Saturday, March 24, 2007

Raw, Ragged Frenzy

I find myself drawn to poets out of my distant past lately--like Yeats. Yeats was my first great poet love. And I have discovered as I type quickly, that his name can be mistyped "yeast." What drew me to him 20-25 years ago was that tautness of the lines--the easy, almost slutty flow of the iambic pentameter--in Yeats it feels so casual: "those dying generations -- at their song, / The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas." The meter here is soooo easy, like water flowing down a hillside. And Yeats' rhymes are also so casual--of course, it's all terribly calculated, carefully worked, to give the impression of ease, but no matter.

So there's the rhythmic tension, expectations, the rhymes, the whole formal bit giving shape to it. But Yeats is always going after something BIG. He's always going after something formless. And the diction becomes complex and sometimes disorganized. In the two lines I quoted from "Sailing to Byzantium," the diction is rich, but not discovery is not the point of that diction--it's not like a contemporary poet like, for example, Dorothea Tanning & her protege whose name I temporarily forget because I have been out for a birthday dinner, where the point is to strike sparks one against each other with words, to go for the unexpected combos. No, here he mixes multisyllabic with very short words--the language gets thick with tri-syllabic words, rather than unusual.

And the first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium" is really interesting from the point of view of syntax:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
--Those dying generations--at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

The whole stanza moves around the prepositional phrase "at their song." That's the turn--because where does it fit? What does it modify? It follows a noun phrase separated from the rest of the stanza by dashes, so the phrase "at their song" is also dislocated. Does it mean that the various entities named are all working "at their song"? Applying themselves to song? Or does it mean that at the sound of their song they make commendation? Or at the sound of their song, commendations are made by some other entity? The "song" is in motion--the monuments are still, part of the artifice of art I was talking about yesterday--the cold stillness of art vs. the warmth of life, life as a sort of lesser art.

It's interesting here that what Yeats appears to be getting at is something like Williams' worlds of experience and existence: from the world of experience one gets the materials for art, but the world of experience is not quite art, it is only a sort of springboard toward it. The world of experience makes a lesser, imperfect art. The world of existence is where art is perfected, something parallel, sort of like this world but different from it. For Williams, this does not involve regret--for Yeats, it does. Art's perfection is a form of dying, a giving up of something essential to being human.

Yeats brings it up again in "Byzantium":

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

And later in the poem:

In glory of changeless metal [the golden bird]
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

What does he mean by "complexities"? This is part of what the neat formalism cannot contain, and I think, of course, that Yeats does not want it contained. I mean, we can define this word within the world of the poem, "complexities," but the word signifies more than its apparent meaning and context. It's a big concept, a big, broad Platonic concept, and it simply has no exact earthly equivalent. Even though he's talking about earthly things. Because he's talking about earthly things looking down at them from the precipice of Art. So what he sees below is very small, yet very ornate, very, well, complex. By complex, I think he almost means blurry, too hard to see or figure out, not worth it. But a wildness, a wildness is contained within--complexity has the edge of wildness to it, something untamed, uncivilized, and attractive.

That's what you get in the mature poems: the formal latticework that barely reins in this pulsing wildness with the diction and syntax. All of his great poems feel like they're about to burst the dams--the mixing of formal and casual diction, the odd syntactic shifts, the syntactic dislocations, the frenzied rotations of sounds--the poetry gets some of its power as well from the thematic tension between artistic perfection & coldness, and the raw, ragged frenzy of life--like the end of "Among School Children":

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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