What is a useful role for a poet writing in times like these, amid the realities of what feels like permanent war, a soft never-quite recovering economy, tainted social and political and governmental structures, and widespread public and personal disaffection?
These are things we note implicitly or explicitly in our art as we engage the world. They don’t make our art, of course, but they are part of the environment in which we work. We include or exclude them, but one way or the other we engage them or are engaged by them. We have no choice. They are inescapable, the air we breathe, the life we live.
I should add that when I say “useful,” I mean the word in its broadest humanist sense, a meaning to be applied in public as well as private spheres. We know that art can accurately and importantly describe or challenge the world, or act as a parallel creation, that it can always remind us of our vast human possibilities and our definite responsibilities, can always call us to be more human. That is part of its virtue. Every time we create, all the possibilities are in front of us as we write, even as we erase—all the good, all the evil, all the choices between. It’s one reason why creating makes us better people. We see in those times life in its possibilities and promises and incredible beauty.
Beauty is one way in which art does this, calls up all these possibilities, makes them available. Aesthetic accuracy is another help in developing this essentiality. And here’s another word, though it may seem an odd one, for our list: effectiveness. Some things are beautiful and accurate but they do not move us; so we can say that they are not effective.
Anyway, without putting up an entire essay on the usefulness of art (it would be a very long essay), I’d like to suggest that one useful role for a poet might be to be an historian of the present.
This is an idea I’ve had for awhile, and I come to it by an odd route. I’ve been thinking about political poetry, or better said, politically involved poetry. Of the good poetry written with political or polemical intent, it seems to me that in general the strongest poems are those that take cognizance of the total life of their times, or at least the large share of it that affects the moment, and that thus operate beyond the instant event or judgment. Those poems capture the ambiguity and variety of complex considerations that are always a part of any human activity and thought. Nothing needs be consistent in this effort. In the real world we always operate with our contradictions intact.
So to say it more simply: Poems become more powerful and effective as they honestly confront the times, and even, as necessary, their authors. By including those difficulties and complexities, the authors become historians of the present. They write the history of today, of life as actually lived as we make our commitments. To be honest about it is to confront the messiness of the commitment process, and even the messiness that lingers after the commitment is made.
“Easter, 1916” by W.B. Yeats is a poem that does this kind of confrontation brilliantly. Robert Bly’s “Sleet Storm on the Merritt Parkway” is another. There are several by Rexroth that impress me in exactly this way. I don’t suggest that these are greater poems than others written by these poets, only that they bring a power and richness to the work and an effectiveness that their other poems lack, because of how they are involved in the world. (There are exceptions, and we should note them: a one-dimensional poem like “Counting Small Boned Bodies” is incredibly effective, achieving its effect by compression of the world to a desktop and the exclusion of everything except the madness of the speaker).
Here is the Yeats poem:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Notice how Yeats frames the poem, starting with an uncomplimentary portrait of himself as a clubby snob patronizing the people who will be heroes of the Easter uprisings. They are shopkeepers, office workers, merchants, who now occupy the “gray / Eighteenth-century houses” that Yeats has in his faux-aristocracy. These people are, he believes, beneath him. He meets them, and speaks meaninglessly with them only to get mocking or witty stories that he can trade later over drinks around the fire at his club. He tells us that he has always assumed that they are all nobodies, fools who wear motley, rank members of life’s casual comedy.
In the second stanza he enumerates but does not name the key players involved in the Easter uprisings, though he will do so later. Here he seeks to preserve them as archetypes, roles he can describe and classify. He knows them all, and gives us a taxonomy of the revolution: the shrill woman, the two poets, the drunk. The woman is never named in the poem, but is the nationalist politician Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz. The rest of the actors are named laterL The man is the poet Patrick Pearse, a leader of the uprising, and his helper is the poet Thomas MacDonagh. The last named is the “drunken, vainglorious lout,” John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s abusive former husband, a man Yeats intensely disliked.
The Easter rising was an armed rebellion or rising that took place throughout Ireland on April 24, 1916. The effort sought to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish republic by taking over key places. In Dublin, the rising involved about 1,200 people in the city center, with a command post established at the Post Office. None of the leaders seems to have had much military sense. They did not know how to press their advantages when they had them. The rising lasted six days and was quickly put down by the British, who arrested nearly 3,500 people as rebels, though many were subsequently released. About 1,500 people were sent to England for trial and internment, most later released under an amnesty. The men named in the poem and many other leaders were all executed in the first weeks of May.
The death-sentence of Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz, the woman mentioned in the poem, was commuted to life in prison. Sometime later she was released in the general amnesty. She was later elected to Parliament, and became one of the few female cabinet ministers ever in England or Europe. She never lost her revolutionary zeal, and her continuing fights for Irish independence meant that she spent some time in jail.
All these people are mythologized, though still not named, in the next stanza, where Yeats describes their hearts as unchanging stone against the natural change of nature. Their hearts “trouble” the living stream. They are out of nature, their passion an inanimate troubling thing.
It is a harsh judgment, one of many made about them in the poem. In the first stanza, Yeats presented them as fools and nobodies, and as we learn here, they are fanatics, their emotional or psychological selves unnatural, out of life as it really is, and troubling the natural rhythm or order. In this next stanza he questions whether the sacrifice made by these fools and fanatics was worth it: “O when may it suffice?” he asks, and then: “Was it needless death after all?” and then finally, “What if excess of love / Bewildered them until they died?” After all, “England may keep faith / For all that is done and said.” Their love for country bewildered them, and made them do an unnecessary and foolish thing. Yeats knew them all and had found them mildly good fodder for a laugh around the fire at his club. But now, with this event, all is changed; their lives and causes, whatever they might have been, have been transfigured, and made beautiful in a terrible way, by their deaths. “We know their dream,” he says, “enough / To know they dreamed and are dead.”
This is all quite messy. He has made harsh judgments on himself, and harsh judgments on the conspirators, and on their crusade, and then, in a terrible moment, they become heroes, to be remembered wherever green is worn, “now and in time to be.” This is an extraordinary claim of transfiguration. The Easter title of the poem and of the event gives more depth to the act: Christians believe that at Easter the Christ who was dead rose from that death and redeemed the world. Here, conspirators who were alive but insignificant went to their deaths in a flawed and perhaps unnecessary cause, and by their act became heroes to be celebrated for all time.
Messy, as I say; but phenomenally powerful.
I leave aside the technical aspects of the poem, the extraordinary and almost magical use of trimeter, which is usually best for lighthearted verse, and the poetic numerology (16 lines in the first and third stanzas, for 1916, 24 lines in the second and fourth, for April 24, the date the uprising began, and four stanzas, for the fourth month). I believe that what gives the poem its power is the honesty with which Yeats deals with the event, with his own feelings about it, and his own questions. Compare, in this light, a one-dimensional poem like Shelley’s “England in 1819”:
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
We get the rage, of course. But lacking ambiguity, questioning of events, or any self-doubt, the poem is pure polemic, with the power of a polemic, but not much more. It seems tethered to its moment, and cannot rise above its rhetoric. One could call Shelley an historian of the present — the poem after all is dated and means to be paradigmatic for the politics of the year — but if so, he is a poor one, leaving out too much of life, and miring the poem in its moment, like, to borrow a Yeatsian figure, a fly in amber. The Yeats poem, by contrast, gains its power from its self-doubt, even from its indecision, and certainly from its honesty. It is effective in a way that the Shelley cannot be because it lacks the comprehensiveness and openness to present experience of the Yeats poem.