Saturday, February 05, 2011

Can Poems Communicate? Yeats, Magic, and the Problem of Modernity

"Where can you go in your poetry," the grand old poet-critic Donald Davie once wondered, "when the King James Bible has become a recondite source?"  The problem Davie framed is an old one, and was already eating away at W.B. Yeats in the 1890s, when he constantly worried over whether there was a public language through which poems could connect with the wider world.  What can a poet do when he or she can't expect a shared frame of cultural reference with an audience?

Yeats has taken a lot of heat over the decades for his interest — no, let's not soft-pedal it — his belief in magic.  And I'm as put-off by some elements of this as the next secular humanist.  In fact, I'm probably more put-off, since it's not just the whole supernaturalist angle that bothers me, but the authoritarianism of it: cults with hierarchies and secret knowledges not to be explained to outsiders are odious things, if you believe (as I do) that knowledge should be as widely disseminated as possible.  But much of Yeats' thinking about magic was actually a way of thinking about the nature of symbolic communication, and the place of symbols in modern life.  Consider the following passage from his 1901 essay on magic:
I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are:--- (1) That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy. (2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself. (3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.
There are a couple of different ways to read this passage.  What we might call the strong interpretation would stress the supernaturalism.  In this view, Yeats is talking about a kind of collective soul, or group dreaming, or telepathy, or symbols that radiate some kind of glowing mist of mojo throughout creation. Me, I grow a bit queasy at such a reading, and prefer what we might call the weak interpretation of the passage.  In this view, Yeats is saying something not too different from what people like Jung or Northrop Frye have to say: that there are large cultural systems of symbols and images, that these symbols and images inform our thinking, and unite groups of people in terms of their assumptions and ideals, often in ways those groups do not apprehend consciously.  This isn't all that different from the sort of thing structural anthropologists study.  Of course in actuality both readings apply: Yeats wants to get away from Arnoldian skepticism, and the atheism of his Darwinian father: hence the supernaturalism.  He also wants to get away from the individualism that the triumphant late-Victorian bourgeoisie rode down the boulevards of the capitals of Europe like some giant white pachyderm: hence the interest in collective experience.  And if a belief in magic was what it took for him escape bourgeois individualism, well, okay.

Let's stick with the weak reading for now, with Yeats trying to articulate his sense that communication depends upon large, enduring sets of collectively apprehended symbols.  The problem, for him, was that modernity had become inimical to such symbolic systems.  Just after the passage quoted above he writes:
I often think I would put this belief in magic from me if I could, for I have come to see or to imagine, in men and women, in houses, in handicrafts, in nearly all sights and sounds, a certain evil, a certain ugliness, that comes from the slow perishing through the centuries of a quality of mind that made this belief and its evidences common over the world.
Yeats' disgust with modernity has many sources: all the really shitty moments of his childhood took place in then-hyper-modern London, where he was despised for his Irishness; he identified modernity with the English oppressors of Ireland; and the intellectual atmosphere of his childhood home was saturated with Pre-Raphaelitism, with the medievalism of Ruskin, and with William Morris, who wondered, in his great essay "How I Became a Socialist" whether modern civilization was "all to end in a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap?"  But the problem is also one of communication, and, ultimately, of cultural cohesion.  In Yeats' view, we were once united by a "centuries old quality of mind" that modern, urban, industrial capitalism has somehow swept to the sidelines.

We get a better sense of the endangered world of shared symbols when we look into Yeats' essay "What is 'Popular' Poetry?" which appeared in print a year after the essay on magic (both are collected in Yeats' book Ideas of Good and Evil, if you want to check them out).  Here, he distinguishes between three types of poetry: popular poetry, coterie poetry, and poetry of "the unwritten tradition."

