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Posts Tagged ‘W.B. Yeats’

Who Does This Alice Think She Is, Anyway? and Other News

June 11, 2015 | by

An illustration by John Tenniel for The Nursery “Alice,” 1890.

  • Alice, of Wonderland fame, has osmosed right on into the culture and found a life of her own; we no longer need to read Lewis Carroll’s books to feel that we know her. But we should read Carroll—there’s a certain amount of drift between his Wonderland and the one we think we understand. “Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, ‘Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.’ Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.”
  • This Saturday marks Yeats’s sesquicentennial, an occasion celebrated easily enough by reading his poems—but why not read his plays, which are always given short shrift among his work? In a way, they anticipated Beckett: “What happens in a Yeats play can be startling. Purgatory, for example, verges on the lurid. Its material is the rough red wine of sex and violence: a woman’s lust for her groom and their son’s murderous determination to extirpate her sin in blood. Yeats’s genius is to distill that red wine into a fine but heady spirit, a short, incredibly potent theatrical essence that goes straight to both the head and the guts.”
  • Since Jerry Seinfeld declared, earlier this week, that he no longer plays college campuses because they’re “too P.C.”—such a taboo-buster, that Seinfeld, with his wry observations!—many have asked if comedy is in jeopardy. They often lean on the same tired rhetoric about laughter’s potential as a “unifying force”; why? “Comedy isn’t supposed to be anything, except what the comedian tries to make it—harmless, mean, political, dirty, dumb. You wouldn’t say that music or fiction are ‘supposed’ to be anything; so why do we saddle all comedy with a curative democratic mission? Too often we view comedy as a craft, a service brought to us by cheerful comfort-workers, more than the work of serious artists. Thus, when they don’t comfort us, we want to complain to the manager.”
  • “I can remember in the Fifties when Goatman would come by, up near Arab, Ala. The first time I ever saw him we were picking cotton in the fields near Arab and he was coming down the road. You could hear him coming a mile away with all the bells and all the pots and pans rattling. People would come by and say, ‘Goatman’s coming! Goatman’s coming!’ We’d all rush to the end of the cotton row to watch Goatman go by.” That’s Ansel Elkins, quoting her father in a new interview about her poems and the South.
  • Chinese publishers routinely censor their translations of Western books—and the West just as routinely greets this news with a small shrug. “As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international publishing, they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.”

No Slouch

April 7, 2015 | by

The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

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An undated photo of Yeats by the Bain News Service.

A recent Russia Today headline suggests that Europe is “slouching towards anxiety and war.” According to the title of Robert Bork’s latest best seller, the United States is Slouching Towards Gomorrah. A new book by W. C. Harris, an English professor, claims we’re Slouching Towards Gaytheism. A casual reader might wonder why the nations of the world have such terrible posture; is it that the earth is slouching towards bedlam? Have things fallen apart?

The only thing not doing any slouching these days is the “rough beast” in W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the 1919 poem from which the phrase originates: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

But Yeats’s beast, it must be said, isn’t deteriorating or dying in its slouching, as the many references to the phrase would have you believe; rather, it slouches in steady, dedicated progress toward a goal. It’s actually a terrifying sight: the poem’s narrator intuits that the beast is coming to wreak some untold havoc. (At least one blog got this subtlety right in a headline about the 2012 election cycle: “Romney slouching toward GOP nomination.”)

“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right? Read More »

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“Grammatico-political Monstrosities,” and Other News

March 31, 2015 | by

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From Puck Magazine, 1900.

  • In which Tom McCarthy, Rachel Kushner, Paul Muldoon, and other writers are photographed in their offices: “Helicopters, the L.A.P.D.’s crazy hobby, thunder overhead, chasing some guy who stole a Honda Element,” Kushner writes of her home office in LA. “The whoop-whoop of sirens comes next. I sit at my desk, less than a mile from the criminal courts and the jail, structures of human sacrifice, where people’s lives get wrecked.”
  • “I talked about the times he had slapped me and the times he had locked me in the cellar, and the point of these stories was always the same: his fury was always triggered by some petty detail, some utter triviality, and as such was actually comical. At any rate we laughed when we told the stories. Once I had left a pair of gloves on the bus and he slapped me in the face when he found out. I had leaned against the wobbly table in the hall and sent it flying and he came over and hit me. It was absolutely absurd!” A new excerpt from the long-awaited fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
  • A strain of occultism runs through Yeats’s poetry—“do-it-yourself religion,” as Seamus Heaney called it—and sure enough, “as a young man, according to the scholar Kathleen Raine, Yeats had a pack of Tarot cards among his ‘few and treasured possessions.’ In London, in 1887, he was initiated into the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, one of those secret societies that tend, as Raine remarks, ‘to relate everything with everything—letters with numbers, with cycles of months, years, and the signs of the zodiac, with parts of the body, celestial and infernal hierarchies of angels, with minerals, metals, plants, and animals.’ ”
  • On Obadiah Slope, the “calculating curate” at the center of Trollope’s Barchester Towers: “Isn’t Slope just a man seeking a better job and, into the bargain, a wife with a comfortable income? What exactly does he do, and why is he so disturbing? Ruthlessly fawning, constantly trying to wriggle his way into favor with the rich and powerful, and in the process tread on the heads of others, Slope is a particularly poisonous example of the kind of creep that haunts almost any organization or social group.”
  • Reports by the World Bank are torturing the English language like never before—these “grammatico-political monstrosities” amount to a new form of expression, “Bankspeak.” “In the world of ‘management’, people have goals and agendas; faced with opportunities, challenges and critical situations, they elaborate strategies. To appreciate the novelty, let’s recall that, in the 1950s–60s, issues were studied by experts who surveyed and conducted missions, published reports, assisted, advised and suggested programs.”

