Let me briefly slip, Wordsworth-like, into reverie, and note that “Oft, when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood…” I turn to the vast daffodilian array of scanned material available from a brief Internet search. I’d been thinking about Irish poets after reading this exchange between poets Ann Grá and Sean Thomas Dougherty. Grá asked “What’s the best way to improve one’s active writing vocabulary?” Dougherty’s answer? “Read Irish poets. Everything will improve. Including life.” Irish poets mentioned — and William Butler Yeats enters the chat. You may have noticed that I led-off last time by remembering a Yeats poem about a friend whose work has come to nothing. This all entered into seeking another Yeats poem to perform this week. I came upon this one. Poetry workshop devotees, note that I read it even though it has just about the most generic title imaginable: “A Coat.”
But here’s the neat thing: I was able to read it in its first American publication, situated exactly with added meaning and context in a scanned copy of a 1914 number of Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry magazine. Poetry, the magazine, was fairly new. Yeats reputation was well-established — so publishing a tranche of new Yeats poems was likely “a get” for Monroe rather than a breakthrough for an emerging poet. With rhyming coincidence, the selection of 11 Yeats’ poems begins with that one from last time “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” and ends with today’s: “A Coat.” These poems are followed by a short editor’s note from Monroe who writes of the resistance from cultured readers to the Modernist verse her less than two-year-old magazine had received, singling out the objections to Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems* she’d published. Then as I read the scanned magazine, and without even a page-break, the indispensable English-language Imagist Mephistopheles, Ezra Pound, pops up from the hellmouth trap-door with a review of Yeats new verse.
Then, as often now, what sits on the page as if it’s an objective bit of selected poetic criticism is really an insider comment from those who already know each other in some way.** Pound reviews “A Coat” specifically in his piece, just a few pages past the poem’s American unveiling. “Is Mr. Yeats an Imagiste?” Pound is rhetorically asked. “No,” Pound answers himself, “but he has written des Images as have many good poets before him.” In writing here about Yeats then current poetry Pound praises the directness of style and unfussy language and syntax the Irish poet is now using. He mentions that Yeats’ earlier poetry with a more 19th century music and setting has attracted followers and imitators in their now 20th century, but perhaps the imitators miss some of its vitality — so much so that Pound wonders if the reader would “Rather read Yeats in the original” than these bad copies. Pound’s conclusion? “I’ve not a word against the glamour as it appears in Yeats’ early poems, but we have had so many other pseudo-glamours and glamourlets and mists and fogs since the nineties that one is about ready for a hard light.”
So, why do Irish writers have something to teach us other English speakers about using our language. First off, as a colonized and exploited country, they may look at the language from a critical parallax. If it’s the language of your colonizer, your oppressor, you may want to ask what English words should do, and you have reasons to be warry of what they can do.*** And I have a second idea, less fully-formed, that the whole mists and fogs of Celtic folklore, to which Yeats added his own caldrons of turn-of-the-20th-century magic and occult stuff, offer a conscientious poetic distiller a chance to speak the shades of the ineffable vividly in their poetry because their folkloric traditions and magikal folderol have already saturated their personal needs for glamorous elaboration. Other poets embroidered robes, either traditional or ceremonial, will get caught in such, but if one can escape, you have the contrast of a new clarity. This clarity is different — you have the experience of having worn the long robe, and now the new Eden.
Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, then Adam explained plant-based couture Eve wonders why she suddenly knows the Latin genus Toxicodendron.
Today’s performance of Yeats’ “A Coat” has music for solo acoustic guitar, something that I’ve fallen back to often this past summer. The final guitar performance turned out to be an exercise in the various timbres I could pull from the guitar. The tuning and chord voicings used had several two and even three-string unisons which resonate and sustain, and then some contrasting pizzicato muted notes. You can hear it with a player gadget below — or if you don’t see that, with this backup highlighted link.
*Reading Monroe’s 1914 account reminds me of just how alien Sandburg’s poetry must have seemed to an early 20th century ear. To my 21st century ear and mind, I can more easily find the music in it, and I treasure now his Imagist “direct treatment of the thing” being applied to ordinary life, workers, immigrants, and the cultural powers that obfuscated that with elaborate English language.
**The American Pound and the Irish Yeats were both in London at this time. It’s likely that Pound himself was the conduit by which the new Yeats poems found their way into Monroe’s magazine. London then was the locus of the new Imagist ideals which stressed simplicity. Poets who wrote primarily in metrical and rhymed forms then, such as Yeats, Frost, Hardy, and Edward Thomas absorbed or resonated with this new, fresh, directness as a poetic effect.
***Though for various reasons this project has limitations on using modern English-language poetry, it strikes me that contemporary American poetry benefits from similar parallaxes. I was going to supply a catalog of those groups who know English as having been used as the language of an oppression, but it occurs that anyone who’d go with this thought can already supply their own catalog.