YEATS AND POUND: ‘THE RETURN’ AND ‘THE MAGI’

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Yeats and Pound, though not exclusively a double act, can be looked upon as an occasional double act, as Pound and Eliot sometimes are. Their decade-long collaboration in London was fruitful and influential, and their friendship lasted at least another decade.

Yeats was the sorcerer, Pound the sorcerer’s apprentice. The ever-tasteful Pound had, from America and Italy, singled out Yeats as the first poet in the English language, a mantle the Irishman is thought to have inherited from Rudyard Kipling at some point in the early 20th century, certainly by 1912 when the observation was made by Robert Frost.

Pound became a Londoner in 1908 because Yeats was a Londoner, and sought to cultivate Yeats as friend and mentor. He succeeded quickly by making contact with Yeats’s former mistress Olivia Shakespear. He soon became a controversial fixture at Yeats’s Mondays at Woburn Buildings. Horton, a visionary friend of Yeats, imagined Pound entering with a pack of phantom-like black dogs on a leash. Later, Pound married Dorothy Shakespear, Olivia’s daughter, and Yeats married George Hyde-Lees, Dorothy’s best friend. Yeats and Pound were virtual in-laws.

As poets, the mentorship worked both ways. Pound hauled Yeats forward in modernity, but Yeats was the very embodiment of the eternal spirit of poetry. Pound’s Imagism was partly sourced in Yeats’s Symbolism. From a Yeats essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry':

…we would cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination…

Yeats was impressed by Pound’s personality and scholarship more than by his poetry. But there was one poem that the Irish poet found arresting and that he cited again and again. Yeats saw it as a persuasive free verse workout and perfect Imagism.

THE RETURN

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
Wavering!

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
inviolable.

Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.

Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!

It is one of Pound’s more enigmatic early works. Who are these characters? It is neither set in the contemporary bohemia of ‘The Garret’ or the medieval landscapes of Provence. Some see it as paganism, a depiction of the return of the pagan gods after the crisis of Christianity in the 19th century. They are Greek gods most likely. But there is no explanation as to why they seem so aged and infirm. The modernism to come would be almost over-dependent on Greek parallels seen as having more vitality than these ‘slow’ personages. Pound is a critic of the Judeo-Christian, but here implies the limpness of the new paganism. They seem like the survivors of an expedition to the antarctic. They also call to mind the poets of the 1890’s whom Yeats called ‘the Tragic Generation': Davidson, Johnson, Dowson and others of the Rhymers Club and the Decadence, some of whom were dead, some of whom were alive but struggling, such as Arthur Symons. But really the poem is a parable. It is a strange elegy, an elegy for survivors.

For Yeats, it possessed occult qualities, so much so that he even reprinted it in his own occult manifesto A Vision. In 1913, he penned a reply.

THE MAGI

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

But herein is an obvious twist. I identify Yeats as a Christo-pagan poet, and one of the most original Christian poets ever. Ireland has produced many Christian poets, but Yeats is utterly different to any. His unique take is due to his Rosicrucianism. A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society, he communicated his spirituality to his readers in the compilation of early poems under the consecutive headings ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

‘The Magi’ is very ostensibly not a pagan poem, like Pound’s, but a Christian poem, one whose subject is arguably the very first Christians on record, the three magician-kings who sought out the infant Jesus at his birth. But something is different; this is not like Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi'; it is more like a return journey. They too are suffering. Alchemical silver paints the scene. The crucial detail – literally the crux – is that the magicians are ‘unsatisfied’. The phrase is used twice. In the penultimate line it is revealed that they are unsatisfied by ‘Calvary’s turbulence’. So, they have witnessed the crucifixion. Therefore these mysterious travellers are attempting to journey from the scene of Christ’s death back to the scene of Christ’s birth. The brilliant final line “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” – reminding us of the later and more famous “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” – takes us unmistakably to the manger.

