Reading Yeats in the Age of Trump
Nov 29, 2016
13 Min read time
No poet captures the feeling of political failure—of having lost an unfair fight—like W. B. Yeats.
Like many of you, I have spent the days since the election in a combination of frantic distraction; intermittent, flailing activism; attempts to focus on my private and professional life; and fear. The more I read from experts in relevant fields, the more I envision the next four, or eight, or ten years not so much as a Republican administration—enacting policies that will hurt immigrants, people of color, and the poor—but rather as a kleptocratic, potentially authoritarian, generation-long takeover, one that could extend outward and downward from Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue into the federal judiciary, the civil service, and the national security state.
I have not lost my interest, nor my belief, in the powers of poetry. But my goals for my own poetry, and for the ways that I write about poetry, are not what they were before November 8. I used to believe, if not in Walt Whitman’s late-1850s optimism, then in the chastened patriotism, the qualified trust in elections and popular culture, that he found even in the Gilded Age. I have opposed critics who use, as unconsidered, generic praise, the word “revolution,” on the grounds that few good things are harder to break than to fix. I have argued—and I still believe—that our ways of reading and our ways of hearing poetry, like our ways of eating and our ways of understanding kindness and violence, have roots older than we are, older than the twentieth century, even though they have changed, and will change. And I have aligned my own poetry, most of the time, with incrementalism, with a way of reading that (like W.H. Auden’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s) pays some homage to the deep past.
Trump enjoys the wrong kind of rococo: the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of wealth as a boastful public spectacle.
I also wanted my poetry to champion the femme, the elaborate, the playful, the serifed, the feathered, the self-consciously involute, the magenta and the chartreuse, even the ornamental: ruffles, dessert. I wanted that poetry, and other contemporary poetry too, to take pleasure in small things, and to push back against a patriarchal, instrumental, coarse, results-first, adult-driven, queer- and transphobic capitalism. I called those goals for poetry “nearly Baroque,” or rococo, and I found its closest modern precedent in Marianne Moore.
Our president-elect appears to enjoy the rococo, too, but it is the wrong kind of rococo: not delicate craftsmanship as a blow to misogyny, but the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of a wealth he has used to hurt others, as a boastful public spectacle. Trump represents the end of liberalism, the end of self-restraint and public kindness delivered through flawed, long-lived institutions, at least on a national scale. The social contract of Paul Wellstone and Richard Rorty, of A. Phillip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt, and for that matter of Barack Obama, seems all torn up.
It is possible to imagine human progress—to imagine that we can make things better—and it is possible to imagine historical continuity—a future along the same lines as the recent past—but it is no longer possible for me to hold in mind both things at once. Nor is it possible for me to imagine that our institutions, long held up by tacit norms of professionalism and ethics, are likely to heal themselves. “Most of the American public,” writes international relations scholar Dan Drezner, “either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the norms that Trump is breaching,” no more than they care what a sonnet can be.
I still believe that in the worst possible America—a state that would resemble, say, Erdoğan’s Turkey, or Orbán’s Hungary—there would be a place for the arts, and a reason for teachers to teach. I believe, too, that the role of a poetry critic is in part conservatorial: we save Chaucer and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt for future generations, almost as the Sierra Club tries to save sea turtles and jumping mice. And if it is wrong to be a poetry critic in the age of Trump, it is also wrong to be a classical musician, a graphic designer, or an ancient historian.
But what kind of poetry critic, and what kind of writer, do I want to be? How do I view the poems of today, or the day before yesterday, and which ones point a way forward for the art? Here Trumpism does seem to have changed my mind: it feels, at this moment, like the radicals were right. Writers who sought poetry with community roots, poems that had little to do with elite institutions, were singling out the best parts of our future: Urayoán Noel’s terrific book on the Nuyoricans, In Visible Movement, shows one case. The poets who sought a gnarled, fierce resistance to prose sense and called it a protest against neoliberalism may not know how to save America, but at least they knew what was wrong. Daniel Borzutzky, with his new National Book Award, looks better, and more frightening, than before. And then there are Fred Moten, and Juliana Spahr, and Lee Ann Brown, and Edwin Torres, and even the very learned Carter Revard.