The last one is the really interesting one, so let's start there.  For Yeats, the "unwritten tradition" is the oral folk tradition, still viable in the more out-of-the-way parts of Ireland in his lifetime (indeed, he took a lot of inspiration from the folksongs and tales he heard around his mother's family's place in Sligo).  The "true poetry of the people," whether written or oral, says Yeats, comes from this unwritten tradition, and gains its power and resonance from a framework of allusions, echoes, and references that are, at some level, familiar to the whole community.  The words of such a poetry "borrow their beauty from those that used them before," and the full resonance of the poems comes from seeing the events they depict or the emotions they express as if they were "moving before a half-faded curtain embroidered with kings and queens, their loves and battles and their days out hunting, or else with holy letters and images of so great an antiquity that nobody can tell the god or goddess they would commend to an unfading memory."  The tapestry image is a very Pre-Raphaelite inflected way of describing the archive of collectively remembered past usage that would give poems resonance for the community, isn't it?  But the idea at stake here really is something like a set of archetypes, or at least of points of reference.  It's interesting, too, that Yeats gives as examples both Celtic legend and Theosophical spirituality, since these were exactly the cultural archives he was using in his own poetry.  At times he even tries to unify them, making the Celtic legends a kind of local manifestation of a trans-cultural primal mythology — but that's another story.  The main point is that this kind of poetry has resonance because it comes out of  points of reference that have been shared by a community over time.  It communicates rich and complex meanings, because it doesn't just have a simple denotative meaning: it references a whole shared archive of meanings and connotations.  I think what Yeats is claiming for written or oral poetry that rises up out of the "unwritten tradition" is something like what George Steiner claims when, in "On Difficulty," he says:
Poetry is knit of words compacted with every conceivable mode of operative force. These words are, in Coleridge's simile, 'hooked atoms', so construed as to mesh and cross-mesh with the greatest possible cluster of other words in the reticulations of the total body of language. The poet attempts to anchor the particular word in the dynamic mould of its own history, enriching the core of its present definition with the echo and alloy of previous use…. The poet's discourse can be compared to the track of a charged particle through a cloud-chamber. An energized field of association and connotation, of overtones and undertones, of rebus and homophone, surround its motion, and break from it in the context of collision... Multiplicity of meaning, 'enclosedness', are the rule rather than the exception. We are meant to hear both solid and sullied, both toil and coil in the famous Shakespearean cruces. Lexical resistance is the armature of meaning, guarding the poem from the necessary commonalties of prose.

Over against this kind of poetry, Yeats places "popular poetry," which for him is a stunted and attenuated thing, and less the property of the people per se than of the modern bourgeoisie.  He just hates this stuff. "Popular poetry," says Yeats, "never came from the people at all."  Rather, it came from and spoke to "a predominant portion of the middle class, of people who have unlearned the written tradition which binds the unlettered, so long as they are masters of themselves."  The middle classes, having disinherited themselves, have started to disinherit the general populace, as the peasants move into the cities and become proletarianized.  This kind of poetry communicates immediately and easily, but does so at a terrible cost: it loses all the frames of reference (and therefore all the subtlety) of poetry that comes from the unwritten tradition.  Its main features are "the triviality of emotion, the poverty of ideas, the imperfect sense of beauty of a poetry whose most typical expression is Longfellow."  And Longfellow, says Yeats, "has his popularity, in the main, because he tells his story or his idea so that one needs nothing but his verses to understand it."  There's no tapestry of ancient kings and battles behind this stuff: just the plain, cheap wallpaper of a Victorian parlor, cast in the harsh glare of gaslight.

The third type of poetry — the poetry of the coteries — is the unpopular poetry of Yeats' time, poetry that works by literary reference and codes of allusion, perhaps ultimately derived from unwritten traditions, but filtered through layer after layer of bookishness, and flavored with a strong dash of aestheticism.  It is the poetry of the Rhymer's Club, of Dowson and Symons and the rest of the guys Yeats visited when he was living in London.  It has the same allusive quality built into its words as does the poetry of the unwritten tradition, and is, in some sense, that tradition's ally.  This may seem like a bit of a stretch, this linkage of the peasant's oral tradition and the deeply cloistered and rather hothouse poetry of London aestheticism in the 1890s, but Yeats claims (perhaps more out of psychological need than factual accuracy) that the two go hand in hand, because of their allusive richness.  And they have common enemies, these two types of poetry: the modern middle class and the commercial world it has brought into being: is certain that before the counting- house had created a new class and a new art without breeding and without ancestry, and set this art and this class between the hut and the castle, and between the hut and the cloister, the art of the people was as closely mingled with the art of the coteries as was the speech of the people that delighted in rhythmical animation, in idiom, in images, in words full of far-off suggestion, with the unchanging speech of the poets.
So there it is: the cloister (of coteries, the modern version of monasticism), the aristocracy, and the peasants are all allied, for Yeats, in their cultural traditions, traditions that propose a language and a poetry of depth and resonance.  Against them we see the world of the counting-house (which I'd bet money is a deliberate reference to William Morris' essay), a world of efficient, shallow communication, and of poetry that does little but entertain shallowly.