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But Rosicrucianism tends to be more Rose than Cross. These magi also seem to be figures from Yeats’s own life, actual magicians, fellow initiates of the Golden Dawn. This was Yeats’s ‘church and university’, one he attended for almost three decades. His fellow seekers were on a serious quest for knowledge, and power. The head of the order had at the time of Yeats’s initiation in 1890 been Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers, charismatic author and ritual magician. Yeats had met him at the British Museum, struck by his heroic appearance, an appearance that seems to be recreated in the poem. Mathers was literally a magus, and a flamboyant eccentric. He and his wife Moina Bergson – sister of Henri the philosopher – designed the Vault of the Adepti. This was like a little self-contained room, moveable, a room within a room. It was supposedly modelled on the tomb of Christian Rosenkreuz and was beautifully decorated with images painted by the gifted Moina. The most famous image of Mathers is from a painting by Moina, capturing him in Egyptian looking attire. He was known to perform rites of Isis. The temple he, Yeats et al attended was the Isis-Urania Temple. Yeats seems to have immortalised the now lost Vault in another mysterious poem ‘The Mountain Tomb’ with its refrain “Our Father Rosicross is in his tomb.” The mountain in question is undoubtedly Calvary, a Yeatsian obsession.

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But something else is at stake in both ‘The Return’ and ‘The Magi’. There is in both poems an imaginative vision at work, a vision of the procession, a poets’ equivalent of the artists’ tableau. Similar to the vision of a procession William Blake experienced as a teenager in Westminster Abbey – a procession of monks walking up the aisle – Pound’s and Yeats’s poems contain in their visionary vessels a procession of Greek gods and of ‘stiff figures’ respectively. Yeats even paraphrases Blake when describing these types of figure. Blake’s anti-establishent views are summed up in a phrase from A Public Address: “Princes seem to me to be fools. Houses of Lords and Houses of Commons seem to me to be fools. They seem to be something else besides human life.” Yeats adapted this avant-Ickean insult in a different way. He began using the phrase ‘something other than human life’ to describe these visions which he could see in the blue of the sky.

One of the members of this procession was a human being however. The excellent footnotes by Daniel Albright to the Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems point out that in Yeats’s unfinished novel A Speckled Bird, a character based on Mathers likes to wear a tattered crown and ermine rug while pretending to be one of the biblical magi.

Another story told by Roy Foster is of Maud Gonne’s snobbish reaction to encountering the Golden Dawn, whose shabby middle-class clothes she could see protruding from under their magical costumes: “They’re an awful set.” Mathers’s riposte was classical. “They said the same thing about the early Christians.” This is an exchange that Yeats could not have forgotten and his poem about the Christian magicians seems like an advance elegy for Mathers. Later, in his seance-poem ‘All Souls Night’ he conjured another more condescending vision of Mathers:

I call MacGregor Mathers from his grave,
For in my first hard spring-time we were friends,
Although of late estranged.
I thought him half a lunatic, half knave,
And told him so, but friendship never ends;
And what if mind seem changed,
And it seem changed with the mind,
When thoughts rise up unbid
On generous things that he did
And I grow half contented to be blind!

He had much industry at setting out,
Much boisterous courage, before loneliness
Had driven him crazed;
For meditations upon unknown thought
Make human intercourse grow less and less;
They are neither paid nor praised.
but he’d object to the host,
The glass because my glass;
A ghost-lover he was
And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.

Moina Mathers was also furious with Yeats’s account of her husband in his autobiographical essay ‘The Tragic Generation’, calling the portrait “fantastic and grotesque”. Yeats edited offending details out of a subsequent edition.

Yeats and Pound, despised to this day by many, got away with much. Yeats got away with more, while Pound became a notorious pariah. Yeats didn’t live to see Pound’s disgrace, but would almost certainly have rallied to his defence, as he did with Wilde. Before Yeats and Pound fell out  – Pound used the word ‘putrid’ to describe a new play by Yeats – they had once compared one another to Greek Gods. Pound thought of Yeats as Zeus; Yeats apologised to a friend for Pound’s brashness by calling him Hercules.

