Friday 19 January 2018

WB Yeats: A portrait of the artist

Professor Margaret Mills Harper, Director of the Yeats International Summer School, assesses the poet's legacy

Some of the students attending the Yeats Summer School in Sligo in August 1964
Some of the students attending the Yeats Summer School in Sligo in August 1964

If I were to use one word to describe WB Yeats, I think I'd say (very unpoetically) he's big. In his lifetime, he was physically tall and personally extravagant. Artistically, politically, and emotionally, he never hesitated to leap into a fray or take on the impossible. His achievements are huge. His reputation is massive. He's hard to pin down and difficult to domesticate.

Now, 150 years after his birth and more than 75 since his death, he is still making big claims and big demands. Imaginatively speaking, Yeats is not afraid to look any reader in the eye (that is, the 'mind's eye', as he put it) and ask us what we are making of our lives. Is this the best we can do? How honest are we willing to be? Can we take being challenged and exposed, including being exposed to heart-stopping beauty?

Yeats asks the big questions. Like the English mystical poet William Blake, whom he championed when many thought Blake was something of a lunatic, Yeats is one "Who beat upon the wall / Till Truth obeyed his call," as he wrote in the poem 'An Acre of Grass'. Yeats also knew that Truth is neither easy nor objective. We, that is, human beings, invent it, "lock, stock and barrel". That is why we must never let the imagination starve-not in 'modern' schools, business models, or fashionable 'culture'. Ironically, in insisting on this, Yeats was radically modern, highly pragmatic, and is now one of the names most associated around the world with Irish culture.

This year, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of his birth, there are big goings-on. In Ireland, the project called 'Yeats2015' is acting like a sort of basket to catch them all. Events are happening all over the world - the ones I know of are occurring in Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Leuven, London, Melbourne, New York, St Petersburg, São Paulo, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, Utrecht, and Vienna, not to mention Ireland. Publications include Yeats Reborn, a book of new translations by 90 translators, into 21 languages.

Ireland has a more complicated relationship to Yeats than does the rest of the world. Beyond this island, Yeats is one of the most important modern poets and probably Ireland's best-known writer (sharing that slot with Joyce). In Ireland, Yeats often is remembered as the poet of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', who wrote love poems people had to learn in school. (I have often thought it a shame that Yeats's place in school curricula keeps people from realising how much of his work is, well, inappropriate for adolescents, and worth discovering by adults.)

Yeats believed in being oppositional. He railed against the Catholic provincialism of the Free State, art and politics that debases itself in order to be popular. He insisted that the whole human condition was important, even sacred - including the body, violence and hatred as well as love and beauty, the music and power of words. Ironically, the poses he struck are easy to conflate with some general truth about him. In Ireland, a little knowledge about Yeats has sometimes proven a dangerous thing.

This year gives us a chance to celebrate and learn about our great national poet. Beyond reading the poems, I suggest a visit to the Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland, The Model in Sligo, Thoor Ballylee in Galway and Yeats Day on June 13th and attendance for at least a few days at the famous and long-running Yeats International Summer School in Sligo.

Importantly, this year also gives artists the chance to create new work. If Yeats were here, this is what he would like: his anniversary being used as a catalyst for art. It's appropriate that the art is in many genres, given that Yeats was not only a poet and dramatist (and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre) but went to art school (he was almost the only member of his family not to be a visual artist), worked with dance, and explored new media like radio. He also believed passionately in traditional oral culture.

For 2015, the choreographer Liz Roche is making a piece for the Abbey Stage, the first time an Irish choreographer has had work presented there. New poems, musical compositions, drama, and visual art are coming up all over the island. One of my favourites is a co-production by Sligo's Hawk's Well Theatre and Fidget Feet Aerial Dance Company, based on the occult 'system' Yeats created with his wife George, and the poem 'The Second Coming' that came out of that strange work.

Some of this new work will last, as Yeats will. In an interview with Dennis O'Driscoll, Seamus Heaney said of Yeats, "the work will survive among readers passionate about poetry. What they will always find and value is solid evidence of the makings of a soul as well as the makings of music. Of course, he and his work will be assailed, but they're ready for it. If ever there was an oeuvre that can take a hammering, that's even daring you to have a go at it, it's Yeats's."

This year, we get to have a go at Yeats. And, as Plato's ghost asks the poet in the late poem, "What then?"

The author is Glucksman Chair of Contemporary Irish Writing at the University of Limerick (UL).

Irish Independent

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