Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Encouragement for Poets

When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had, all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.
—W. B. Yeats, from his memoirs

The modern, and somewhat cynical line on poets is that they should not quit their day jobs. Poet pay is dismal or nonexistent; the opportunities for contemporary recognition, minuscule; and the chances for posthumous celebration, hardly to be taken seriously. We're taking a contrarian view in the Lounge this month, as we dust off the Poetry Corner and pay a visit to a poet who never really had a day job, but who left an enduring imprint on the language, echoes of which can still be heard every day throughout the wide world of English.

An article about William Butler Yeats that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1938, while Yeats was still alive, makes this observation:

[He] first appears, in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being: a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses. The young man's more solid qualities were not then apparent to the casual observer.

Though they may now be sporting earbuds, young men fitting the first sentence of this description can probably be found wandering the streets of Dublin and London today – as well as the byways of many universities and liberal arts colleges. The casual observer might dispense with the question of solid qualities altogether, having conveniently slotted such a young man into the category of pseud or wannabe. At least in the case of Yeats, this appearance was deceiving.

You don't know any Yeats? You may think you don't, because study of his poems does not typically begin in high schools, and if you skipped all the literature courses in college or university, his work could have escaped your notice. But even if you're wearing earbuds today, chances are that you may hear a quote from or allusion to Yeats without being aware of its source. Take, for example, his widely reprinted 1920 poem, "The Second Coming", which begins thus:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Aside from the opportunities they provide for passing reference, these lines have supplied memes for a number of artists in the generations since Yeats. "The Widening Gyre" has been used as a title for television episodes, a comic book series, and novels. Things Fall Apart, as most who completed secondary education will know, is the title of a widely-read 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The phrase  "loosed upon the world" — not original with Yeats, but certainly given a huge boost by him — turns up in half a dozen news stories on any given day. The first four lines of "The Second Coming" were even entered into the Congressional Record in September 2000 when then Representative Charles T. Canady (R-FL) quoted them while speaking on the floor. The last two lines above seem to sum up for everyone, at any given time, what is truly wrong with their party, church, family, or country. The remainder of "The Second Coming" is equally replete with enduring images, and the last two lines,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

has inspired a number of works, including a Joni Mitchell song and a collection of essays from Joan Didion, both called Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

That's one poem. Among other phrases that Yeats gets the main credit for immortalizing, if not creating outright, are the following.

  • A terrible beauty is born
    (from his poem "Easter 1916")
  • Mad as the mist and snow
    (the title of a Yeats poem, in which the line also occurs)
  • That is no country for old men
    (from "Sailing to Byzantium"; it inspired the title of the 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men and subsequent 2007 Coen Brothers film)
  • Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand,
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. 
    (from "The Stolen Child", which has inspired several musical settings and other works, including the Robert Wiersema novella The World More Full of Weeping)
  • O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    How can we know the dancer from the dance?
    (closing lines of "Among School Children", which inspired the 1978 novel Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran)

The list could go on, but the point is adequately made with a few examples: poets at their best, perhaps more than artists in any other medium, create a trove of lexemes out of which future writers, poets, musicians, and other artists, great and small, fashion their own linguistic expressions.

It's refreshing to learn that Yeats had the impression of much of his experience being preparation for something that never happens – surely many of us come to a similar conclusion at different times. But Yeats' observation of this apparently futile aspect of life never deterred him from doing the thing that he did best, and persevering in it his entire life. He received considerable recognition during his lifetime (including the 1923 Nobel Prize for literature), but it is only long after his death, and through the process of other artists and writers returning to his work again and again, that his work is thoroughly woven into the warp and weft of English, often so seamlessly that speakers and writers are not aware of the origin. And so long after his death, much happens for which he did not imagine his life was any preparation. Perhaps even his early self-presentation as the sensitive young man was a part of his future greatness, a component in the overall scheme of his mastery of expression that may reflect another observation of his: "We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us."

Here are two lesser known poems of Yeats, published 100 years ago in a collection called The Green Hamlet  (1910).


THESE are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, So much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.


THOUGH leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 1st 2010, 6:43 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
"Pleased to have filled the eyes
Or the discerning ears"
Wednesday December 1st 2010, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Wayne S.
Times have changed, but there is a LOT of money for today's poets. Their poems are called lyrics and iTunes can't sell them fast enough.

I know, I know. Not all music is fine poetry, but many of the great songs were great poems first.

