Book Report 003: W. B. Yeats, THE TOWER

Scribner · 1928

Part of me feels like I should apologize for including a classic volume of modernist poetry in this haphazard overview of What I Own, for three reasons. First, surely poetry is different enough from the fiction that usually occupies this space that it deserves its own category; second, I'm haunted by the fear that people will think I'm showing off or going highbrow on them; and third, I'm not exactly an expert on poetry. I read it; but I'm no scholar.

But I do own a bunch of poetry, and if I refused to write about it out of snobbery (or cringing reverse snobbery), that would be a lie of omission. And this blog, if it is going to be anything, must be relentless in its honesty — because it hasn't got anything else going for it.

In that spirit, then, let me say that all the Yeats I've hitherto known is "The Second Coming," and I only looked it up a few months back because several of its lines were nagging at my subconscious. Perhaps because of a confusion with Keats in my early youth, or because I assimilated some narrow opinion from somewhere else, I've frequently dismissed Yeats as the last Romantic holdout in the stern tides of Modernism — which, being a T. S. Eliot man from way back, I considered the ultimate sin. As "The Second Coming" made clear to me, though, Yeats was among the first modernist poets — and if Eliot was trying to be anyone in his early work, he was trying to be Yeats. As if in apology, I recently picked up this paperback facsimile of Yeats' 1928 collection The Tower, and sat down to read it today.

I will need to read it many more times. For now I am still under its strong spell, and can say nothing about it, only about my experience.

It took a while to catch hold; I read the first two or three long poems as though distracted, trying to piece together coherences and guess at Yeats' political, philosophical, economic, and religious positions, as though that would help me dismiss him. And then, at the end of "Meditations In Time Of Civil War," I tripped over:
The abstract joy,
The half read wisdom of daemonic images,
Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.
Oh. Well. why didn't you say so?

These lines, whether intentionally so or not, proved the key to my understanding Yeats. His images are not meant to be coherent: they wheel and spark across centuries, a deliberate piling up of the daemonic — chaotic, unstable, misunderstood — and speak to one another only within Yeats' own mind.

Truth is, it's been so long since I've read modern poetry that I've gotten rusty, applying a prose ear to poetic speech. But by the final verse in the book, "The Gift Of Harun Al-Rashid," I was fully immersed in the unreal world, turning ever as it does solely on William Butler Yeats, which he created, and found keen pleasure in individual lines. Except for a couple of individual poems, I'm not up to the challenge of seeing them whole — I'm still under the weather — but as with classical music, the moment-to-moment beauty is enough for me without grasping the entire structure; at least for now. Like I said, I'll be rereading.

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