But I am not able to write like any of them. It is the American moderns who draw more from older modes, the moderns who might be called writers of liberalism, to whom I feel especially close—Moore, Bishop, Randall Jarrell, late James Merrill, early Gwendolyn Brooks, even Frank O’Hara (to name only the dead)—and who are the hardest for me to read right now. I have the feeling that they, and I, got something deeply, sadly wrong.
So instead I have been rereading W. B. Yeats—for example, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” (1913):
Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes. . . .
No other poet has captured so well the feeling of noble failure—of having lost an unfair fight—along with the feeling of conflict between serving a very flawed nation and serving the ideals embodied in art.
The radicals were right. Poems with community roots, poems that have little to do with elite institutions, are singling out the best parts of our future.
Yeats wrote in defense of institutions, historical memory, and gradual change. He also wrote in defense of ideals, against a pragmatism so total that it toppled into defeatism: “only amid spiritual terror,” says a character in The Hour-Glass (1903), “or only when all that laid hold on life is shaken can we see truth.” And he wrote some of those defenses while surrounded by more violence than most Americans will likely ever see. I am rereading him now not only for those laudable goals, but also for his own strenuous, chastened, even tormented ambivalence toward those goals, for his divided mind (“All Things Can Tempt Me,” 1916):
All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman’s face, or worse—
The seeming needs of my fool-driven land;
Now nothing but comes readier to the hand
Than this accustomed toil. When I was young
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs;
Yet would be now, could I but have my wish,
Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish.
Yeats once turned to politics, and to a clumsy courtship, out of frustration with the demands of art; now (so the hypermetrical final line implies) he has turned back to poetry because public life and erotic life have failed. This Yeats—from the early 1910s into the 1920s—is a poet of fierce disillusion, musing both on the necessity and on the frustration (veering toward futility) of his entry into the electoral fray.
I do not take from these lines the lesson that resisting Trumpism is futile. “Give up forever” is not a Yeatsian sentiment, though “understand and learn from your opposite” is. Nor do I mean Yeats’s politics should be our own. Sometimes they led him close to endorsing fascists. (The Yeats scholar Jonathan Allison summarizes the most egregious episode: “in response to . . . the renewal of IRA activity and the apparent threat of communism, [Yeats] gave support for several months in 1933 to the Irish Blueshirts. . . . He wrote marching songs for them, but soon, realizing his mistake, he revised them so they could not be sung.”)
However, the frustrations of the day, the sense that we have done all we could and it still didn’t work—and the need for those of us in the arts to find some source of value and meaning that is not only political, without giving up on the country—are entirely Yeatsian. So are the vivid expressions of righteous anger and the manifest commitment to conventions and traditions that a victorious opponent may tear apart (“Church and State,” 1934):
Might of the Church and the State,
Their mobs put under their feet.
O but heart’s wine shall run pure,
Mind’s bread grow sweet.
That were a cowardly song,
Wander in dreams no more;
What if the Church and the State
Are the mob that howls at the door!
Wine shall run thick to the end,
Bread taste sour.
“Sour” rhymes—or rather, sourly, doesn’t quite rhyme—with “door” and “more.” The present, sourly, doesn’t match the vision we had for it. The Yeatsian past holds visions of a better future, “dreams,” ruled out by current events. That same past holds political tragic heroes, imperfect national leaders who could have done better, brought down by sexual prurience, hurt by fake news or by building the wrong coalition. In “To a Shade” (1914) Yeats writes:
If you have revisited the town, thin Shade,
Whether to look upon your monument
(I wonder if the builder has been paid)
Or happier thoughted when the day is spent
To drink of that salt breath out of the sea
When grey gulls fly about instead of men,
And the gaunt houses put on majesty:
Let these content you and be gone again;
For they are at their old tricks yet.
