Tuesday, 11 March 2014

W.B. Yeats - Sailing to Byzantium

I like nearly any movie the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), have produced or had a hand in – Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski (my favourite), O Brother Where Art Thou?  I tell you, if there’s a cult following happening for those guys, then I’m a part of it.  So it’s only natural I sat up and took notice when I’m reading a biography on the English poet, William Butler Yeats, and there it is, the opening line to his most famous poem, Sailing To Byzantium – the line is, ‘That is no country for old men’.  No Country for Old Men!  That would have to be one of my best Coen brothers’ movies.  It’s one of those movies where you can always remember where you were when you first saw it, how old you were, who you were with, what shirt you had on, where you went to afterwards ……….  ‘No Country for Old Men!’  Oh boy, I just had to add ‘Sailing To Byzantium to my list of favourite poems.  And that wasn’t easy for me, because the poem is a difficult one to understand.  But a number of things drew me towards this one – first off, I’m always interested in a poet’s life, how he or she lived (or lives), what they believe in, their education, family life, experiences, joys, sufferings ….  That’s why I added a dog-eared, marked up, student copy of a W. B. Yeats biography to my library before ever having read any of his poetry.  It’s sort of like, ‘is it better to read the book first and then see the movie, or see the movie and then read the book?’  For me, coming to Yeats was definitely a case of, read about the poet and then have a look at what he wrote.  Yeats was an Irishman – a pretty smart guy from a good background, but I think throughout his life he got lost in a struggle to find the Truth and enlightenment along pathways of Irish myth, Eastern religions, mysticism, spiritualism, magic and the occult – a true poet, a visionary man and a poet of symbolism.  But Sailing To Byzantium was written when he was sixty years old so he’s starting to make a lot more sense and becoming more open, compared to his earlier work.  The poem’s about getting old – an old man agonising over getting old, ‘fastened to a dying animal ….. ‘, requesting that God take his soul and set it, ‘upon a golden bough …… ‘.  I can relate to the getting old thing here, so the poem appeals to me.  Being a classic poem, there’s much been written about it on the web, so look it up, Sailing To Byzantium, W.B. Yeats …...
Sailing To Byzantium
(W. B. Yeats – 1865-1939)
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
To me, there are two fundamentals that go towards making a great poem – ‘content’ and ‘construction’.  The content in Sailing To Byzantium I find OK because I see it as an expression of age and belief.  But read this poem a few times and see how brilliantly it is constructed.  I know we’re in modern times and it’s all free verse, no constraints – but it’s only a master, no matter from what era, who lays down such a construction to endure all of time.  W. B. Yeats is the master – Sailing To Byzantium; four verses each of eight-lines; the rhythm is iambic pentameter (ten-syllable lines); and the rhyme pattern has two trios of alternating rhyme followed by a couplet (ABABABCC).  That is something to study and aspire to.
I post my poem, Must Be at My Best, as a link, and I know it ain’t even half-the-way there!  Except the common thread is, like Yeats, I’m arrived at a point where I ponder on growing old.  Bouts of illness warn me that fading vitality, stamina and strength will soon declare the venues and arenas where I once brashly and boldly walked in, now, ‘no country for old men’.

2011.  This was another year sucked quietly from the blood (Kenneth Slessor).  We went to Malaysia for a holiday and then stumble from one disaster to another.  I come down with some fever-chill virus (Chicka Wu Wu virus for the want of a professional term).  I abandon myself to that relaxed realm where I don’t give a care and I feel so old.

Must Be at My Best.
In the Priceline chemist
the old bird behind the cash counter
has her eyes follow me in,
she stays with me a tad too long,
either suspicious, or
she fancies me,
I’m fighting off the fever chills,
dressed in my old black corduroys,
a black T-shirt beneath the V
of a black sweat top
that I slept in recently.
I think maybe she’s watching me,
but then I’m sitting in a chair
at the prescription counter, and
she comes out from behind the cash counter
through a swinging door, and
talks to the prescription guys
about going to lunch
and could they man the counter
and all the time, I’m sure
she’s taking peek glances at me
I’m slouched back as much as I can
in the plastic chair
with my corduroy legs stuck straight out
above my brown suede slip-ons.
She disappears out the back to lunch.
The prescription guy takes my money
at the cash counter,
and as I go through the automatic sliding doors
I’m thinking about other missed opportunities.