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.