me. Harder to get into this with Yeats and Eliot from what I know (so many deeper scholars of those two who will catch my ignorance) and I need to expend much time working on the performances and finding a range of material.

      Spent too much time looking into Julius Evola on Friday from a comment string on your blog when I should have been working on a composition. (grin). This is always a problem. Much of this stuff is worth a lifetime of reading and I don’t have that luxury.

      A final thought, which links up with some of the current issues you deal with at your blog is that this early 20th Century era has lessons for those young people a century later. There are going to a lot of people and movements who are going to claim to have new solutions to all the self-evident B.S.–and even if you can determine who is well-meaning, you need to keep the B.S. meter active at all times.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well that’s a lot:-)

        I was aware of Loy on my periphery and the periphery of the better known Modernist Heavyweights. I keep stumbling over her while looking for someone or something else.

        I always get a lick out of biographies and cultural histories that are being perfectly serious yet stumble into wry humor when they start listing the assorted freakishly wonderful and odd geniuses who show up for picnics or what-not – so you end up with something like: Mabel Dodge was having a spat with D.H. Lawrence when Mina Loy arrived with her new lamp and Stieglitz turned to O’Keefe and…

        As to the life-time of research I agree. I’ve been noodling a lot lately on just how mile wide inch deep the national discourse (I use the term loosely;-) ) is relative to just how much material there is and how complex it all is. Speaking of rabbit holes – my irritation with the Mad Hatter of Toronto Jordan Peterson has me reading about Hegel arguing with Kant who was arguing with Hume et al. and as one would expect I read a few pages and my head explodes.

        That reinforces your point about contemporaries who think x or y is “new” when of course someone said it a hundred or more years ago. (and in response to some writing even further back then that)

        Evola is a great example. I was detoxing from some online encounter with Gruppenfurher Bannon and Evola was ringing some creepy memory and then I recalled assorted Hemingway/Pound comments and there he was in all his reactionary leather, discipline and pseudo-mythic insanity.

        You’re right about Pound but have no fear that some smarty pants will bring you up short. He was a fascist and a genius. Same with Genet and Eliot. All three were vile but the writing is still important.

        That’s an interesting thing about Modernism that to me mirrors current discussions about Populism. Trump and Sanders are both Populists though one is a malignant troll and the other is not.

        Pound and Eliot and Genet are Mod and the dark side of the movement where as Joyce and Faulkner are not but the patois is the same. They just arrive at different conclusions – and in not small ways. I read a great book (1922 Year Zero) about the first moments of the cultural tide of Modernism and there was a great note differentiating between Joyce being appalled by the death penalty and Eliot thanking the Daily Mail for celebrating Mussolini. I’ve always admired Joyce and that detail made me glad I had.

        Yeats is an odd duck. Half in bed with the Irish Blue Shirt fascists but also busy with the Abbey Theater – Pound was his office monkey for a while and it was Pound who got Yeats to send Joyce a 100 quid while he was starving in Trieste. And Yeats and Maude Gunn is an epic – surprised no one has made a movie about it.

        But all of that also speaks to the contradictions and shades of grey. Yeats as reactionary is as true as Yeats as Romantic or Nationalist or Contrarian supporter of The Avant Garde.

        I was also struck by your mention of O’Neil for a variety of reasons not the least of which is that he was at one point renting a summer house with John Reed and having an affair with Reed’s sometime partner Louise Bryant. It’s like the links between Loy & co. I discovered recently that Bryant was the wife of the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union – the perfectly named, Mr. Bullitt.

        He is famous for throwing a wild party at his residence (Spaso House, Moscow) in 1936 attended by everyone of the top Soviets except Joe but including, Mikhail Bulgakov who used it as inspiration for one of the major scenes in The Master and Margaritte. Meanwhile Bullitt’s other partner a fellow who was social secretary for the ambassador shows up a few years later on the periphery of the McCarthy witch hunts and assorted spy intrigues in DC in the 50s and early 60s.

        The Modernists are a kind of rally point in history. Start down the rabbit hole and eventually you run into everyone.;-)

        And yes, keep the B.S. meter active!

        All fascinating and I agree with your points.

        I was aware of Loy both on my periphery and the periphery of the better known Modernist Heavyweights.

        Liked by 1 person

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