There's something a bit questionable in the linking of the world of erudite, remote, vaguely symboliste poetry with the poetry of the oral tradition.  And there's something a bit questionable in the valorizing of the hierarchical, narrow world of agrarian society, too.  But what Yeats is reacting to is real: there's a big transformation afoot in his lifetime, a transformation involving the rise of mass literacy, cheap books sold in high volume (making the selling of poetry economically marginal for publishers, which it had not been in the 1850s and 60s), and the displacement of poetry as a respected medium for knowledge (I touch on all this in my essay "The Discursive Situation of Poetry" in Biddinger and Gallaher's book The Monkey and the Wrench, and T.W. Heyck really lays it out in The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England, and Richard Altick's good old standby The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public still has a lot to say on the transformation, if you want to understand it in detail).  Yeats doesn't have a very clear socio-historical understanding of the events happening around him (who does?) but he's right about the general trend of things, and right about what it means for the language of poetry: with the dissolving of old agrarian communities, and the rise of complex, diverse social formations, the old frames of reference that gave poetic language such power and resonance start to fall apart.  Only a coterie audience of mandarins (and, in Yeats' nostalgic view, a hardy peasantry) still feel connected to those frames of reference.

Which brings us to Donald Davie's cri de coeur.  Where do you go in your poetry when the old frames of reference have become the property of coteries?  T.S. Eliot, at least early on in his career, dramatized the conundrum ("these fragments have I shored against my ruins," etc.).  Other poets, deliberately or intuitively, went in the direction of popular culture, though the gains there may be temporary: nothing fades as fast as pop (not because it's bad, but because pop is a business of fashions, and you have to hustle old stock out to bring in this year's model).  Others ditched the idea of resonance-with-historical-usage and went for a kind of play of syntax and formal properties (the "new sentence," anyone?), or for a poetry that eschews matters of meaning and historically resonant language (Merz and Zaum are early examples).  Others have soldiered along with the poetics of allusive and resonant language, either content with a coterie audience, or filled with uncomprehending rage at a reading public with whom they have difficulty communicating.  Still others celebrate obscurity, in ways both sophisticated and otherwise.

What would Yeats do, were he with us?  Good question!  I imagine he'd embody all of the contradictory responses in poems that argued against each other.  That is, after all, what he did in the period from which the essays I've quoted come.  The results — the poems of The Wind Among the Reeds and In the Seven Woods — include some of the finest in the Yeats canon.  He dramatizes and embodies the contradictions of poetry in an age when its ability to communicate is questionable.  To judge from the results, this might not be a bad way to go in one's poetry in an age when the King James Bible has become a recondite source.

Addendum: chart of Yeatsian concerns, 1889-1914, drawn on paper stolen from Alan Golding's printer at his post-conference party in Louisville, 2/26/2011.  Click to enlarge.


  1. Bob, this is a wonderfully thoughtful and very useful post. It has always seemed to me that part of Yeats' rhetorical strength as a poet is derived from the contradictory tendencies toward populism (i.e. folk culture) on the one hand and initiatory (i.e. hermetic or elite) experience on the other. After all, he himself said that we make poetry out of the argument with ourselves. In our time, this contradictory, but highly productive stance, is inherited by Robert Duncan and, perhaps, Nathaniel Mackey. Cheers, N.

  2. I think this is an elegant summary of our situation. But if there's one thing it seems impossible to talk about, vis-a-vis the willed relation between coterie and "the unwritten tradition," it is the lack of a common prosody. In his autobiography, Yeats wrote that he wanted "metrical forms that seemed old enough to have been sung by men half-asleep or riding upon a journey." (I ended an article on Imagism in the LRB with this quote, because it seems to me Modernist coteries haven't been able to eradicate this desire in readers, or for that matter, writers -- alienated as we are from those techniques.)