Niall McDevitt

http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/10/books/the-odd-couple-pound-and-yeats-together.html

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YEATS’S 150th ANNIVERSARY: A LONDON VIEWPOINT

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The Irish poet W.B. Yeats is celebrating his 150th anniversary, or – if you don’t believe in the afterlife as Yeats did – it is being celebrated for him. He seems weirdly young. Born in 1865, dying in 1939, it feels like he’s been around forever, so firmly lodged is he in what his beloved Nietzsche would call the ‘world-historical’ consciousness, as well as whatever literary canons still survive undisputed. In Ireland there are activities all over the country. In Britain, what does the occasion mean, if anything? What should it mean?

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It’s an anniversary that will pass largely unnoticed, mostly uncelebrated. The Yeats 2015 website lists happenings in Ireland and internationally, but there are only a few isolated events here, and those in London. To quote Auden from his elegy on Yeats: “A few thousand will think of this day / As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” BBC Radio has been shouldering most of the responsibilities with a cornucopia of documentaries and essays. Admirably, most of the airspace has been offered to Irish voices: Roy Foster, Fiona Shaw, Paul Muldoon, Michael D. Higgins and others. But this does not inform us of the feeling for the Yeats anniversary on this side of the Irish Sea, or of how English literati feel about him.

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Yeats is a patriarchal figure. Poet Paula Meehan says he ‘dreamed Ireland into existence’. But we must somehow go beyond the stock image of Yeats as ‘National Poet of Ireland’ and ‘Ireland’s greatest poet’. The fact that Yeats spent so much of his time in London (with regular stints in Oxford, Sussex, Kent et al) make of him something more than a national poet. Certainly, he is a great London poet; not a poet who wrote about London but a poet who mined London for raw materials, a consummate Londoner who exploited the opportunities offered by the artistic, intellectual and spiritual milieu of the city to his own singular advantage. Reinventing himself as he went, he straddled the four great avant-garde movements of Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, Decadence and Modernism; and was a major player in the revival of the Western occult tradition. He is an iconic London character. Moreover, his unique status is not that he is Ireland’s greatest poet but that he is the single greatest lyric poet in the English language. In other words, he is English’s greatest poet.

I hear cries of protest, but think about it. One by one, if you weigh other lyric poets on the scales with Yeats, they invariably seem lighter. Of course Shakespeare is the greatest dramatic poet, perhaps the greatest sonneteer; of course Chaucer and Spenser and Milton and Blake and Wordsworth and Byron and Shelley are candidates for greatest epic poet. But when it comes to lyric poems, this was the form that Yeats mastered for more than half a century. While other major poets abandoned lyric for epic, Yeats abandoned epic for lyric, moving from The Wanderings of Oisin to the creation of songs that lodged in the Anglophone memory. He stuck with lyric and was one of the rare poets who got better and better with age. That’s why he took English lyric to the pinnacle. Yeats’s busy sideline as dramatic poet is welcomely minor; he always knew to return to song. It could be argued that there are better religious lyricists than Yeats, but that’s generic rather than general, and anyway Yeats was a supremely religious talent, albeit an unorthodox one.

Eliot

Let’s have an example of the weighing on the scales. Of the modernist poets, people often compare Yeats with Eliot and give the nod to the influential American. Eliot is seen as more modern, more stylish, more cosmopolitan, and his prophecies of doom more fashionable. But I always argue it’s a no-brainer that Yeats’s colossal life-affirming oeuvre is far superior to Eliot’s miniscule and miserabilist oeuvre. Yeats, someone who is credited with inventing emotions as he wrote, communicates melancholy as well as joy. (Yeats was no Prufock, he regularly proposed.) Eliot’s handful of classics are backed up by another handful of third rate poems. Yeats’s twoscore or more greatest hits are backed up with hundreds of fresh, fabulous, beguiling works of art. But it’s also a plus that of both these foreign masters of the English language, Yeats was in revolt against the British Establishment, whereas Eliot was aspiring to climb it. While Yeats was successfully exhorting his fellow Irish to overthrow the might of the British Empire, Eliot was a Unionist who crossed the Atlantic 150 years after the American revolution, an expat Ivy Leaguer embarrassed by U.S. backwardness and desperate to be admitted into the mystical heart of Old England, its church, its crown, its Conservatism.

