William Butler Yeats on Modern Poetry: A Rare 1936 BBC Recording
“Poetry must resemble prose, and both must accept the vocabulary of their time.”
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