Lifting a drink to WBY, 150 years on

william-butler-yeats-9I first met Yeats under the heavens of embroidered cloth, wrought by himself in that classic early lyric. To me, his poetry itself was some beautiful, carefully worked tapestry of the heavens; it was as deep, ornate and seductive. I fully understood the feeling behind the phrase “a fire was in my head”, as the carefully crafted utterances of this man who lived way before my time set my imagination alight with both dreamy visions and sensual, tangible impressions of the world. The presenses of unseen forces, the cries of birds, Irish placenames, landscapes and the elements that animate them, megalithic tombs, mythological heroes, Irish characters local and national, magic ritual, sexual frenzy, rants and raging, all permeate his work. Passionate intensity. Antinomies spark, igniting the drive to live. My younger self was left wide-eyed and wild, my soul clapped and sang, and I was catapulted into life. (The hurtling music of Mike Scott’s arrangement of Yeats’ “Mad as the Mist and Snow” gives a musical impression of my feelings at that time!)

From the pages of Yeats’ words blew an evocative wind of many colours. I was called away to explore a vast landscape of folklore, mythology and literature. The book led me to the real landscape of Sligo, which embodies all of these things, and more – the Irish language, music, venturing out in the living landscape, which has so many stirring tales. Through my interest in Yeats, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and I returned every year (as the swallows return for the summer) for five years. The school provided the opportunity of discovering Yeats in his natural habitat, and sharing this profound experience with new friends from far and wide. From being in Sligo, I could see how the environment seemed to encourage and nurture poetry. The landscape seems to talk directly to you, narrating its own stories. Mythology is alive and well in Carrowmore, where dolmens, the beds of Diarmaid and Gráinne lie; Ben Bulben frames one side of the town, in the shadow of which Diarmaid would die from the impact of a boar’s tusks; Knocknarea frames the opposite side of the town, where Queen Maeve stands buried on top in the prominent cairn; two epic ancient battles were fought by the Tuatha Dé Danann in Maigh Tuireadh, against the Fir Bolg and the Formorians. Michael Quirke, the local “mythkeeper” and woodcarver, relates local folklore stories to visitors to his shop, one of which tells of the witch, Garbhóg, who fell into the river that runs through the town, thus giving it the name Garavogue… Though I haven’t written in quite a long time, since my move to Glasgow, whenever I do take notes or write sketchy lines, my inspiration comes from nature around me, the local spirits in the places that I travel to.

Meeting Yeats for the first time was like meeting someone you’ve known for a long time. As I read the poetry, and read about the man behind the poetry, I felt a powerful affinity. The subjects that he cast his poetic eye on are just the things that would catch my eye, and set my heart to beat with love or rage. (On the whole, we pretty much loved and hated the same things.) Everything is beautiful in his depictions, even the horrors are terribly beautiful. His poetry, plays and prose works are invaluable for their discussion of contemporary polictical and cultural change in Ireland. Yeats was a man who moved with the times, from the dreamy, Pre-Raphaelite lover of the 1890s to the precise, raging passionate old man of the 1930s. When I was younger, and even still now, I love following the life of this man as he developed throughout his life. In a way, I learned how to think and act with his influence. When I think about it, Yeats always was precise, thorough and direct, even in his dream-weaving. He did begin as a wee scientist after all, a naturalist in his boyhood. (I realised just the other day that I was a dreamer first, but have grown into a more discerning way of thought, and have definitely become a naturalist!) I love the story of Yeats as a boy taking the glass out of the windows in his bedroom in Howth so that he could feel the elements of wind and rain more. I think this approach shows that Yeats was actually a great rooted thing, and based all of his inspirations on the tangible, despite the often dreamy and otherworldly feeling to his writings.

Yeats’ interest in folklore and in the Irish tradition, and his interest in a more pagan spirituality was what really got me hooked. His writings twitched at the veil of both the world of a bygone age and that of the Gaelic Otherworld, as it’s often called. I’m really interested in post-colonialism, and like Nuala Ní Dhomhnall, I wanted to delve deeper into the well of the national unconscious mind for a better understanding of my self. The seemingly flightly, whimsical fairy stories that Yeats, amongst others, collected offer a colourful insight into the mindset and psychology of Irish people dealing with everyday life’s hurdles. I think Yeats actually believed in otherworldly beings though… It certainly appeals to the imagination, the presenses of wise, ancient beings, seductive immortals and ghosts with a message to deliver. Tapping into this unseen realm certainly added a particular animation to Yeats’ symbols and metaphors. The music and cadences of Yeats’ poetry was influenced by the Irish-language poetic tradition, even though Yeats could never achieve any sort of fluency in the language (despite three attempts!). There’s another anecdote that I like is the one when Yeats was at a feis in Galway, and he heard sean-nós singing for the first time. Apparently he was enthralled, and interrogated Douglas Hyde (who he was fairly pally with) so that he could find out as much as possible about the tradition. Yeats’ eyes glistened when Douglas Hyde told him that he often dreamt in Irish; if only Yeats had’ve had the ability to learn Irish… I think it would have opened more doors to him. It was my interest in folklore, music and poetry that pushed me to learn Irish. Reclaiming my tongue was me reclaiming a huge part of my soul.

Anyway, I could go on and on! My relationship with Yeats and his work is far too complicated a subject for a blog post. I could write a book on it, with quotations where fitting. Last night I lifted a “Dark and Stormy” to Yeats on his 150th birthday. Here’s to the towering oak tree of poetic wisdom. Here’s to the coming generations of new Yeatslings. And here’s to a more concerted effort on my part to get back into writing again…