Annie West: My love affair with Willy Yeats
Illustrator Annie West once harboured a seething resentment for the poet, but now has a soft spot - even a slight obsession - for her luckless laureate
English Paper 1. Those three words that still, after all these years, strike fear and loathing into my heart.
It is fair to say I did not apply myself to the job: I was what people would describe as a messer. I should take this opportunity to apologise to my English teacher for making her job a lot worse than it needed to be.
In particular I really just did not get the Poetry thing. I questioned everything. Not in an intelligent, enquiring way, more in an annoying way. Partly because I was lazy but partly because of the way we were taught. In particular I harboured a seething resentment for the poetry of William Butler Yeats, mainly because he was, from beyond the grave (in Drumcliffe or Roquebrune), preventing me from pursuing my far more important, and relevant, social life.
Which led to much argument and insdiscipline in the classroom...
Because you have to.
Just learn it.
I needed a reason to learn this poem. It did not make sense to me to learn it, why would I need it? Would it help me get a job? Would it get me into McGonagles?
I left School in 1979 and went to Art School. I'm convinced they let me in based on some kind of clerical error because I couldn't draw for toffee. I played along for five years, waiting for the Drawing Police to come along and escort me from the building.
They do say everything happens for a reason. In 1992 I went to Sligo for a short break. It hadn't occurred to me at the time but I began to realise early on there was no escaping Willy Yeats. He was everywhere. At first I scoffed and ignored him but soon he started entering my consciousness again and not in a good way. Badly drawn portraits ("Who's the fat guy with the glasses?"). Yeats mugs. Yeats keyrings. Yeats poems done in slightly dodgy calligraphy. Yeats Country Hotel. The Yeats Garden Centre. Yeats United FC.
Not only did I find the merchandise somewhat aesthetically upsetting but I now had the added trauma of people suggesting I do some myself. Nothing could be further from my mind. A chance conversation, well documented already, with Stella Mew in Drumcliffe Graveyard in 2005 changed everything.
For years I had simply regarded Yeats as a poet. It never occurred to me to have a look at his personality, or his story. When Stella mentioned his four marriage proposals, I started looking. Then I looked some more and read some more and then started drawing.
It started as just the four marriage proposals. How do I make those amusing. Then other things came along and the four illustrations became six, then twelve, then thirty. People started telling me stories , some true, some made up (I think).
In some way I think the reason it worked out was because I found all that horrible energy I had saved up since English Paper 1 and used it for good.
My gaze was shifted slightly as I went along and I began to take a closer look at Maud Gonne. What started as the annoying and somewhat nerdy pursuit of this remarkable woman became something else as I realised, by reading accounts of their relationship by those who witnessed it, Maud was really mean to Willy, nearly all the time. I began to sympathise with him. I started to see Willy in sitcoms. George Costanza in Seinfeld. Cliff Claven in Cheers. Ross in Friends. Unrequited love is a universal, unremitting preoccupation and can be very funny to watch, assuming you're not The Preoccupied.
Ironically I found myself becoming slightly obsessed with Willy Yeats. I decided it was okay, the guy was dead and anyway, being the fella he was, he would probably approve.
Ten years later I'm still drawing Willy Yeats, in some form or another. Eventually we will arrive at some kind of conclusion. I'll know when it happens. We'll agree to part and go our separate ways, friends for life.
I still don't like learning Poetry but I'm old now and don't have to. Learning 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' off by heart as a grumpy annoying adolescent did, in fact, in the end, serve a purpose.