The Stare’s Nest at My Window

I’ve done a number of William Butler Yeats poems here over the years as part of this project. We might agree that occurred because his words on the page just demand to be sounded. But there’s another side to Yeats that attracts too. He can write about political subjects with that same lyrical voice.*

One potential problem with political poetry is that a poet may not share the reader’s political stance, and while Yeats later dalliance with Fascism seems less ardent than Ezra Pound’s stronger convictions, the excellence of a poet’s lyrical gifts can’t save all examples.

Where Yeats succeeds in his political poetry, it’s often when he’s expressing complex moments of political disappointment or even disaster. This is properly the lyric poet’s area: the form where poetry isn’t about ideas but the experience of ideas.  When Yeats does this the details that led to these moments are sometimes sketched in, but the poem can succeed even if one knows nothing about them.**

After all, every person with a cause eventually knows days when the cause seems damaged, perverted or defeated.

Today’s Yeats poem is a case in point. In my parochial ignorance I knew nothing about the events of the Irish Civil War of 1922. Reading a bit about it could add some more resonance to the harrowing tale Yeats tells in this poem taken from a short sequence of poems he wrote that year about the conflict, but I don’t think the reader needs  to know those details for the poem to be powerful.

The poem has a central image, referred to in a refrain at the end of each stanza: honey bees and starlings*** are both nesting in the deteriorating brickwork of the place Yeats is staying in Ireland during this civil war, symbolizing those Irish factions fighting. Yeats seems to stand with the honey bees, which I read as the industrious, pragmatic, and fruitful symbol. The starlings are only raising their own brood in the same wall crevices, but from what I understand the starlings of the British Isles are somewhat of a nuisance bird, lacking in beauty and melodious song.****  Note too the detail that the starlings are being fed “grubs and flies.” Maybe the starlings aren’t evil, but what they’ve been given to subsist and grow on isn’t portrayed as lovely, a thought echoed in the final stanza.

Thoor Ballyee (Yeats Tower)

Not quite an ivory tower. Yeats had bought this old castle tower in disrepair. This page says they are still trying to repair it.

 

So, written in the sorrow of a civil war in his freshly independent country, Yeats’ plea is for a time when the chippering and tweeting loudmouths will eventually give way to those who may one day make his country prosper, though they will do so building in a country that has been emptied and hollowed out by the current disaster. That’s not a political platform, but it is an experience  that you and I may resonate with now.

Musically I didn’t stint on the discordant effects this time. Despite spending a few days with this one, it may take more time and listens for me to decide if I did right by Yeats with it. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget to hear my music and performance is just below.

 

 

 

*Although Yeats wrote about a variety of subjects, it’s easy to find him fitting into the same bag as other poets seeking to reform their culture out from under colonialism. In that effort he may be more of a cultural nationalist than a functioning politician (despite his eventual term in the Irish legislature), but this concern was central to his art.

**That said, one of the most popular posts here over the years has been this one about the exact issue and persons behind the Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”

***Yeats chose to use an archaic name for the common starling: “stare.” Yeats claimed the name was still in use in Western Ireland, but it still seems to be a deliberate choice . Stare does give him more rhyming words, but I also wonder if Yeats was thinking of punning undercurrents of stare as in looking—looking as in out his Irish window at his vision for a new independent Ireland; and “stair” as in a climb toward a higher, more perfect purpose than centuries of colonial exploitation followed by civil war. Or even “state.”

****Despite the bird’s little-liked vocalizations, starlings can learn and repeat other sounds in their environment. The best story I came upon in looking for information on why Yeats might have chosen the starling for his poem was the tale of the composer Mozart’s pet starling who could sing Mozartian passages. The starling’s discontinuous song has also been posited as an inspiration for Mozart’s famously odd-ball A Musical Joke” (K. 522)

I Hear an Army

Metaphors, implied or direct, are a form of an equation. If E=mc2 or 2+2=4 then should fog=little cats feet? Well, not exactly. But for some poems the metaphor, the image and “what it means,” is surprisingly equal at each side of the equals sign.

Here’s a poem that Ezra Pound included in the first Imagist anthology in 1914, written by someone we don’t normally think of as an Imagist, or even as a poet: James Joyce. While Joyce didn’t consider himself a member of the Imagist movement, his fellow Modernist Pound considered this work consistent with its principles.

Oddly, the case for Joyce as poet instead of the instigator of the modern literary short story form and the creator of increasingly avant-garde novels has been largely carried forward by folks (like me) who wish to combine words with music. The James Joyce poem I first knew, “Golden Hair,”  came to me from Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett’s lovely setting written in the 1960s and used beautifully a decade or so ago to begin Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock’n’Roll.” Today’s words from Joyce, “I Hear an Army”  was set to a complex piano accompaniment by famed 20th Century composer Samuel Barber along with two other Joyce poems as his 1939 Three Songs” (Op. 10).”

James_Joyce_Kicks_out_the_Jams

James “Blind Boy”Joyce kicks out the jams

 

As words, “I Hear an Army”  is very musical (the consonance of “whirling laughter” alone is exquisite!), but that element wasn’t rated as highly by mid-20th Century critics who redefined poetry as a literature of complex and hermetic language. Still, its central image shows a bilateralism that I’d like to point out. I think most will see this first as a love song with a strong and strange metaphor of loneliness and separation from one’s beloved as feeling like the invasion of a grotesque and threatening army. Loneliness=as oppressive and overwhelming as an invading army.

But what if we reverse the equation? Is an invading army, this oncoming hoard, this force of arrogance, also like the absence of love, the sundered heart and the steeled will? Invasion, war=separation from love and our beloved—separation for not only the invaded but the invaders.

When an image can sustain this kind of bilateralism, it gains tremendous power. Maybe not mass times the speed of light squared, the force that hung over my youth, cleaving dreams, and whose blinding flame is seeking to haunt us again, but power none-the-less.

Vase or Faces

Vase or faces? Bilateralism in imagery.

 

Not to dis Barber, a giant, but I think there’s room for a different way to present “I Hear an Army”  combined with music. If you use the player below, you’ll hear my original music for this, not Barber’s. Some take the Barber at rapid tempo, horses at full gallop. I don’t have a score to say what guidance Barber gave for that, but there’s a power in slowing dread—after all it’s a cinematic cliché to show an onrushing threat in slow-motion.

My predominant accompaniment for “I Hear an Army”  is a vocal chorus using different vocal timbres, including a low part using Himalayan Tuvan throat singing where two pitches are sung simultaneously. Other than the two short rock band interludes, the only “instrument” used is electric bass.

 

Implications of Fireworks

Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.

What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.

signing the declaration

“Yes, treason against the crown and the divine right of kings, and we could all hang tomorrow,
but  can I add a part about dispensing with the noisemakers? I could use a little sleep tonight.”

But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.

And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.

I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.

That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks”  a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.

To hear my performance of Dave Moore’s “Implications of Fireworks” use the player below.