Monday, September 17, 2007

miles with w.b. yeats

w.b. yeats received the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature. ostensibly, his poetry revolved around themes and materials drawn from Irish culture. he was one of the prominent figures in the Irish literary revival of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which was intended to restore Gaelic identity against historical English domination.

despite this, i still find his works universal. a lot of his writing (not all, but most) crosses cultural boundaries, since they deal with subjects that pre-occupy--whether we admit it to ourselves or not--so many of us: life, death, the meaning of both, the nature of living, the sense of the spiritual. he deals with these in a way that is not so abstract (at least, he did in his later works...his early material was borderline ethereal), nor cold, nor preachy, nor melodramatic, but instead gives an air of reality treated with warmth and respectful sensitivity that rises to understated elegance--something that seems to only magnify the impact of his writing.

yeats is one of my long-time poetic favorites. i love his stuff. it speaks to me. i find myself going back to him again and again. i'll catch myself running through his lines in my mind at various points in the course of random days, particularly on days most contemplative. i'll also find myself reciting his poems in the middle of a training set or in the midst of race day.

i know it might seem odd that i'd think of poetry like yeats in sport. admittedly, his stuff is sobering, deeply reflective, and intensely provoking on deep themes calling for thought involving concentration lasting days. basically, it's stuff you'd identify with words like methodical, careful, diligent, deep. not the kind of things you want to be when you're trying to roll in a race.

but you know, his words flow like the waters of a deep river: continuous, unwaivering, unstoppable, inexorable, strong. and as serene as the face of truth accepting the inevitability of the eternal--very much the kind of things you want when you're trying to roll in a race.

that, and...i keep saying this, but i'll say it here again, because in yeats i feel i have a sympathetic voice who can demonstrate what i mean: there are certain truths in life, certain truths we too often cover up or ignore or brush over or hide, just so we can survive our lives; truths which are laid bare through suffering and pain and misery and agony that burns and strips away our lies and deceit and ignorance; truths which we must ultimately face before being relegated to all eternity.

training. racing. each one is a microcosm of this mortality. and so a device which exposes such truths.

once we make our peace with them, we can stop merely surviving and we can start really living, with full meaning and in full appreciation of the true nature of the mystery we have been given: life.

and it's then that our race begins to have meaning.

here's a selection of some of my favorites from yeats:

The Old Men Admiring Themselves In The Water
I heard the old, old men say,
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say,
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--- Those dying generations --- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shalll never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

What Then?
His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
`What then?' sang Plato's ghost. `What then?'

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
`What then?' sang Plato's ghost. `What then?'

All his happier dreams came true -
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
`What then?' sang Plato's ghost. `What then?'

`The work is done,' grown old he thought,
`According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought';
But louder sang that ghost, `What then?'

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