I’ve always been such a worshipper of Yeats, but it’s been so long since I sat down and read him, and I fear I have lost touch. This morning something entirely random caused me to pick up his collected works, and I found myself re-reading, for probably the first time since I was in college, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” where I stumbled upon this:
Some burn damp fagots, others may consume
The entire combustible world in one small room
As though dried straw, and if we turn about
The bare chimney is gone black out
Because the work had finished in that flare.
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
As ’twere all life’s epitome.
What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?
Like any poet, I’ve always had my heroes. Shakespeare (duh) and Donne, whose “Meditation XVII” I inisted be read at my grandfather’s funeral – because after all, funerals are for the living, not the dead. So my friend and teacher Jim Booth read it, elegantly and profoundly, and for a brief moment there was something in Wallburg Baptist Church I could hold onto.
There was Eliot, who wrote “The Waste Land,” which I regard as the greatest single poem in the English language. Dylan Thomas, with his gift for transforming mere words into things that crackled with muse-fire (have I ever read anything quite as magical as “Child’s Christmas in Wales“?) Charles Wright, perhaps our greatest living poet, who I actually met once at a reception given by The New Virginia Review for those of us appearing in their 1988 volume. (My apologies to the two nice ladies who I figuratively crawled over to get to Wright, by the way – I’m grateful that they didn’t call me on my inexcusable manners.)
In one way or another, you can see and hear the influence of Eliot, Thomas and Wright in my work. But the one who was greater than them all was William Butler Yeats, a man I believe is the greatest English-speaking poet in history. Oddly, though I always held him in greater regard than any other writer, I never felt like he was really an influence on me (although this calls into question exactly what that word means, I know).
I tried, when I was younger, to write in the manner of Yeats (all artists go through a period when they imitate their heroes – the good ones grow out of it), but felt that everything I tried in that vein was a sad, juvenile failure. Over time, I concluded that he was simply too good to emulate. Most writers have stylistic tendencies, whether in form or language or theme, that you can sort of pick up on and play with. But once Yeats’ set aside the overt Irish mythology tropes of his early work, he grew into something that for me, at least, transcended the individual elements of his craft. If you were able to seize on something that a reader would notice as Yeatsian, it probably came off like a cheap parlor trick that did little besides cast a harsh light on the real gulf between your talent and his. (And I was ever mindful of Yeats’ own thoughts about his imitators, as well.)
So I stopped trying to be like Yeats, and while I revered his work, I gave up the idea that he was ever going to be an “influence” in any way that could be observed.
Oddly, two or three people who read drafts of my most recent book – which isn’t finished yet, as much as I wish it were – went out of their way to comment on how it reminded them in places of Yeats. I was at once tremendously gratified at such high praise and absolutely baffled at what they were talking about. I still haven’t figured it out, to be honest. The part of me that hopes I’m really good thinks maybe this means I’ve reached a point where I’m starting to cultivate that same overarching organic command that he had – a gift for creating a magnificent whole that was somehow oblivious to the tedious details of its parts. But the part of me that’s smart enough to know my own limitations realizes how silly I’m being. Maybe I put a phrase together in a way that evoked something in the reader, quite by accident. I don’t know.
Still, nobody can take the compliment away from me, can they? And since nobody writes poetry for the money, that’s about as good as it gets.
The point of all this lies in the second line of that verse above: “The entire combustible world in one small room…” That, of course, is the title of Don Dixon’s fantastic 2006 CD, which earned a Platinum LP as one of the year’s best releases. I’m embarrassed that I missed the reference, an error that has me feeling like I cheated the record. Don is one of those artists whose music can be so toe-tappingly tasty that it seduces you into overlooking the currents of depth and thoughtfulness rushing along beneath the surface.
We live in a world that encourages attention to the surface and that mocks those who take the time to think about what’s being served. This morning, some stray, unrelated impulse led me to pick up Yeats and start snooping through his post-Easter Rebellion work for images I can use in a project I’m working on. And for a few minutes Yeats and Dixon conspired to haul me beneath the surface.
I’m not a Christian, but I’m mindful of what day it is. And I’m reminded of what was bubbling just beneath the surface in Dublin 91 years ago. I apologize if all the synapses lining up in my head make no sense to you – that’s the curse of being me, perhaps.
But maybe I’m a few steps closer to the image I set out in search of, after all. I’ll sign off with a thanks to Don Dixon for making music that keeps on mattering, even when you aren’t paying attention to it, and this:
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.