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Mixed feelings this side of the water will be reserved for an Irish poet who – in the formulation of the great Palestinian critic Edward Said – was one of the foremost ‘poets of decolonisation’ in the English language, one who inspired poets throughout the world, such as Pablo Neruda, Chinua Achebe, Aime Cesaire, Cesar Vallejo and others. Yeats’s cultural nationalism is seen as the ideological weapon of “a national poet who represents the Irish nation in its war against tyranny” (Said) . But Yeats is large and contains multitudes. Others will be pleased that the Irish poet accepted a Kings Civil List pension, enjoyed dining in clubs and country estates, flirted with Irish fascism, and was an enthusiastic eugenicist.

Shane

The real Yeats is the remarkable man and artist who is such an amazing interface between Ireland and England. Years ago I asked another such interface – Shane MacGowan – what his favourite Yeats poem was. MacGowan was in his prime, the late 80s, and about to go onstage with the Dubliners. Though a Japanese man was avidly photographing him, he really thought about my question and you could see the cogs of his brain whirring, well-oiled cogs. When the answer finally slurred out of his mouth, the effect was mind-blowing. “An… Irish… Airman… Forsees… His… Death!” The familiar title suddenly took on took on new and hidden meanings: Irish nihilism… Stephen Dedalus… We were all Irish airmen, Yeats, MacGowan, me, everyone! MacGowan subsequently recorded a version of the poem with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The thing is, MacGowan’s choice echoes that of many English people, not all of whom are aware that the poem is about an Irishman who dies fighting for England in World War One. Yeats skilfully presented the Protestant Ascendancy scion of Lady Gregory, Major Robert, as one of ‘Kiltartan’s poor’. This spin-doctored elegy thus possesses a profound subliminal appeal to Irish and English people alike. That’s magnetism for you. Yeats’s general example works in a similar way fostering positive relations between the two nations in the postcolonial era.

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There are other reasons for ambivalence, and muted acclamation. Once, Yeats was ‘the Eagle’ according to Ezra Pound. In the literary culture of 21st century London, Yeats is a stuffed eagle-cum-anachronism, a writer who is so assured of canonical permanence that he is left to himself. One problem is that in the era of political correctness he is something of an embarrassment, a dangerously senile great-grandfather who you can’t take anywhere. Feminists crucify him for ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ and Marxists crucify him for his big house poems and marching songs. (It’s fair to say that while feminists regard ‘Leda’ as rape apologism, postcolonialists regard ‘Leda’ as depicting imperialist conquest, the ravishing of Ireland by England.) Another problem is that Yeats is seen as formally old-fashioned, a rhymer, by a more experimentalist era, one which prefers his protege Ezra Pound’s more free-ranging example. Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Mina Loy are hip, Yeats is fodder for iconoclasts. Yet another problem is that Yeats as mystic and magician is deplored by what he himself called ‘The Realists’, positivist England, land of the Darwinians and neo-Darwinians. Like Blake, Yeats created his own fusion of art and religion, one secularists bury under a one-dimensional appreciation. Even the ‘New Formalists’ of today prefer to namecheck the grimly ‘little England’ Philip Larkin than the magically cosmic Yeats.

However, the real problem is something else entirely. It is best expressed by the ambivalence of the man who many think is England’s greatest poet of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. The young Auden had been alerted by Cecil Day Lewis to the often neglected fact that Yeats’s late poetry was among the highest contemporary achievements of the artform. (Less informed readers typecast him as the poet of ‘Innisfree’ and assumed he’d lost the plot.) Auden wrote his famous elegy in 1939, the same year he wrote his magnificently Yeatsian poem ‘September 1, 1939′. And yet Auden the man wrote of Yeats the man: “I have only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when I met Yeats.” This presumably reflects the emotions of a young Communist meeting an elderly Fascist. But Auden and Yeats were both flirting with 30’s isms. As Auden was no Communist, Yeats was no Fascist. Auden, as Larkin later did, grew out of Yeats. Auden was feeling the anxiety of influence, uncomfortably humbled by the dazzling genius of his master, all the moreso as Yeats was authentically committed to his perennial philosophy while Auden posed as a revolutionary but defected to capitalist America rather than communist Russia and later converted to Christianity, seeking refuge amid the arch-Tory gargoyles of Oxford University. Irish poets are supposed to nourish inferiority complexes regarding Yeats, but the truth is that all intelligent poets do. Auden, a giant, demonstrates this clearly. Yeats is a mindbogglingly but embarrassingly brilliant poet, as astounding to Anglophones as Catullus must have been in the time when Latin was the universal language of the literary world.

