Yeats: Why The Old Weirdo Matters Now More Than Ever

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It fell necessary some time ago to mark one or other anniversary to do with the poet WB Yeats. Mea Culpa! I can’t remember which one. It couldn’t have been the centenary of his birth, because that would have made him less than one year old when he wrote Easter 1916. Mind you, I wouldn’t put anything past the prodigious old weirdo.

I chanced to hear one of the “events” allegedly devoted to the great man. It billed itself as a radio documentary exploring the life and legacy of Yeats. Any actual exploration proved entirely incidental however, as the programme basically involved (plus ca change) various members of Ireland’s artistic and cultural Cosa Nostra talking about themselves and occasionally mentioning the fact that they come from (broadly speaking) the same country as Yeats, and that while the venerable WB might have penned a few interesting ditties in his time, he really was such a sexist and strange old bugger, and did you know that he didn’t think much of democracy, and even flirted with fascism in the 1930’s?

The timeless and monumental significance of that handful of late poems, such as ‘Among School Children,’ ‘Statues’ and ‘Byzantium’ was utterly ignored. In any other country this would be a scandal, but sure whatever you’re having yourself thanks.

It is part of the X Factorisation of culture that we now apparently have to ‘like’ an artist before we can dare to enjoy his or her work. Or, if not actually like, at least make sure they tick a stringent series of politically correct boxes before we ever navigate to that increasingly irrelevant first page. They better take that bloody Carravaggio out of the National Gallery. Don’t they know what that deviant was into? Imagine how many young minds are being surreptitiously corrupted?

And what the hell was Yeats at anyway? Didn’t he know that proper Irish poets are supposed to be a humble and circumspect breed? They’re supposed to spend their formative decades staring at tussocks and cowpats and then – many, many years later – produce some artful meditation on the cosmic significance of the way Uncle Ned wielded a shovel while the arse was falling out of his trousers.

Or, if the poet is a woman, to ruminate endlessly on her eternal oppression by men, the Church, her father, her dickhead husband, biology, men, that girl who stared at her weirdly from the supermarket checkout the other day, about how it’s still the 1950’s even though the calendar says it’s 2016 etc.

The Cultural Cosa Nostra has decreed that this is what poets are supposed to be. Their view is that this both strengthens what passes for ‘Irish,’ i.e. their identity (sure yeah, Yeats was way better and more interesting than any of us, but he was a freak, an aberration, he probably fondled women’s bottoms and wrote love letters to Hitler) and to help the rest of us know our place, which is kind of the same thing.

In the meantime, America – a place which, for all its legion faults, still dares to dream – has adopted the old weirdo as a kind of unofficial National Bard. Nearly a century after writing about Byzantium, Yeats has become the Virgil of a new kind of empire. Right or wrong, this is what happens when you’re huge, too vast and complex a figure for small culture bureaucrats to classify.

Yes, Yeats did all sorts of things that seem incredibly silly today. He more than dabbled in nonsense like the Theosophical Society. He’s alleged to have married his wife mainly because she convincingly faked an ability to communicate with spirits. He was probably an inveterate sexist, but then, so was every human male who converted oxygen into haemoglobin in the 1930’s.

He had a certain disdain for democracy, but then, so does every successful politician in the supposedly democratic world. He may or may not have flirted with fascism, but those who get worked up about this kind of thing conveniently forget that many prominent artists were doing exactly the same thing at the same time. No one remembers that Bernard Shaw was extolling Stalin in the 1930’s, largely because, for all his prodigious gifts, GBS is no longer seen as relevant, whereas Yeats remains stubbornly so.

Two of the reasons he remains relevant are (a) because of the sheer vastness of the range of things he allowed to concern him and (b) his fearlessness. And it is the second of these which makes Yeats very immediately relevant to a movement in poetry which is happening all around us today.

Yeats’ life was dominated by the relentless examination of symbols for the extraction of what, if anything, might be eternally true (and no, I don’t know if he ever found anything). In this search he was relentless, and he didn’t care how ridiculous it made him look.

Whether it was Maud Gonne’s boobs or a bunch of naked Tarot Card readers in a forest, he went wherever that search told him. In his often silly way, he embodied that tragic beauty of a Knight endlessly questing for the Grail forever beyond reach, possibly because it’s just a story someone made up uncounted aeons ago. When shall we know the dancer from the dance? Possibly never. Because it may very well be that the dancer is the dance.

In the past decade or so, a great popular movement of poetry has gained force. It is not particularly validated (though it is occasionally patronised) by the Cultural Cosa Nostra. Its practitioners haven’t, by and large, attended validated courses where they are taught the proper scrutiny of tussock and cowpat. Their voyage is largely one of self-actualisation; they seek to discover hidden things about themselves through the wielding of a once unfamiliar tool.

Some of the poetry they produce is pretty good, much of it is excruciating, but the effort is about the journey rather than the end. The poetry is shamanic. It is concerned with the phases of the moon and the discovery of previously unsuspected forces both within and without the poet herself.

In this, today’s popular poets are directly connected to Yeats, and how extraordinary it is that, 76 years after his death (yes, I’ve finally remembered what the anniversary was about) the magnificent old nutcase remains so much more relevant than so many of the circumspect back watchers who followed him.

You can’t imagine poor, dear old Seamus Heaney sitting naked in a room with a bunch of Tarot Card readers. You can imagine Yeats doing it.

A new poet today might hate him (and I’ve heard more than a few give out) but you can’t ignore him, and that’s part of what makes him far too big for the Cultural Cosa Nostra in the little country he first came from.

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