July 18, 2011 Coole Park, 1929

Dear friends,
Thanks for the amazing weekend; nuff said. Ms. Shahjahan noted her displeasure that, having taken time and thought away from her hectic schedule, no one else had followed up on her ruminations on form. So we’re giving it another shot today, still sticking to my “Heaney conversation” masterplan.
I’ll only note that Yeats actually has an aphorism that strikes precisely at what Heaney is getting to with his comments on Keats here. I forget its exact wording, so I’ll omit it for now. The Yeats poem copied below is not a favorite–Heany describes it well, kind of humorously–and we should recognize that it’s one written in reflection, in fact probably in nostalgia for 1929, but clearly from a later vantage. All those names mentioned, and some unmentioned, would be familiar to most readers of late 19th into 20th century Irish lit, the “revival” period. Feel free to pick up the thread with opinions on Gwynn, Heaney, Yeats… or Shahjahan.
Also: How much better would we all be at our lives if we were willing to put in thirty-eight attemps at something before accepting that it is done well? -ed.
DOD: Over the years, you have often quoted Keats’s observation, “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” Is that just a young poet’s perspective?
SH: Well it doesn’t mean–and it didn’t mean for Keats–that the actual labor of composition or the working on the poem is an involuntary natural function like sneezing. You have to work. One of the best books I discovered early on, when I’d begun to write, was Jon Stallworthy’s Between the Lines, about Yeat’s manuscripts. A poem like “Coole Park, 1929,” thirty-two lines long–a middle-range Yeats poem; a cruising-altitude poem where he’s not breaking any sound barriers–takes thirty-eight pages of drafts and yet he had only a few of the lines to begin with. If you have stanza form, whatever the stanza form is, whether it’s a sonnet or couplets or quatrains or whatever, you can work at that–and work with it–because the stanza form immediately calls up all other stanzas in the language. To some extent, you’re playing variations or singing in a chorus. The quick free verse poem sometimes happens quickly; but, oddly enough, my experience is that the poem comes more quickly if there is a form.
I meditate upon a swallow’s flight,
Upon a aged woman and her house,
A sycamore and lime-tree lost in night
Although that western cloud is luminous,
Great works constructed there in nature’s spite
For scholars and for poets after us,
Thoughts long knitted into a single thought,
A dance-like glory that those walls begot.

There Hyde before he had beaten into prose
That noble blade the Muses buckled on,
There one that ruffled in a manly pose
For all his timid heart, there that slow man,
That meditative man, John Synge, and those
Impetuous men, Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane,
Found pride established in humility,
A scene well Set and excellent company.

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate – eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade –
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.


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