Celebrating National Poetry Month: Yeats and Modern Poetry
Written by: Edna Longley
I wrote Yeats and Modern Poetry because I think that W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) did more than any other poet to create something we recognise as ‘modern poetry’. Without Yeats, there might not be a ‘poetry month’ today. For me, T.S. Eliot is a much more academic poet than Yeats – which explains why Eliot is so beloved by the academy. Yeats has many academic admirers too. But his poetry abundantly embraces the world we all inhabit, the sensory world, the public world. The first chapter of my book is called ‘Ireland as Audience’. Of course, the Irish audience often rejected Yeats’s ideas. But that rejection became part of his inspiration. Ireland helped him to understand and represent conflict. Ireland made his lyrics dramatic. During the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Yeats was constantly quoted. And his political poems had not dated. Indeed, they remain ahead of contemporary Irish politics. Yeats’s great sequences of the 1920s, such as ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, also reflect the chaos in Europe after the First World War. And when global chaos recurs – as now – the poem most often quoted is Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’: ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed …’.
Yeats is also a poet of interior conflict, a poet of psychological modernity.
Yeats is also a poet of interior conflict, a poet of psychological modernity. He is a great love poet and a great elegist. Because his poetry is so various, it’s difficult to have a favourite poem. Or, rather, my favourite Yeats poem keeps changing. Consider such magnificent opening lines as:
‘I have met them at close of day/ Coming with vivid faces’ (‘Easter, 1916’)
‘The trees are in their autumn beauty’ (‘The Wild Swans at Coole’)
‘Many ingenious lovely things are gone’ (‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’) ‘That is no country for old men’ (‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
‘Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye’ (‘High Talk’)
Yeats is still teaching poets, not only poets who write in English, how to create their own shapes.
These lines combine vernacular immediacy, rhythmic vitality and dramatic gesture. Yeats’s poems are themselves ‘ingenious lovely things’. They are ‘high talk’. They heighten talk. Yeats’s early poetry has a different kind of (languorous) beauty. But he worked very hard to develop what he called ‘a powerful and passionate syntax’. That was how he recharged the structures of poetry. He never thought that traditional poetic forms and genres had been exhausted. ‘High Talk’ is a defence of poetry at its most ambitious and intense. Yeats said, paradoxically: ‘Even what I alter must seem traditional.’ It’s sometimes assumed that, owing to Eliot and Ezra Pound, modern poetry is dominated by modes of free verse. This has not really been the case. During the 1930s (a decade of increasing chaos) Louis MacNeice wrote that Yeats showed poets that they must try to ‘put shape upon the world’. Yeats is still teaching poets, not only poets who write in English, how to create their own shapes. And, at a time when poetry is often marginalised, he also stands for belief in poetry as the most complex human utterance: ‘high talk’.
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