    So, while I agree with your answer to the question "What would Yeats do?", I also think he was in possession of metrical techniques that functioned, on an aural level, the way that "magic" did on the semantic level, i.e. as a bridge to the unwritten, the folkloric, the archetypal....

    Ange Mlinko

  3. Thanks to both of you for real insights.

    Yeats' self-division is, to my mind, one of his greatest strengths as a poet, and his constant attempts to work out his own contradictions are probably what kept him from ossifying as a poet. Too many poets I admire get stuck in a rut (Simic, Ashbery even) but Yeats was too riven, too uneasy with his own attempts at solutions to his conundrums to ever settle down.

    And prosody -- yes! There's such a strong emphasis on it in so many of the poems, and some of the famous ones really play up various forms of repetition and refrain ("The Stolen Child" comes to mind).



  4. High Ceremonial Magick, i.e. the Order of the Golden Dawn, is what Yeats was involved with. Speaking a kitchen witch myself, i.e. one who has little use for High Ceremony (in any venue, really, including poetry), I am aware that the mindset of hierarchical hermeticism is very different from the mindset of just-plain-folks metaphysics. This isn't really about anything "supernatural," which is a common misunderstanding, rather it's about the psychology of different approaches TO experiences of non-ordinary consciousness.

    Non-ordinary consciousness is an ordinary experience; any person has the ability to experience transcendence. Abraham Maslow's psychology of peak experiences, Stanislav Grof's studies of the brain and of personal transcendence in altered states of consciousness, and Jung's ideas about the collective unconsciousness, are all aspects of this.

    The typical High Magick practitioner tends to of the mindset that one is required to make formulaic ceremonial events—ritual forms—in order to get into the transcendent state of mind. The kitchen witch just goes there, without all the ceremony, the trappings, the tools, the mystical passes. Both are valid ways of getting to the same result, but which one you use very much depends on your psychology. And also on your basic assumptions about the nature of reality. High Magick practitioners seem to think that the trained will must impose itself upon nature; whereas your average Taoist is all about going along with nature's ebb and flow. You see the difference?

    Applied to poetry, one can spot a similar difference in assumptions between those obsessed with the formal and structural aspects of poetry (which includes both the neo-formalists and the LangPoets), and those whose ideas about form are more organic and driven by the content itself (such as Robert Duncan et al.).

  5. My understanding of Yeats' involvement with magic is certainly limited. I do remember that it was his desire to experiment with telepathy and similar supernatural phenomena that estranged him from the Blavatsky circle. The Golden Dawn crowd were more tolerant, and he sort of transitioned into their circle. But all along, his concerns were multiple, and I think the kind of peak or transcendent experience you describe was a big part of it all along -- thanks for spelling that part out more clearly and coherently than I could have done, Art.



  6. Great blog post, & great discussion, thank you!

    Just a couple thoughts : 1) Arthur Durkee makes a very good point. Brings to mind the chasm between writing per se, & oral poetry, religious/ritual (dance) - & the parallel chasm between, on the one hand, archaic cultural activities - like sympathetic magic, rain dances & such (which share some deep motivations with the obsessive secret gnostic prestidigitations of Yeatsian hierarchical Magick) - and on the other hand, strictly scribal, priestly-Biblical, Kabbalic-numerological RECONFIGURATIONS of same (on behalf of a transcendent unnameable YHWH, who is BEYOND all magical 'gyptian Osiris-manipulations, & beyond all seasonal change & its rituals).

    and 2) 2nd thought - Ange Mlinko as usual makes a very insightful comment - yet I personally hesitate to be associated with the contemporary "we" she defines - since I've spent a lot of my writing life trying to create that kind of prosody synthesis - which for me skips over the experiments of Pound & Eliot, & bends closer to the prosody of Stevens (reflective blank verse) and Hart Crane (dithyrambic, Pindaric, narrative/epic... pentameter) in order to encompass both the arcane & the mundane... I don't claim any great success for myself : I just don't accept the notion that "we" are wandering in the dark without a compass...

  7. p.s. I guess what I would like to resist is the critical formulae of "we," which tends to discount the particular, partial efforts of individual poets, in distinct poems, to close the gap between popular & elite, public & private... between poetry as an arcane craft & secret knowledge, & poetry as just part of the wave of culture as a whole.

