Saturday, September 20, 2008

Starting from the Lowest Possible Place

"I must lie down where all the ladders start," wrote Yeats in The Circus Animals' Desertion, "In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

This poem, one of his last, shows a poet searching for inspiration. The speaker concludes it may be found not in the beauty of the heart's core but within "a mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, / Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags ..."

In this stanza, Yeats reveals an important life truth. It is one he has explored before; In his poem, The Coming of Wisdom with Time, Yeats wrote that "leaves are many" but "the root is one." As a youth, the speaker "swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun" but now says it may be time to "wither into the truth." No matter how showy the leaves, the root that taps the earth for water and nourishment is the true place. It is also a dark place.

In both poems, Yeats rejects the romanticism of his earlier work. As he wrote in a letter to Lady Gregory: "We must accept the baptism of the gutter." The human condition need not be transcended if one learns to accept it with gusto.

Years later, the poet Theodore Roethke would also recognize that his most masterful poetry came from a primal place. Roethke, like Yeats, wanted to achieve human sanctity. In Roethke's mature work, inspiration often came from the most lowly of places, such as when he wrote of the worm climbing up the winding stair. Nature might also be menacing as in his poem Orchids:

They lean over the path,
Adder-mouthed,
Swaying close to the face,
Coming out, soft and deceptive,
Limp and damp, delicate as a young bird's tongue;
Their fluttery fledgling lips
Move slowly,
Drawing in the warm air.

In the second stanza, the orchids are described as "So many devouring infants" with "Lips neither dead nor alive" and "Loose ghostly mouths / Breathing."

Yeats's baptism of the gutter is made real in Roethke's poem Cuttings (later):

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it, --
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

The second stanza is lusty. It mirrors Yeats's thought that if we can accept the limitations of life boldly, we will find inspiration aplenty. Yeats said that such acceptance allows us to come into our "force."

We come into our strength as artists and as people when we quit trying to transform ugliness into beauty. Ugliness is what it is. Learn to live with it. Lift it up. Study and reveal it. Let it give you life, just as beauty does.

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken

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The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

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