Deep Heart's Core Sound: A Discussion of William Butler Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree."
Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at The Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners.
I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our pennsoundarchivewriting.upenn.edu/pennsound. Today, I’m joined here happily in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers house on our third floor garret studio by Max McKenna, long time regular on The Writers House scene and for the last two years a member of The Writers House staff. For about six years if you add it all up Max, now famous across communities of poets and poetry students world wide by virtue of his status as a teaching assistant for ModPo, a free open online course in which a mere 36,000 people enrolled. And by Taije Silverman, poet, teacher, translator, who’s book of poems Houses Are Fields was published in 2009, who’s translations of Italian poetry have been widely published, who’s own book will soon appear in an Italian translation, Houses Are Fields in Italian, and who teaches here at Penn, I’m glad to say a fabulously successful undergrad writing course on verse translation. Do they do only verse translations or other kinds of translations?
Taije Silverman: Only poetry translation.
Al Filreis: Fantastic. This is Poem Talk, that’s appropriate. And by John Timpane, poet, teacher, and for the last few years since 2009, media editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and for 12 years before that he was the op-ed guy for the Philadelphia Inquirer, frequent contributor to the Inquirer’s Sunday Ideas section and dear friend of the Kelly Writer’s House, one of our earliest supporters and author of, yes siree, Poetry for Dummies. Hello John, welcome back to The Writers House.
John Timpane: How the heck are you doing, Al?
Al Filreis: I’m fine. I’m happy whenever you show up here. And Max, your first time on Poem Talk.
Max McKenna: It’s great to be here.
Al Filreis: You’re a frequent haunter of the third floor but not Poem Talk so far, so I’m glad you’re doing it. And Taije, thank you.
Taije Silverman: Thank you.
Al Filreis: So today folks, we’re gathered here to talk about William Butler Yeats’s performance of his well-known poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. Penn Sound’s Yeats page includes three recordings of the poet recording this poem which apparently as a standard at his readings. We’ll listen to the October 28, 1936 recording. Penn Sounds also makes available the two minute introduction of the poem which preceded his 1932 performance of the poem. So here now is William Butler Yeats performing “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.
William Butler Yeats: I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Al Filreis: John Timpane, if you were forced to say what this poem is saying, I mean content, story, I feel this is such a violent thing to do to this poem but for starters, what would you tell a high school sophomore who needed to know what the content of the poem was, it was about?
John Timpane: How powerful memory is. Memory of place where you might be in a city and you see something that reminds you of a boyhood haunt which is overwhelmingly vivid in your memory, and that one memorial moment triggers it.
Al Filreis: Taije, will you take a shot at this or will you just ratify that?
Taije Silverman: No, I love that answer. But I might answer in a different vein and tell them to make sure not to ask themselves what the poem is about, because it seems to me so much a way in which sound trumps the meaning. We can parse it and take it’s meaning apart, but we are killing it in doing that. And we should kill it to do that, but then we should bring it back up to life by reading it over and over. That’s what poetry has over prose; it has a sound that’s a really unbreakable case around it’s meaning.
Al Filreis: Max, your thought on this question of content?
Max McKenna: Well this poem really is about the way that sound can be tied to a place and a memory as we started to say. He’s talking about, as Taije mentioned, all the sounds here: the linnet’s wings in the night, the bees humming in the glade.
Al Filreis: What’s a linnet?
Max McKenna: It’s a small bird, I think. I looked it up actually. The Victorians kept them as pets, that was the popular Victorian pet at the time.
Al Filreis: John, I’m going to skip a little bit but I know we’ll circle back to these same issues. Why does W.B. Yeats read the poem in such an overtly performative way. He’s not just reading it as a lyric poet might read it, he’s putting some extra stuff in it to say the least. What is that extra stuff?
John Timpane: Well I know that there’s another recording in which he said something like, “When I read this, I’m not going to read it like prose”. He is committed to poetry as music. I think he also is committed as a performer to make sure that the hearer has a good time. We talk about how people should read poetry all the time, and I think he has a simple commitment as a man of the stage if nothing else.
Al Filreis: So how would you describe, Max or Taije or both of you, how would you describe the voice? Loaded question. Taije, you first?
Taije Silverman: (LAUGHING) It’s silly!
Al Filreis: Silly? I want to hear more about this. It’s too much.