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Personally it is the London magician I most admire, his correct choosing of that route for the development of his poetry. As a poet-magus he is exemplary. When admitted to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he chose the magical name of ‘Demon Est Deus Inversus’ as his alter ego, a Blavatskyan/Blakean moniker which means ‘A demon is an inverse god.’ As William Butler Yeats is often shortened by academics to WBY, occultists shorten his magical name to DEDI. He chose this name to invoke his own higher self, his own genius. How well it succeeded. As a Rosicrucian, his work is Christo-pagan, he being simultaneously one of the most original Christian poets who ever wrote, as well as Irish pagan with Greco-Indian influences. And yet his love poetry and political poetry touches the most ardent materialists. He seems to surpass anyone in any approach. To all those who still begrudge Yeats his pre-eminence in English poetry, my appeal is simple: come to DEDI.

Fitzroy

Passing the 23 Fitzroy Road house where the two-year-old Yeats lived with his family from 1867 to 1873, I pondered that he must often have played on Primrose Hill, a few metres away, the ancient druidic hill that was rediscovered in the 1790s by Welsh poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg, where Blake had a vision of ‘the Spiritual Sun’, and which has been revisited in the 20th century by Allen Ginsberg, Iain Sinclair and others as a significant site in the history of London poetry and magic. It is a commonplace to speak of the impact of Sligo on Yeats’s childhood, but that was during the summer holidays. When biographers remark upon his London episodes, it is usually recalled how unhappy he was in London as a child, but I like to imagine him at the summit of Primrose Hill looking down on a city he perhaps detested, but also absorbing other more positive energies which he would later channel into his writings.

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London is virtually censored out of his designer Irish poetry. His most famous line about the English capital is the pejorative penultimate line of his 1890s hit ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ which haunted him like an albatross for the rest of his career: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey…” London stories feature in his memoirs but there are only the subtlest traces to be sifted in his lyrics. That he could be happy in London is attested by one of the lyrics from a late sequence called ‘Vacillation':

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Niall McDevitt

http://yeats2015.com/event/a-london-literary-walk-in-celebration-of-yeatss-150th-anniversary/

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IPSISSIMUS YEATS

A London literary walk in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.B. Yeats

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Irish poet Niall McDevitt continues his Yeats explorations by leading a Central London walk from Yeats’s bachelor pad in Euston to the only known pub he was willing to frequent, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street.

Though Yeats wrote designer Irish poetry in which there is little or no glimpse of London – apart from the pejorative ‘pavements grey’ – he was an avid Londoner who depended on the city for his intellectual, artistic and spiritual development. For instance, he once described the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as his ‘church and university’.

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Fellow Londoners, native and migrant, from whom he learnt about mysticism, literature, politics, art included Oscar Wilde, Helena Blavatsky, Aubrey Beardsley and his poetry disciple Ezra Pound.

Though Yeats built no London, and wilfully censors London from his poetry, there are traces to be sifted, and plenty of stories from his autobiographical prose.

spirit-phot-of-wby-from-yeats-and-the-occult-21975scan0155 This walk particularly focusses on the fin de siecle Yeats: nationalist, Blake editor, symbolist and – according to some – diabolist who called himself by the Blakean title of ‘Demon Est Deus Inversus’ (‘A demon is an inverse god’). McDevitt, following the example of Yeats’s great biographer, Roy Foster, chooses not to ignore the crucial role of magical study in Yeats’s development. As well as giving him metaphors for his poetry, magic deepened his friendships. Fellow neophytes included his uncle George Pollexfen, his muse Maud Gonne, his patron Annie Horniman and his future wife George Hyde-Lees.

In his 30 years attending the Iris-Urania Temple in Blythe Road, Olympia, and the Amoun Temple in Bassett Road, Ladbroke Grove, he did not attain to the highest grade of ‘Ipsissimus’ (which means the ‘very self’). Apparently, it is too high an honour to bestow on a living human being. McDevitt argues that Yeats, as the greatest lyric poet in the English language and a supremely learned magus, deserves to be honoured with this title posthumously.