    I mean, this simple "abba" semi-pentametric verse I've been writing for about 15 yrs now, in various variations, is pretty flexible. For example, yesterday I wrote an "occasional" poem addressed "to the Egyptian people" in Tahrir Square (& put it on Youtube & Facebook - in fact linked to the FB page managed by the Cairo activists themselves); today I wrote an arcane numerological-anagrammatical poem, which alludes to Shakespeare, Chretien de Troyes, the Gateway Arch Monument in St; Louis, & various other abstruse topics; both poems in the very same "form", part of the same extended poem, actually -

    basically what I'm saying is that my working means & methods 1) are designed in a very persistent manner to confront the problems both Bob & Ange address; and 2) these same efforts are systematically marginalized, dismissed, & ignored by the same critics & poetic groups (whether avant-political or avant-aesthetic or retro-political or retro-aesthetic) who are engaged in the professional-industrial program of FINESSING this problem...

    & that's just one reason I'm reading my poems on YouTube....

  8. If I might add one more thought. . . .

    The basic tension between high magick—i.e. the priestly caste, and what Henry Gould here describes as the literary-priestly reconfiguration of direct experience into theory and text—and direct experience of the transcendent, can also be formulated as the distinction between shamanic practice and mystical experience (direct experience) and mediated (indirect) experience.

    I readily admit I fall on the direct experience side of the scales, rather than the priestly-mediated text-based side. (A personal truth I've never hid, although some still seem to be surprised whenever it comes up.)

    Anyway, the point is that these apparently incompatible approaches can possibly be bridged—which was what Robert Graves attempted, as did others; i.e. not only Yeats made this attempt. I'm intrigued by Duncan's "The HD Book," recently published, because it might be another such attempt. Duncan often mined that shamanic/mystical vein.

    (BTW, the term "supernatural" is not really useful; it's a bit misleading because it contains an inherent bias in its very definition against non-material experience and reality. The term, if it were strictly applied, for example, would apply to philosophy as well as to religion.)

    Another poet who I think made the attempt, and who in fact perhaps succeeded, was Odysseas Elytis; the advantage the modern Greek poets had, from Cavafy on, was that the language itself allows for distinctions, in vocabulary, between the demotic and the "high" or classical.

    I find the tension between direct experience and mediated experience can also be located in the literary discussions about Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of art. It's a major pattern. Many aspects to it. Henry pointed out a few angles on it, too. Anyway, I don't meant to derail your Yeats discussion here. I do think this is a central, if indirect, issue. Yeats discussed it in the language and form of his time; and so did Duncan; and so forth.

  9. & if I might add just one more note... I find these issues (raised by both Bob's post & the comments) somewhat connected to Don Share's latest blog post, in particular the questions he asks at the end of it...

    "what is the mainstream, if there is one?"

    If we think about the origins of poetry in archaic rites & communal celebrations - & the rational effort to comprehend or contain them - ie. what Art Durkee refers to as the Dionysian/Apollonian element - then perhaps any "mainstream", if there is one, would tap into & express such times of communal energy, intensity. This is not such a far-fetched idea, when we think of the turmoil & uproar surrounding the cultural shift from "Victorian" to "Modern" - the consequent upsurge of the "mythical", the archaic - as in something out of James Frazer, when the "old king" is ritually cast out, & the vital "new king" is celebrated... Eliot's "The Waste Land" harps on this very subject... Yeats too, of course ("The Second Coming")...

    In this framework, the notion of any mainstream as anchored in literary tradition becomes problematic - since it begins to look like our "tradition" is already deeply rooted in archaic, orgiastic, irrational, communal-seasonal rites (Dionysius & all that) - when history & chronology are ritually absorbed into a liminal "Now"...

    (Thus perhaps all poetry aspires to the condition of DRAMA, rather than music...)

    So what would a "mainstream" be, today, in this context, if there were such a thing? Probably a very closely-held secret hidden in the bosom of some elusive Muse. Both old & new... always arriving ahead of its custodians... unheralded, unrecognized... until it's already common property, like the weather (the Shakespeare weather)...