Taije Silverman: “I will arise and go now and go”, I mean yeah. It’s hard to take that seriously. It’s wonderful but as John said it’s deeply performative and quite over the top. Those r’s, he rolls those r’s like a train breaking down.
Max McKenna: By the way, that is not native to Sligo, that is a will trill.
Al Filreis: Do we consider him native of Sligo? No.
Max McKenna: — more complicated than that.
Al Filreis: Time in England, time in Dublin.
John Timpane: That accent is all messed up.
Al Filreis: We’re the wrong folk, we don’t have an Irish person in this group right now, but what is wrong? Can anybody say what’s not Sligo? This is about Lock Gil which is near Sligo, so this is going to be a Sligo accent and it’s not doing it the right way, right?
Taije Silverman: I’m sorry I don’t know anyone from Sligo, I can’t speak to that.
John Timpane: Well, his interior vowel are all wrong. He says the “ou” in “about” two different ways in many of the readings.
Al Filreis: How does he say “bee-loud”?
John Timpane: Well, the “bee-loud glade” but that’s Saxon, that’s not Irish. It’d be more like “bee-loud” if it was Irish.
Al Filreis: So what’s he putting on? He’s inventing a performative folk voice.
John Timpane: That’s exactly what he’s doing. So I answered my own question but Max you have a thought on this I’m sure.
Max McKenna: Sure, I think part of what he’s doing is creating this specific way of performing. I don’t think he’s trying to imitate this Sligo accent necessarily, but rather he’s creating this other worldly Irish way of performing that harkens back to some long ago time.
Al Filreis: So Taije, doesn’t it somewhat undermine the legitimacy of the longing, of the Londoner longing for home, to then construct a home that’s not real?
Taije Silverman: I don’t think that this home was ever real. This is not for his mother’s ancestral home in Sligo, this is for an imagined home in the spirit of Thoreau’s Walden on an empty island in the middle of a lake where —
John Timpane: But it’s not Thoreauvian in the sense that Thoreau, at least not quite as elaborately as he said, but he actually did build a house.
Taije Silverman: Absolutely, it’s pure fantasy. The fantasy of the voice fits with it.
Al Filreis: We even have the bean rows, oh my goodness, I just noticed. Doesn’t Thoreau obsess about his beans?
Taije Silverman: I think so. Yeah, I didn’t put that together.
Al Filreis: Yeah, he’s got nine bean rows. Nine bean rows will I have there. Alright, I think we should do some close reading of some of the sound. Since you brought it up Taije, you first, and then we’ll go around the horn. Teach us about how, we can’t do all of it, but teach us about how the sound the sound works somewhere in there.
Taije Silverman: I’ll start at the beginning and you guys can just take over from there. I love the way it opens, and of course why don’t we get the basics out of the way. That we’re dealing with three quatrains and it’s more or less iambic hexameter —
Al Filreis: Fourth line does something different.
Taije Silverman:— Exactly, at the end of every stanza we go into tetrameter.
Al Filreis: And you really feel the missing beat.
Taije Silverman: You really do, don’t you? When you read it, you think you’re missing something, that you feel like you’ve got to add something to that. I’d love to talk about that. When I said iambic, I barely mean it. It’s like it’s 50% iambic, there’s so much variation here. So, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”. Those long “i”s have a sense of ascension, of arising, and I love the way they start upward in the poem and then the short “i”s take over in “Innisfree” as if the short “i” is escaping from the long “i”. “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”, I’d love to talk too about the caesura, and the way that almost every line carries that caesura through and delays what’s happening. This seems to me so much a poem about delay.
Al Filreis: That too can form a bit of a paradox about the desire to go.
Taije Silverman: Exactly, he really doesn’t long for Innisfree, he longs to long for Innisfree.
William Butler Yeats: When I was a young lad in the town of Sligo, I read Carl Asands, and wanted to live in a hut on an island in Lock Gil called “Innisfree” which means “Heather Island”. I wrote the poem in London when I was about 23. One day in the strand, I heard a little tinkle of water and so in a sharp window a little jet of water balancing a ball on the top. It was an advertisement I’d seen for cooling drinks, but it sent me thinking of Sligo and lake water.
Al Filreis: How could such a young man have such a longing for long ago?
Taije Silverman: I think it’s young men who have all the longing for all the long ago. I think young men have this sort of quarter on longing, don’t they?