DulacWheel Meeting Sat 13 June at Woburn Walk at 1.00pm. (Nearest tube: Euston Square or Euston). £5

(N.B. The walk takes place on the occasion of Yeats’s 150th birthday. Niall McDevitt will be guesting on The Robert Elms Show on BBC London 94.9FM at 11am that morning.)

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A forthcoming short essay ‘Ipsissimus Yeats: the Poet-Magus in London’ will be published in the debut edition of STEPZ Magazine.

http://particulations.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/stepz-zine-summary-of-upcoming.html

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YEATS TALK

The Yeats talk for SELFS happened on Wed 13 March to a packed house in the Old Kings Head Pub, Kings Head Yard, Borough High Street, Southwark.

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I’d done it as a walk but not as a talk. I knew I could walk the talk but could I talk the walk?

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It was good to beam the Isis-Urania Temple into the room. 36 Blythe Road is a legendary address. It remains open to the public in the form of a greasy spoon cafe. Note the synchronicity: George was the name of Yeats’s occult wife.

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The tale of the Battle of Blythe Road was perhaps the centrepiece. The big question is: where is the Vault of the Adepti? Someone suggested it was last seen washed up on Brighton beach. I believe the remarkable poem ‘The Mountain Tomb’ may provide clues.

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All the Yeatses turned out for the event. I compared Yeats to Ginsberg because they both had mothers who experienced severe mental health issues.

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Thanks to Nigel of Bermondsey for the invitation and the hospitality. SELFS talks are ace. My final question to the audience went unanswered. What does Yeats mean by the phrase from his memoirs: “The right voice could empty London again”?

Photos: Frances Nutt

http://genius.com/William-butler-yeats-the-mountain-tomb-annotated

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YEATS IN LONDON: A SELFS TALK

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A TALK BY NIALL McDEVITT IN CELEBRATION OF YEATS’ 150th ANNIVERSARY

13 May at 20:00
The Old King’s Head
The Kings Yard, 45 Borough High Street, SE1 1NA London, United Kingdom

W.B. Yeats was one of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s key poets. Though ‘National Poet of Ireland’, whose stock image is that of Dublin theatre-manager/cultural nationalist and Sligo poet/folklorist, Yeats spent long periods of childhood, youth, middle age and old age in London.

Irish poet Niall McDevitt argues that London was Yeats’s ‘third eye’,  where he practised the magical study that was so important for his poetry and where he kept in touch with new developments in literature and the arts.

Yeats Pre-Raphaelite, Yeats Symbolist, Yeats Decadent, Yeats Modernist – as well as the misunderstood and mocked Yeats Magus  – are explained by McDevitt, paying close detail to the London co-ordinates, and especially the legendary ‘Battle of Blythe Road’ in 1900.

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Talk starts at 8pm

£3/1.50 concession

To be sure of a place you can email nigelofbermondsey@gmail.com

Photo of Niall McDevitt talking about the Battle of Blythe Road at 36 Blythe Road:
Max Reeves

Niall McDevitt is the author of two critically acclaimed collections of poetry b/w (Waterloo Press 2010) and Porterloo (International Times 2013) and has been hailed as ‘the Paddy Conscience of the Crunch and Jihad’.

http://yeats2015.com

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ZION (2)

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I have written a short lyric poem ‘Zion’ as a riposte to a tendency within British poetry to fetishise Zion. Two 21st century poetry volumes will suffice to illustrate my point: Geoffrey Hill’s The Orchards of Syon and Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion.

Both of these books contain the fetish-word in their titles, and throughout their poems. It is a refrain in which the keyword grows more magical with repetition. Arguably Hill’s ‘Syon’ should not be targeted as it is not the same as the word ‘Zion’. Well actually, it’s just an Anglicisation of the Latin ‘Sion’. The writer Thomas L. Jeffers explains that The Orchards of Syon is “a title having less to do with Syon Park, the London home of the Duke of Northumberland and famous for its 18th-century gardens, than with a visionary place named for the Mount Zion that overlooks Jerusalem”. In Hill it seems like British-Israelism, but he is too complex a poet to be pinned down to simplicities. Is his Anglicised Zion a badge for Anglo-Zionism? The poet Mark Wilson claims that Hill “has absolutely no respect for present day Zionism and has actually attacked it in two recent Daybook sequences: ‘Odi Barbare’ and ‘Liber Illustrium Virorum’.”

