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Poetry Review: “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden

2 April 2012

April is National Poetry Month. In honor of National Poetry Month, MontanaWriter will be featuring poems about poets, poetry, and writing poetry.

W.H. Auden

Today’s poems is one that has been featured once before at MontanaWriter, over a year ago. I feel justified in re-posting it here again because:

  1. it is personal favorite
  2. it is written by one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century
  3. it is written about the greatest poet of the 20th Century
  4. it is one of the best poems about poetry and poets ever written

In the poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” we see Auden wrestling with the meaning of poetic and artistic immortality and what exactly that kind of immortality means: for the poet, for those who read the poems, and for the world/culture at large. For National Poetry Month, there can be no better discussion than this: Does poetry matter? And if so why?

For Auden this was not, of course, a merely academic question. It is not for any poet. To dedicate so much time and energy to something, to put so much of your self into something, you must believe – on some level – that it has some kind of larger meaning or purpose. That is really does matter.

Is poetry catharsis? Do poets write and readers read, to release emotional tension? There are poetry writing classes taught to cancer survivors, and victims of crime, to those battling addiction or abuse or loneliness. Is that what poetry is: a way to understand, express, and release emotions in a creative and constructive way, to aid ourselves and others?

Is poetry thought-formation? Do poets write and readers read, to have their mindsets re-ordered? There are Christian poets, and feminist poets. There are gay and lesbian poets? There are right-wing poets and left-wing poets? Is that what poetry is: a way to change outlooks politically, socially, and religiously?

Is poetry entertainment? Do poets write and readers read, to be entertained? Is a poem the same as a sitcom or movie, as a sporting event or some popular song on the radio? Is that what poetry is: a leisurely diversion that gives us a few moments of pleasure in an uncertain world?

Is poetry some part of all of these? Do poets write and readers read, for all of these reasons?

Is poetry something else altogether?

 

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

To pick a few lines out of a poem you have had memorized for decades… a poem you frequently recite parts of to yourself… is really quite difficult. On another day, I would no doubt pick different lines to highlight than these. But for National Poetry Month, they seem like the perfect lines to get the discussion started: Does poetry matter? And if so why?

____

Auden, W.H., Daily Blog, Poetry Reviews, Yeats, W.B. , , , ,

3 Comments to “Poetry Review: “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden”

  1. There is always something interesting on your blog. Thanks.

  2. For me, after reading Auden just now, poetry is an attempt to speak honestly about something. To the extent that honesty matters, poetry matters.

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