  10. Here's an excerpt from A. Minko's review of Robert Duncan's "The HD Book" that I think might be relevant to this discussion; it speaks perhaps to the shamanic/priestly distinction already mentioned, and the impulse to codify experience into something categorized and compartmentalized, and how some will resist this:

    The H.D. Book is at its core a polemic—elevating the female and the noncomformist and the heterodox against the institutions of men. One of these institutions was literature. For Duncan, English department literature was the ossification of a living, vital recording impulse in the same way that the church was the ossification of a living, vital religious impulse. This was no metaphor. Duncan grew up in a family of West Coast Theosophists, as far from the East Coast establishment as one could get. Chafing under the formalist reign of New Critics like Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom, he was alert to their tribal affinities. “Tribal” was no metaphor for Duncan either: the New Critics really were the descendants of “those ministers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, holding out against the magic of poetry as once they had held out—by burning or ridicule—against the magic-religion of the witch-cults.”

  11. I've always felt that the formalist label only tells half the story about the new critics -- in fact, I've got a big-ass essay on the ethical side of their work due out in a book called "Re-Reading the New Criticism" later this year. But I'm with you on their emphasis on specialization: if you read their letters, they really do see how literature can move into the university if they play up the notion of literature as an autonomous specialized field. And Duncan is certainly part of a reaction against this. I'm mostly sympathetic to the reaction, too: every time I hear someone talk about their "field" I cringe. It seems so narrow and other-directed.


  12. Oh! I just remembered this essay, "Yeats as an Example?" from Seamus Heaney's Preoccupations. Heaney poses a kind of stand-off between the Yeats enthusiast and a representative of the square community:

    ** {begin quote}

    All through his life, of course, and ever since his death, Yeats has been continually rebuked for the waywardness of his beliefs, the remoteness of his behaviour and the eccentricity of his beliefs. Fairies first of all. Then Renaissance court in Tuscany and Big Houses in Galway. Then Phases of the Moon and Great Wheels. What, says the reliable citizen, is the sense of all this? Why do we listen to this gullible aesthete rehearsing the delusions of an illiterate peasantry, this snobbish hanger-on in country houses mystifying feudal facts of the class system, this charlatan patterning history and predicting the future by a mumbo-jumbo of geometry and Ptolomaic astronomy? Our temptation may be to answer the reliable citizen’s terms, let him call the tune and make excuses for Yeats.

    ‘Well,’ we might say, ‘when he was a youngster in Sligo he heard these stories about fairies from servants in his grandparent’s house; and then when, as a young poet, he sought a badge of identity for his own culture, something that would mark it off from the rest of the English-speaking world, he found this distinctive and sympathetic thing in the magical world view of the country people. It was a conscious counter-culture act against the rationalism and materialism of late Victorian England.’ To which the citizen replies, ‘Anybody who believes in fairies is mad.’

    ** {end quote}

    It does frame the challenge that Yeats poses to many readers.


  13. Langdon Hammer's fine book, "Hart Crane and Allen Tate : Janus-faced modernism" speaks to this history of the 20th-cent. institutionalization of poetry by Tate and others, for whom Crane filled the role (in a truly theatrical sense) of the outcast, the ritual clown, the one who doesn't belong...

    & on Yeats... have been reading an interesting old monograph, kind of dated now, by Benjamin Hunningher, called "The origin of the theatre" - which looks at the persistence in "folk" culture through the ages of the actor/jongleur/clown/"joculator" - the Dionysian element - as in a continual state of tension with the "order" of culture (as represented by the established church, which periodically excoriated or banned the theater). I guess relates to anthropologist Victor Turner's thesis about the periodic oscillations in societies between the "normal" and the "liminal". Curiously, Hunningher draws a sharp distinction between writers - tellers-of-tales, "histrios" - and actors; he argues that the latter were always considered much more "dangerous" to the established order (because of their archaic connection with Dionysian chaos & violence - "night life", generally).

    Poets maybe occupy a realm sort of on the edge of the edge : between official "literature" on the one hand, and sheer clowning, mimicry, and acting, on the other.

