Yeah, I said James Wright was my favorite poet, but if you asked me who the best twentieth-century poet was, I’d name one who began in the nineteenth: William Butler Yeats. Why would I call him best? Because he was the master, in the same sense that the painters called Old Masters were masters: they underwent training, trained others, and to show the extent of their mastery, produced masterworks. There was a country, and a language, in which till very recent times poets underwent rigid formal schooling and testing of this kind: Ireland and the Irish language. Yeats, like Joyce, was expert in English poetry, and infused his best work with a magic that (by all accounts) had evaporated from traditional Bardic poetry for centuries, leaving only an academic husk: but in these days when most poetry that gets published is feeble, watery, self-regarding pap, the power and grace of Yeats, in a language most of his countrymen identified with their alien oppressor, still rise tall. So does his humor, broad, pointed and scornful as Swift’s or Donleavy’s or Joyce’s: but theirs is essentially prose humor. Yeats wrote everything, even his often rather misguided prose, in the service of poetry, and placed his own master-poems at a height still hard to approach. This was intentional, and immodestly claimed: he famously boasted of being the best poet writing in English, or said as much, when Swinburne died: “Now I am king of the cats.”
Admitting that claim is not to say that he wasn’t an uneven poet, often embarking on paths of experimentation or obsession that turned out to be blind alleys: but true poetry poured out of him at such a rate that he could afford as many bad poems as he liked. From the beginning when he led the wispy neo-Romantics of the Celtic Renaissance, to the end when he confessed his poetry belonged, and always had, in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” he stuck close to a standard of great poetry that his best poems always upheld.
Not all of his best poems are in Otros, and as usual I tend to like things, sometimes, which aren’t his best for quirky reasons of my own, but I don’t think my choices will be particularly surprising: any good anthology is likely to have most of them. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is a signature early poem with a beguiling vision of peace as simple as it is intense. “When You Are Old” is a sentimental love poem, but touched by the terror of the Old Gods of whom Love is one of the most formidable. In “Who Goes with Fergus?,” “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” Yeats uses Celtic myth to express, in singularly beautiful words, inexpressible longings. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is a poignant wince of unrequited (or indifferently-requited) love. “Easter 1916” raises the Irish independence movement to the status of myth through a tough, eyes-open eulogy of four of its martyrs. I’ve seen “The Second Coming” quoted several times to knell the rise of Donald Trump: a nearly hundred-year-old poem is still the best we can do to communicate the nature and monstrousness of social disaster. “Leda and the Swan” is not, as some feminists paint it, a glorification of rape, but a compassionate portrait of human helplessness in the face of inexorable fate. In “Among School Children” Yeats takes his place among “public, smiling, sixty-year-old” men who haven’t learned the lesson that passion is ever to be avoided. “For Anne Gregory” makes the same point about the inevitable triviality of attraction. “Byzantium” is the poem I added most recently, and I’m not sure I understand it, except that it seems to exalt and pity the human power to create at the same time. Finally, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” shows that an old person’s humility and pride are both so appropriate as to be almost the same thing.
… So ends this tour of my file of other people’s poetry. I’ve left out poets I know whose permission to post their work I didn’t think I’d get, and at least one poet whose work has to be read as a whole and whom it would be misleading to excerpt: Marge Piercy. I’ve written elsewhere that Piercy’s voice was the one that struck me as most like my own when I first read her, though her focus dwells on the political to the same degree that mine flees from it. Other poets acknowledged as great are people I just don’t get: Moore, Lowell, Berryman … well, Milton for that matter. I want people to be readers of poetry enough to pick their own favorites and not be limited to mine.
I don’t know where my half of this blog is going in the future (don’t know how much future is left to me, frankly), but I’m gonna step up the frequency of the Grade A poems till we get to the end of those (for now), and I haven’t forgotten my promise to do that thing I’ve never been any good at and attempt a close reading of “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Meanwhile, I hope I’ve suggested some fruitful directions your reading might take and/or introduced you to some poets worth knowing.