Helen Vendler: Reading and Riffing on W. B. Yeats

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

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Helen Vendler: A Poem’s Best Friend

Helen Vendler — the poet’s best friend and the reader’s too — helps you hear a poem by showing you first how to see it.

Look, for example, at Yeats’s famous World War I memorial for Major Robert Gregory, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The difference between reading this elegy not as a speech, but as a poem is as simple and striking as realizing that the poem has the form of a perfect cube:

AN IRISH AIRMAN FORESEES HIS DEATH

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

From THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE (1919) in William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems

That is, the shape of it is 4 x 4 x 4. Four beats in each line. Four lines in each of the “quatrains” (each in the “perfect” rhyming order a b a b, in this case). And four quatrains (not separated here into four stanzas) in the poem.

So the one-off form of the thing is as elegantly, decisively squared away as the soldierly beat of the marching monosyllables: “fate,” “hate,” “love,” “cross,” “loss,” and the rest. Form makes a tight fit with the cool, collected thought the poem voices. The form itself is a statement of the sad but settled order in Major Gregory’s mind. So the original shape of this poem becomes virtually inseparable from its “message.” Or as Helen Vendler puts it in her new account of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, “By such formal means Yeats confirms that the airman’s choice is the correct one for his soul.”

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Yeats is labeled the “last Romantic” by some, the “first Modernist” by others. It’s not the sort of argument Helen Vendler is impelled to settle. The thrust of her much-admired “close reading” is rather that Yeats was the Compleat Formalist: a hard-working, endlessly original genius when it came to variation and invention in the size, shape and settings of his staggering phrases, a master of all the poetic tricks of “rhythm, balance, pattern,” as he said, and the imagery of passion.

There’s an informal conversation here — and not specially about form, either. When you ask Helen Vendler about a Yeats poem, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard has an endearing, unaffected habit of reaching for her trusty Collected Poems and then introducing, reciting and riffing on the work with barely a look at the text.

I asked her to sit by the hearth for Open Source and show us how to see and hear a few of the great Yeats poems we think we half-know… and to break through the surface familiarity of lines like “That is no country for old men,” or “A terrible beauty is born,” and “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The poems are: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Never Give All The Heart”, “Easter 1916”, and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

Pull up a comfortable chair, please…

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