  14. Alex Davis9:52 AM

    Yeats's interest in occult societies is not necessarily as elitist as it might appear on a cursory and ahistorical glance. Societies such as the Golden Dawn were--for all their ritualistic mumbo-jumbo--fora in which many individuals found a context in which dissent, in a broad sense, was possible in late-Victorian society. Many of their members, owing to reasons of belief (political as well as religious), gender, class, or race, experienced a sense of being marginal and (literally or metaphorically) disenfranchised. Occult socities gave a sense of empowerment and, sometimes, status for indiviuals who felt marginal to orthodoxy and the bounds of established social mores and legislation. Is it any surprise that the ranks of the Golden dawn and its ilk included many whose radicalism seems more platable (or should I say conformist?) these days: Irish nationalists and feminists, to name but two obvious groupings. Would Mme Blavatsky have achieved eminence and authority outside a 'fringe' activity like Theosophy?

  15. "He just hates this stuff."

    That sentence is a breath of fresh air.

  16. Good point, Alex, and well-taken. I do chafe at some of Yeats' remarks about not wanting to share knowledge with the uninitiated, though. My instincts are generally against ideas of "eminence and authority," though of course one's instincts aren't absolutes.

    I mean, feeling disempowered in a hierarchical system is bad, and I can see why people would like to become more insecure by building an alternate hierarchy -- but for me the better solution is to reject hierarchy altogether. Maybe one could argue that one way to achieve this is through a kind of dialectical progression -- negating one hierarchy in favor of another, then coming out the other side with a negation of all hierarchy.

    As for Yeats as elitist: well, he does it in all sorts of ways, doesn't he? There's the Theosophy of initiates and ranks, there's the Nietzschean persona he develops circa 1906-1913 (the mask and all that), there's the identification with the aristocracy we see in "Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation" and elsewhere.


  17. For "more insecure" read "less insecure" -- my bad.

  18. .


    A tree snake climbed right up the front porch steps,
    poked her head up over the edge and looked around,
    her long thin body stretching down the stairs
    like a luminescent green rope.

    Tree frog came from nowhere, plopped right down
    on the back porch. Cats perked up their ears and looked.
    Frog hopped into the wisteria vine and disappeared.
    Then we on the porch, someday.

    Black butterfly appears, then gone. Then a yellow one.
    A dragonfly. Visible a moment, then gone away.
    Bright red cardinal here, on the fence, then over there,
    in the tree. Then nowhere. Gone. A magical day.

    I gently lifted the green snake and carried her over to the
    green Yaupon thicket. She slipped onto a leafy branch
    and vanished in thin air.

    Copyright 2010 – ‘Ponds and Lawns - New and Corrected Poems’, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  19. I'm struck by how similar Steiner's image of the 'charged particle' here is to Bakhtin's idea of the dialogic word.
    Mind you, I feel a bit uncertain about attributing such ideas to Yeats, who was surely more convinced of the singular symbolic potential of the word than its multiplicity. I also think Yeats' opinion of 'popular poetry' was perhaps more complex than you say; he was at least always rather hopeful that his poetry would have popular appeal, and was heavily influenced by 'popular' forms like the ballad. He disowned the style of the Celtic Twilight period because he thought its language was too devolved from ordinary life.
    Really enjoyed the post, as usual.

  20. Oh, yes, the position is definitely more complicated than it looks in the sketch above, where I'm really working with Yeats' own definition of popular poetry from the book Ideas of Good and Evil. And what he means there by "popular poetry" is something that is only popular with certain middle-class types. For a long time he yearned for a poetry of the peasantry and the aristocracy. Then he grew disillusioned for a while, largely as a response to the indifference and hostility so many people had toward his theatrical work and that of Synge. Then it all gets stranger, too. So -- I think we agree!

  21. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Supernaturalism....? Not at all. As the cutting-edge psychologist(cybernetics) AND mojo doctor Brad Keeney explains

    "TMA: There is no such thing as supernatural.

    Bradford Keeney: That's just a real nasty echo of an old dichotomy of something separate from us and superior to us and outside of nature. It's not that.

    TMA: Magic is simply the knowledge of natural laws that most people don't know about.

    BK: Absolutely. Yes. And that's the way the aborigine talks about natural law in referring to the way these things are. "

  22. Well, historically opinions have varied. And I'm interested in how ideas have functioned, not whether or not they're true in some absolute sense. So I suppose we approach these things from different angles, Anonymous.


  23. SA - and RICK'S SETAIN.
    Well , your DEVIL just ID'D DASSAULT!
    How cool is that when LUCIFER goes after MICK JAGGER?
    I'll tell you how cool.
    " KANSAS KINGS", cool.