Nothing improves, the poem says; electoral politics doesn’t work; it is better to watch the circling birds. Few serious students of history feel that way all the time: but who hasn’t felt that way now and again? (In this year’s performance the role of Kitty O’Shea was played by Anthony Weiner’s laptop; the role of unpaid builders was played by unpaid builders.)
Again, and more seriously: one cannot map Yeats’s politics onto our own. One can, however, map his moods about politics, and his way to make moods into poems: drastic loss, surprise at institutional failure, outrage, betrayal and fear. Again, it is important to remember that Yeats, though rarely in personal danger, lived through more violence than I am likely to see. His most plangent, sustained, and ambitious poems of political anxiety grew out of the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War, and the Irish Civil War. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (1923) warns of the pull of the crowd, “the rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,” “arms and fingers spreading wide / For the embrace of nothing.”
Yeats lived through more political violence than we are likely to see. His most ambitious poems grew out of the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War, and the Irish Civil War.
It is a crowd that any of us, even Yeats himself, might join: “I, my wits astray / Because of all that senseless tumult, all but cried / For vengeance” too. (When Yeats writes in hexameters, it usually means that someone, or something, has exceeded a normal limit, has gone too far.) But Yeats does not join a crowd. Instead, “I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair / Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth / In something that all others understand or share.” Those smoother hexameters prove his worth as a maker of verse, though in another sense nothing could prove it: “had such a proof drawn forth / A company of friends, a conscience set at ease, / It had but made us pine the more.”
“Meditations in Time of Civil War” is Yeats’s most ambitious poem on civil disorder; “Easter, 1916,” his most famous. But I keep coming back, instead, to his most tormented, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” (first published in 1921). Here Yeats laments not only the conflict in progress but the institutional, cultural, even species-wide flaws that let it occur. The war—wars, really: World War I had just ended—represents the collapse of all norms and restraints, and the end of the idea of peaceful progress.
We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.
(“Wax”: think of Icarus.) And again, three sections later:
We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.
Read this way—not intricately, for its historical contexts, but intimately, for immediate use—“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” becomes a poem of anger seeking an object, of thrashing frustration with everyone and everything, but most of all with everyone who decided to sit this one out, on the grounds that we are doomed.
Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.
Advice and disgust occupy the same sentence and stanza, though not the same clause. Be as disgusted as you like, but be practical. Stay outraged, but try to help. Remember the institutions (his were not ours) that, in your view, held the worst back. And seek equanimity some time—since you can’t feed your heart on enmity— even if you can’t find it right away. “All things fall and are built again,” Yeats famously mused, “and those that build them again are gay.” He also said that his late metaphysical system, explained (or “explained”) in his volume A Vision, “helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” I’ll take all the help I can get.
It may be that, having rolled snake eyes this time, we roll sixes in 2018 or 2020; that democratic institutions survive—albeit banged-up—and that some combination of state governments, honestly run elections, betrayed one-time Trump fans, and demographic shifts will heave the country back onto a better, even a social democratic, course. Or not. “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists,” Adam Gopnik warned us all in May. Perhaps we have been, to quote “Easter, 1916,” “changed utterly,” though without much beauty this time. We can react to that change by upending our lives, or by tithing—giving up some time, some money, for the immediate good of resistance—without abandoning all other goals. And as we react to that change—and try to make art that reflects the enormity of it—we will have art from the present and past to consider: there is the radical art of popular organizing, and the art of introspective dissent, but also the art of anger at the destruction of institutions, the art of a patriot whose country was not what he thought it was or could be, the art of an idealist let down, an art (not least) that speaks to America from outside America: the thoughtful, angry, frustrated, and painfully memorable art of W. B. Yeats.
November 29, 2016
13 Min read time