Al Filreis: I was inviting you to bespeak that paradox or hypocrisy. That in itself feels really immature to me. But anyway Max, what were you saying?
Max McKenna: He’s on this strand and he hears this sound of trickling water. It’s an advertisement for a refreshing drink, he says.
Al Filreis: It’s a window advertisement or a sidewalk advertisement for a summer drink and they’re running a little fountain. I believe he says there’s a little ball somehow bouncing on the top of this fountain. Is it the sound of this fountain we all love, don’t some of who live in cities buy these little Restoration Hardware fountains so we can hear the trickling? There’s something very watery about people. Taije you’re smiling, what does the sound of water have to do with any of this.
Taije Silverman: The sound of water has to do with the sound of peace and fluidity, and of course the lapping of the water on the shore in this poem is happening throughout all three verses, waves lapping on shore with this rhythmic endless — You can count on it to return but it always returns slightly differently. I keep thinking in this poem of that moment with a wave where if you’re watching waves, you can watch them pause, as if they’re thinking, “Do I want to go out to shore or should I just come back to the ocean?” Then they crash. That’s enacted in so many of the feet in most of these lines.
Al Filreis: John, how do we deal with the concept of time in that last stanza? “I will arise and go now” implies something’s happened and I need to get back now. But the rest of that stanza is about how there’s always this urge, it’s always night and day and I’m always feeling this and it’s in my core. Is that just a standard poetic paradox, a Romantic paradox, or is there something more to say about it?
John Timpane: Well I should say that on one level it is sort of standard because this is often called the last Romantic poem. This is like the most pre-Raphaelite of pre-Raphaelite Yeats, the Keltic Twilight Yeats. On one sense there is a standard trope of being long in city pant and yearning for the country. I might add though that the poem, whether he knew it or not, pulls against itself and runs back against that through the whole thing. I don’t believe reading the poem that if he goes back he’s going to cure this. If it’s in the deep hearts core, he’s telling us something. He’s saying, this is deeper than going back to a place, this is something that’s woven into what a person is.
Al Filreis: And what is that?
John Timpane: He doesn’t know. I think some part of him knows, probably the poet in him knows, that you can’t solve that. That the idea of nostalgia of yearning for a home that you can’t get to, means it’s fairly permanent, fairly self-undermining, self-distancing.
Al Filreis: Is he in exile? Is that where the poetry comes from? From being or faking not being where you really want to be? Max, you’re nodding.
Max McKenna: Absolutely, and I think that’s suggested by the geography of the Lake Isle, in that you’re in isolation but in an interior. It’s not an island that’s off the coast of something.
Al Filreis: It’s a giant lock, and in that lock there are a bunch of islands and one of them is Innisfree. Is Innisfree really an island? Okay. And he did go there as a boy with his brother I think.
Taije Silverman: Cousin, maybe.
Al Filreis: With his cousin.
Max McKenna: So it’s sort of part of the mainland and sort of apart at the same time. It’s there, you can see it, but not everyone can go there.
Al Filreis: Ezra Pound took on, with direct tutelage from Yeats in London, took on this performative voice. Is there anything we should make of that? Is it significant at all that Pound sounds more or less the same? Max, what is your thought about this?
Max McKenna: Pounds poems are less, at least in the early poems of the Cantos, less concerned with the Celtic character that Yeats is … He’s more indebted to the classics, to Homer. Yet he’s sort of creating, the two of them by doing this, creating a new oral tradition in a way of performing the poems. It goes back to what Yeats said about not wanting to read it like prose, wanting to read it like verse and wanting to honor all that work he did to make it song like and musical.
So John, this is by no means a Poem Talk about Ezra Pound, but why would Ezra Pound perform the first Canto which is Homeric specifically, from the Odyssey, why would he perform this thing in a derive Celtic voice borrowed from Yeats? Is he making a connection somehow? Speculate.
John Timpane: My speculation I guess would be that Pound was resting on two opposing pillars in most of his practice. One was to absolutely insist on the primacy of the ancients and the other was to make it new. What do you do with that? If you’re going to write nothing that can’t be found in good prose, which Pound said, where are you going to get the authority and the music that used to be with poetry? I think with Pound, especially his later readings, you have a very strange combination of this Vatic, Bardic voice.
Al Filreis: That’s what this is.