Peacock-eating for Poetical Public Relations, and Other News

February 25, 2015 | by

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A mural in Switzerland. Photo: Roland zh

  • In a 1914 publicity stunt—back when poets were free to partake of the great PR machine—Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and four others gathered at a luncheon to eat a peacock. “The papers were alerted, and news of the meal spread far and wide, from the London Times to the Boston Evening Transcript.”
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, your humble correspondent, is traveling across America for The New York Times Magazine: “The editor proposed that I travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it. ‘A tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,’ as he put it.”
  • Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner: the Romantic legacy of these composers lives on … in first-person shooters. “The grandiloquent sounds of the nineteenth century are still alive in the new millennium … but only when someone is getting bludgeoned, bloodied, blown-up, or decimated with automatic weapons … Even heavy metal isn’t heavy enough for most composers seeking to juice up their combat scenes. We need something with a little more sturm und drang.
  • Starting to write a book is hard. Then there’s the whole middle part—also difficult. And finally there’s the end, which is no cakewalk, either. Can we learn anything from the last sentences in famous novels? “For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game.”
  • On rereading Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, a 1982 memoir of her turbulent marriage to John Berryman: “For a long time I could not shake the belief that these poets, all of them dead before their time from madness, self-neglect or suicide, paid a noble price for their pursuit of truth and beauty … I don’t think that anymore. Now, it’s Simpson herself who seems to be the hero … Simpson, who became a psychotherapist and went on to publish several books, writes with an almost uncanny clemency and a kind of cerulean objectivity. Where there might have been bitterness there is, instead, compassion.”

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Berryman and Yeats Light Up

October 24, 2014 | by

Tomorrow marks the centenary of John Berryman’s birth.

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Craven_a_virginia_s_20_h_white_red_with_a_cat_jamaicaI went in and asked for Mr. Yeats. Very much like asking, “Is Mr. Ben Jonson here?” And he came down. He was much taller than I expected, and haggard. Big, though, big head, rather wonderful looking in a sort of a blunt, patrician kind of way, but there was something shrunken also. He told me he was just recovering from an illness. He was very courteous, and we went in to tea. At a certain point, I had a cigarette, and I asked him if he would like one. To my great surprise he said yes. So I gave him a Craven “A” and then lit it for him, and I thought, Immortality is mine! From now on it's just a question of reaping the fruits of my effort. He did most of the talking. I asked him a few questions. He did not ask me any questions about myself, although he was extremely courteous and very kind. At one point he said, “I have reached the age when my daughter can beat me at croquet,” and I thought, Hurrah, he's human! I made notes on the interview afterward, which I have probably lost. One comment in particular I remember. He said, “I never revise now”—you know how much he revised his stuff—“but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don't know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it. He recommended various books to me by his friend, the liar, Gogarty, and I forget who else. The main thing was just the presence and existence of my hero.

—John Berryman, The Art of Poetry No. 16, 1972

 

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An ad for Berryman‘s books from our Winter 1972 issue, in which his Art of Poetry interview appeared.

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To Suit the Occasion

October 20, 2014 | by

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School of Martin Van Meytens, Coronation Banquet for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in Frankfurt, 1764.

In the spring of 2000, The Paris Review published an issue dedicated to poetry—dubbed, in fact, the Poetry Issue—including a series of prompts for poets and an essay by Robert Pinsky, who was then the U.S. Poet Laureate. Pinsky is seventy-four today; an excerpt of his essay, “Occasional Poetry and Poetry on Occasions,” follows.

What does it mean that so many distinguished and gifted poets responded to the somewhat goofy games and assignments suggested by The Paris Review for this issue? Not just willingly, but with spirit, they have composed poems to strange titles like “An Empty Surfboard on a Flat Sea” and “Lavatory in a Cathedral,” written commentaries on worksheets—written, in other words, to suit the occasion.

Occasions have elicited poems throughout history: coronations, birthdays, weddings, victories, executions, seductions (successful and unsuccessful), births, and deaths have their genres and great examples. Poems responding to specific circumstances have ranged from the agonized majesty of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” to the humblest good-humored verses produced for benign laughs at the office retirement party or a family anniversary. Donne wrote “the Anniversaries” on assignment and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” is the most gloriously entertaining in-group, after-dinner speech in the language.

Does this play of talent in response to occasions and assignments tell us anything about the art of poetry? Many poets have been unwilling or unable to write on assignment, in response to circumstance but even their work has been used after the fact—quoted in speeches, inscribed in stone, read at the graveside or after the victory. (Anyone who writes or studies poetry can remember being asked for something suitable to be recited at a wedding or a funeral.)

Occasional poetry is a reminder that poetry is related to speech a little bit in the way dance is related to walking: it is more playful, as well as more serious. Poetry’s medium is not merely light as air, it is air: vital and deep as ordinary breath. Read More »

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