William Butler Yeats on Modern Poetry: A Rare 1936 BBC Recording
By Maria Popova
On October 11, 1936, the BBC invited William Butler Yeats to share a meditation on modern poetry. In the surviving recording, available courtesy of the PennSound archive at my alma mater — which has previously given us rare audio of Gertrude Stein, Charles Olson, and Adrienne Rich — Yeats discusses the tendency of poets from older traditions to criticize the modern school and points to Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) as an echelon of modern poetry at its most powerful.
[Edith Sitwell’s] language is a traditional language of literature — twisted, torn, complicated, choked here and there by strange resemblances, unnatural contacts, forced upon us by some violence beating in our blood, some primitive obsession that civilization can no longer exorcise. I find her obscure, exasperating, delightful. I think I like her best when she seems a child — terrified and delighted in the story it is inventing.
Here is one of Sitwell’s exquisite poems Yeats references:
Beneath the flat and paper sky
The sun, a demon’s eye,
Glowed through the air, that mask of glass;
All wand’ring sounds that pass
Seemed out of tune, as if the light
Were fiddle-strings pulled tight.
The market-square with spire and bell
Clanged out the hour in Hell;
The busy chatter of the heat
Shrilled like a parakeet;
And shuddering at the noonday light
The dust lay dead and white
As powder on a mummy’s face,
Or fawned with simian grace
Round booths with many a hard bright toy
And wooden brittle joy:
The cap and bells of Time the Clown
That, jangling, whistled down
Young cherubs hidden in the guise
Of every bird that flies;
And star-bright masks for youth to wear,
Lest any dream that fare
–Bright pilgrim–past our ken, should see
Hints of Reality.
Upon the sharp-set grass, shrill-green,
Tall trees like rattles lean,
And jangle sharp and dissily;
But when night falls they sign
Till Pierrot moon steals slyly in,
His face more white than sin,
Black-masked, and with cool touch lays bare
Each cherry, plum, and pear.
Then underneath the veiled eyes
Of houses, darkness lies–
Tall houses; like a hopeless prayer
They cleave the sly dumb air.
Blind are those houses, paper-thin
Old shadows hid therein,
With sly and crazy movements creep
Like marionettes, and weep.
Tall windows show Infinity;
And, hard reality,
The candles weep and pry and dance
Like lives mocked at by Chance.
The rooms are vast as Sleep within;
When once I ventured in,
Chill Silence, like a surging sea,
Slowly enveloped me.
Complement with 13 songs based on the poetry of Yeats.
Published February 20, 2013