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Thursday, June 11, 2015

A poet's silence

In the late summer of 1970 in response to the war in Vietnam, Edwin Starr topped the Billboard charts, singing "War-- huh yeah, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing."

Sixty-five years before "War" topped the music charts, W.B. Yeats wrote a challenging short poem about war that asked, "War poetry – what is it good for?" 

Henry Allingham, WWI veteran
On being asked for a War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
           --William Butler Yeats

While Yeats' poem doesn't sound as outraged as Starr's lyrics, there's an edge and an attitude here as well, and at least two very different ways of making sense of the poem.   The poem can be read in the context of WB Yeats' letters and other writings, an example of wonderfully snarky literary gossip at its best – or worst  that asks the question, "What is good poetry?" 
The poem can be read on its own terms, as it asks the question, "What is poetry good for?" 

First the literary gossip.  Eighteen years after the war had ended, Yeats edited an anthology of poetry that included his choices of the best poems from the end of the 19th century through 1935.  And he pointedly omitted the British poets of the First World War.  Nothing from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, or the others – nothing.  Yeats defended his decision in the anthology's introduction, writing, "I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies….The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity…-- but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems....passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies." 

Many authors believe that Yeats' comments were a thinly veiled allusion to Wilfred Owen's comments about war poetry.  Before his death in 1918, Owen had written a draft preface to his poetry: "This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or land, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful."

Where Yeats' decision becomes much more interesting – and gossipy – is in a letter he wrote to a friend.  Not intended for publication, Yeats's comments not only dismiss Owen and the war poets, but are fascinatingly personal with a bit of spite:  "My anthology continues to sell…& the critics get more & more angry. When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets' corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution & that some body has put his worst & most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum-- however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same. He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick…. There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . ."  Ouch.  

It's fascinating to discover the ways in which poems and poets of the First World War have been alternatively dismissed and venerated over the years.  But Yeats' "On being asked for a war poem" is much more than a historical debate about taste – it deserves to be read and understood on its own merits.  
WB Yeats

Yeats wrote the poem in 1915 and sent it in a letter to Henry James, who had asked him specifically to write a poem that addressed the war and its politics.   Yeats first titled the poem "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations" – quite long-winded for a six-line poem!  When he sent it back to James, he shortened the title to "A Reason for Keeping Silent."  The title was changed a third time, appearing in its current version when Yeats included it a book of his poems published a year after the war ended.  I think the current title is the strongest because it names an action (being asked) and directly references war. 

The poem seems to imply that a writer can be a soldier or a pacifist or a protester, but that his actions should speak louder than his versified words: his mouth should "be silent" when it comes to politics. It is not the job of poetry to "set a statesman right."* My guess is that Yeats would scorn the tradition of poet laureates who are charged to write timely poems relevant to national concerns.  Unlike other voices who have claimed that poets serve as the conscience of a culture – Percy Shelley, for example, argued that poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" -- this poem claims a very different role for poetry.   

Poetry meddles in the personal, in the dreams of a young girl and in the backward looking reflections of an old man.  Poems invade the thoughts and lives of individuals, not "girls" and "men," but "a young girl" and "an old man."  Putting aside for a minute the fact that only one year later, Yeats wrote a much longer poem about the Irish political uprising of Easter 1916, "On being asked for a war poem" asks the reader provocatively, almost teasingly, to consider why he or she bothers to read poetry.  It's a short, personal poem that is willing to undercut itself as it intimately asks each of us what we think, what we feel, about poems, the war, and our personal experiences.   

Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, argues, "Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways."  That is, poetry changes us, showing us new ways of living and understanding.  About that, perhaps both Owen and Yeats could have agreed. 

*"Conversing with the World: the Poet in Society" offers a fascinating discussion of American politics and poetry.  
**"In Praise of Memorizing Poetry – Badly" shares an entertaining story about the word "meddling" in the poem, considering what the choice adds to the poem as a whole. 

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