John Timpane: This is Bardic, the poet as hieratic voice married to modern content. It’s a very strange marriage indeed.
Al Filreis: Let’s listen to the first two lines or so of Pound, just to put that into the record. Pound reading Canto 1 which begins “And then went down to the ship / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea”.
Ezra Pound: And then went down to the ship
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping,
Al Filreis: Taije, what’s your thought hearing Pound after hearing Yeats. Any?
Taije Silverman: It’s the same thought, that silly thought. No, that’s unfair. I love the first Canto and I am thinking about the hexameter in Innisfree and the fact that The Odyssey is written in hexameter originally. There is this quiet sense of the epic inside the lyric, inside “Lake Isle of Innisfree”’s tiny lyric, the sense of the long journey it takes to get there, the endlessness, Odysseys figure arriving, always arriving, that Pound takes into his attempt to actually write an epic. His conscious failed attempt to write an epic.
Al Filreis: So “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” has in it’s small lyric an epic.
Taije Silverman: I think so.
Al Filreis: Epic longing and epic urge.
Taije Silverman: An epic distance.
Al Filreis: It stresses that. Okay, I just want to know why we should care about this poem. I do care about it, but whats at stake here? Why does this need to be heard and learned? John, you first.
John Timpane: Well I think it’s a great thing to be able to read a poem aloud from memory.
Al Filreis: This is one you can memorize.
John Timpane: You really can. As Taije has put it so well, the rhythms and the sumptuous orchestrated music make it good to memorize. Just on that mechanical level, it’s good for you.
Al Filreis: It’s good for you. Max, why should we care about “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.
Max McKenna: I think there’s a lot going on here politically too.
Al Filreis: We didn’t talk about that, go ahead.
Max McKenna: I wanted to do a geo-political reading of the water, of the lapping water.
Al Filreis: Please, be our guest. Go.
Max McKenna: Sure. It suggests in some ways the Irish channel, or the divide between Ireland and England. In some ways, the sort of split character of Yeats himself and then of course his own lack of a sense of home or place. This longing that he has to then struggle with. He continued reading this well into old age because it has that political quality. He was trying to elevate Irish culture.
Al Filreis: Max or anyone, if it was meant to be Irish in origin, the poem, either faux origin or real origin, rather than adhere to English poetic standards, does it achieve that effect if he’s trying to create some kind of distance? I tend to pull back a little against that assumption. I think of it as in line with a Wordsworthian Romanticism, and that would be in the English line. But what do you think?
John Timpane: It’s probably good to mention that he wasn't really good at Irish. He never really learned it, he tried. He certainly would have seen it a lot and heard it a lot. I even had a great aunt who spoke Irish.
Taije Silverman: He was part of the movement to make it required in schools, right?
John Timpane: Absolutely, which mores the pity that he himself was not very good at it. He’s not a linguist. He was very bad at reading French. When poets in London were playing with symbolism in the 1890s, he would go to their readings and he had the worst French among them. Having said that, I think what he does, his ear internalizes — and this might go a little way toward answering Taije’s question — it internalizes the vowel values in Irish poetry that is in Irish speech and the stress values that you’ll find. It’s really more stress related in Irish than in English. I wonder if there was anybody writing in England at the time of this publication, which is 1889 or 1890, who would have tried to write something like this. I don’t think there was.
Taije Silverman: Before we move on from that question, can we answer it looking at the penultimate line of the poem? “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray” which is such a sneaky line. It’s the first place in the poem where he admits that he’s not just in Sligo across the lake and he’ll take a boat over to Innisfree and he’ll be there.
Al Filreis: As if roadway isn’t enough, because roadway could be anywhere, but pavement and gray is London.
Taije Silverman: Exactly. It’s interesting the words he chooses, that makes me think ultimately this poem is more Irish geographically and orally than it is English. “Roadway” instead of “road”, so that roadway could be a path, and that way that rhymes with gray and has this assonance with pave, and it’s only when we get to the pavement. It’s really undone with the rhyme between “gray” and “roadway”, it’s like he’s apologizing for being in London at all. Really everything urban in that one line which is the only line in the whole poem that he gives the urban any space, is softened. You can almost hear the tar being blended into rubble or gravel and softened into a dust through the sound.
John Timpane: Even “I will arise and go now” is not a city movement. It’s not a, I’ve got to be somewhere at 3:15. “I will arise and go” is almost as if there’s a floating quality to it.
