Brain Pickings

William Butler Yeats on Modern Poetry: A Rare 1936 BBC Recording

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“Poetry must resemble prose, and both must accept the vocabulary of their time.”

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.

Portrait of Edith Sitwell by Roger Fry, 1915 (public domain)

Here is one of Sitwell’s exquisite poems Yeats references:

CLOWNS’ HOUSES

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.

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