Check out "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley, "A Better Place to Be" by Harry Chapin, "Fountain of Sorrow" by Jackson Browne or almost any song you have loved.

Indeed the youth of today with their earbuds are listening to more poetry than any of their ancestors.
Wednesday December 1st 2010, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Cynthia
Hallelujah is actually written by Leonard Cohen, who is most certainly keeping poetry alive!
Wednesday December 1st 2010, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
The English critic, Robert Graves, wrote "There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money, either."

Wayne S, iTunes sells recordings. The recordings convey three types of music: instrumental, vocal and lyrical. Many modern lyrics are indeed poetic.

The French critic, Paul Velery, wrote "Having verse set to music is like looking at a painting through a stained glass window".

Perhaps the ear bud wearing masses are listening to the music of the lyrics. But often the listeners, even those who may be able to recite the lyrics like so much verse, seem able to concentrate on only one art form at a time, preferring the 'stained glass window' of the instrumental or vocal performance, over the 'painting' of the lyrical poetry.

Which is sad. it has been observed that poetry, our first form of storytelling, is the music of language and of thought. We enrich ourselves when we experience it unencumbered by other art forms.
Wednesday December 1st 2010, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Avenue C. (Anchorage, AK)
Listening to poetry is not the same as writing it. I enjoy listening to poetry and song, but it is the act of creativity which leads to "solid qualities" that lay beneath appearance. I do think today's culture is as difficult for poets as the culture in days of Yeats. Today, it seems to me, it is celebrity, not depth of insight, that garners financial support.

No harm to iTunes, but I'm not convinced it actually supports poets. Only the writing of poetry supports poets. That kind of "support" may have little to do with money. Again it is the writing, the creative act itself, that makes a poet a poet. Yeats didn't just listen, his listened and then expressed what he heard whether support and recognition came or not (same said for Cohen).
Wednesday December 1st 2010, 3:26 PM
Comment by: mac
i've always seen a song as a very short story (or a poem, yes). i'm not saying all songs are good stories but who sez all stories manage to toe the mark?
Wednesday December 1st 2010, 4:34 PM
Comment by: eleanor M. (ottawa Canada)
the poet is the stone resting on the river bed. without this stone water would not sing
Thursday December 2nd 2010, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Mark W. (Newton Abbot United Kingdom)
There is writing, reading and listening. Listening implies someone having read a work aloud and this cannot help but put forth an overlaid interpretation (although with an author's own reading the interpretation and words are likely to be simply congruent). Re-using a poem as a musical lyric could be argued as "selling the interpretation", not the poem.

Writing song lyrics, I'd suggest, is a different, but related, art form, as a libretto is different to a Shakespearean script.

Does song-lyric writing support poetry in general?
Thursday December 2nd 2010, 1:06 PM
Comment by: lattewoman (VA)
I love words. Communication is a kind of miracle, and poetry is that miracle in its highest form. I write poetry for the joy of creating. Good thing, huh?
Friday December 3rd 2010, 12:27 PM
Comment by: GARY P.
It is wonderful to simply enjoy thoughful and inspiring prose. Hearfelt joy is very rewarding.
Saturday December 4th 2010, 2:19 AM
Comment by: Margaret W.
The collection of poems referred to in the article above was entitled The Green Helmet, not the Green Hamlet. It is great to be reminded of Yeats' influence and one might add to the discussion "Down by the Salley Gardens" which has been set to music and "The Song of the Wandering Aengus" which contains the lines "the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun." There are too many memorable phrases from WBY to list them all, and surely everyone who loves his work has more than a few favorites--"a terrible beauty is born." As for making a living from poetry, it must be possible or why would there be so many, many venerable and newly minted MFA programs at major and minor universities throughout the country?...ah, to provide teaching jobs for poets.
Saturday December 4th 2010, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Speaking about splendid verses and splendid music and splendid interpretation, splendid everything, here is an example recorded in Chicago in 2006
Friday February 18th 2011, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks to all you writers - Yeats, Hargraves, and you who have shared with us your thoughts about their thoughts! I had not realized that so many familiar phrases were Yeats' creations. Another book title taken from his "The Second Coming" is "The Center Cannot Hold - My descent into Madness" by self-described schizophrenic Elyn R. Saks. It's a fascinating and touching memoir.
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 6:43 PM
Comment by: Krazy
I'm quite of a poet myself... This kind of motivated me to write more...


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