Al Filreis: We could do this forever, so let’s go around really quickly. Please say something brief but final, something you just want to throw out there that we wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to say. Max, do you have a final thought?
Max McKenna: I just wanted to mention again that story he tells in the 1932 recording about being in the street and encountering the kitchy advertisement. I think that in some ways it’s such a perfect little lesson in modernism and in high modernism. You encounter this commercial, urban thing and yet it sort of undoes itself and transports you, almost propels you to this other, natural world.
Al Filreis: That’s cool, I had a flash to the most famous Imagist poem of the Paris Metro turning into petals on a bow.
Taije Silverman: Can I borrow that and speak to that same image in a different way? I keep thinking about that image too, I love what you just said. But I think of it not in modernist terms but simply in straight up metaphorical terms with this weird little white ball floating on top of the fountain. So weird. But I think for me that white ball is the poems meaning, and the water are all the sounds that just keep buoying it, endlessly floating it, and unable to tear themselves apart. They all do come together like water with this meaning at the top. But as I insisted at the start of this, intact and unwilling to be anything but a really weird white ball that you’re not allowed to define in some way. Now I want to go on about all the sound in here that we haven’t talked about, I know there’s no time and you’ll edit that out, but damn!
Al Filreis: We won’t edit anything that you’ve said Taije, because it’s so good.
Taije Silverman: Maybe damn!
Al Filreis: (LAUGHING) Maybe damn. John Timpane, final word quick.
John Timpane: This was the kind of music he later became embarrassed about. It was only about 12 years later that he starts his long progression toward a different kind of poetry. Everyone thinks it was Ezra Pound swooping in. No, look at the poems written about 1902 like “Adam’s Curs” or “The Folly of Being Comforted”. He was throwing away the very sumptuous Romantic vocabulary. He was trying to get back to a plainer way of speaking. He’s a guy out of place looking to recruit a place for himself in the universe.
Al Filreis: That’s part of the story of this poem in fact. That’s great. We usually end poem talk with Gathering Paradise, which is a recommendation from our poem talkers about a book or a poem or poet, but today I want to switch it up and ask you each to recommend an idea, an idea that you think is compelling that you want to put into the record. Could be a literary idea or another one, something that you think we should be thinking about today. Max, do you have an idea to share.
Max McKenna: I want to pitch a poetic idea somewhat inspired by Yeats but also thinking about the internet and cell phones and technology. After writing this poem Yeats got into mysticism and things like that. I think he would do these automatic writing exercises with his eventual wife and he would just try to write down the things she was communicating to him. Somebody who used to work here told me that we actually are telepathic, we just believe we have to hold a cell phone to our faces. So I’m wondering if there’s a way with all of this technology to do some sort of Yeatsian telepathic writing exercise. I think that’d be a fun strange thing to try.
Al Filreis: I’m so glad to hear a mystical interpretation of the internet, we need more of that. John Timpane, an idea you want to share.
John Timpane: I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity, because you hear it talked about all the time. It inhabits the same place in many sentences that used to be inhabited by the word “God”. The funny thing about authenticity is it’s a crock, it’s an absolute crock. If it exists we can not know it, but it’s probably work trying to work toward.
Al Filreis: Nice, authenticity. Taije, follow that.
Taije Silverman: Alright. My son just turned one and he’s about to start speaking, you can almost watch him getting ready to say his first word. I just recently read that we speak one long sentence throughout our lives, and what we hear at the very beginning of our lives is similar to what we hear at the very end, which is “I love you, you’re not alone, don’t be afraid, go to sleep”. I keep saying that every night to my son and thinking about as someone’s dying, it’s also the same thing you say to them. Yeah, I’ve just been thinking about the ways in which we begin with the same language that we end, and watching this new creature enter into that sentence.
Al Filreis: Oh, I think we should do these idea things at the end of Poem Talk every time. We had the mystical internet, we had authenticity, and we had the circle of life as one long sentence. I’m all in favor of it. That’s all the arising and going we have time for at Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House, it’s a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks to my guests, John Timpane, Taije Silverman and Max McKenna. And to Poem Talks engineers, plural, today Chris Martin and Rebecca Caten, and to our editor as always the very same talented Steve McLaughlin. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for those or other episodes of Poem Talk.