Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More About Yeats

Thomas Banks wonders what I think of the poems in (and before) Yeats' 1899 volume, "The Wind Among The Reeds." It's a good question, because Yeats 'modernized' his style around the turn of the century. Early Yeats is different from later. It's a long time since I've read or thought about this very great poet and I'm glad to be doing that now. Some of the earlier poems, like the Lake Isle of Innisfree ("I will arise and go now . . ."), The Song of the Wandering Aengus and Who Goes With Fergus? never lose their charm. The Rose of the World takes us straight into the fin de siecle sensibility of a poet like Ernest Dowson. (We use to pay our kids so much a foot to memorize poetry and The Song of the Wandering Aengus was one of the poems they especially liked.)

Yeats wrote a number of poems about the kind of poetry he was trying to write; or about the way he had changed his style as a poet. The following come to mind: Adam's Curse, To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing, A Coat, Ego Dominus Tuus, The Fisherman, The Circus Animals Desertion. What he says of Dante applies to him: "He set his chisel to the hardest stone." Like Eliot and Pound, he wanted to put as much distance as he could between his own poetry and conventional notions of poetry as self-expression, which he despised as bourgeois. And I'm pretty sure Frost and Wallace Stevens--and probably most of the other great modernist poets and artists would have agreed, though not perhaps in quite those terms. Modernist art, then, is implicitly aristocratic. Which is why it is not popular among post-modernist intellectuals and academics, and why they would like to pretend that it doesn't exist.

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