Hill imaginatively merges two places – Goldengrove (from Hopkins) and Syon – as idyll. Goldengrove is perhaps the English countryside of Hill’s childhood; Syon perhaps the spiritual aspiration of his adulthood. Syon is where Hill wants to be, but this is in a 2002 book widely seen as offering readers a poetic consolatio after the world-changing events of 9/11. There is little doubt that Hill is right-leaning, physically aligned with such British institutions as the Monarchy, the Church of England, Oxford University etc. Here for me is the most odious passage Hill has ever written:

Syon! Syon! that which sustains us and is
not the politics of envy, nor solidarnosc,
a hard-won knowledge of what wears us down.

Syon is not Fern Hill; it is grown-up, a place where the political right is rampant and the left is banished. Hill blatantly rejects left-wing politics i.e. solidarnosc, dismissing it as ‘the politics of envy’. Syon, on the other hand, is ‘that which sustains us’, and is defined as the very opposite of this undesirable left. Who is the ‘us’? There is grammatical ambiguity. Is Syon the ‘hard-won knowledge of what wears us down’, or is it not? That Syon is the opposite of solidarnosc – solidarity – and the Polish Labour movement that breached the Iron Curtain, seems damning, even self-contradictory. The thing is, even if Hill is not the curmudgeonly champion of British hierarchy we know him to be, and does not harbour Zionist views, his use of ‘Syon’ as mantra is still questionable. If he is anti-Zionist, it is more questionable, though perhaps he has developed his position since publishing the book 13 years ago. ‘Syon’ lacks the innocence its author sees in it, is some kind of subliminal advertising, some kind of approval. That said, I am an admirer of much of Hill’s work including some of the poems in this volume. I understand why he transposes the yearnings of the Jewish exiles in Babylon for their homeland into his own – perhaps exiled in America, or in internal exile – yearnings for an English equivalent, and appreciate how his change of spelling is sonically less harsh, and modifies his meaning.

The same problem applies to Kei Miller’s volume, but in a different way. ‘Zion’ and its Anglicised variants is a huge concept and means different things to different people. I very much enjoyed The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, even though I’m not mad about cartography as a metaphor, and have problems with the use of the word ‘Zion’. Miller is drawing on the Rastafarian cosmology of Zion as “a utopian place of unity, peace and freedom as opposed to Babylon, the oppressing and exploiting system of the materialistic modern world and a place of evil” (Wikipedia). Miller’s book is as much a heartfelt cry for a better world as Hill’s, and there is no way I would infer any literal Zionism intended or suggested in his utterance.

I should add that I myself do not contest Israel’s right to exist, and am more generally a deeply philosemitic person. Also, I am prone to fetishising the closely related word of ‘Jerusalem’. (One of the many meanings of the Hebrew usage of Zion is ‘Jerusalem’). I therefore understand the urge to have a name for a mystical place of total human liberation. Miller’s Zion is imagined in the following passage:

…You find your feet at last straying off the marl roads,
the bauxite roads, the slaving roads
and the marooning roads, and you would be
turning now onto the singing roads
and the sweeting roads that lift you up
to such a place as cannot be held on maps or charts,
a place that does not keep still at the end of paths.
Know this, that lions who trod don’t worry
bout reaching Zion. In time
is Zion that reach to the lions.

Imagine, however, if you were to ask a Palestinain intellectual what s/he thinks of an English poet or a Jamaican poet using Zion as a talismanic word for the place of human perfectibility. After informing you that ‘Sahyun’ is a wadi a mile from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, you would probably be told that Zion is the ‘Babylon’ of the Palestinians; it is where death comes from, airstrikes, tanks, quads, soldiers, security walls, observation points, exorbitant taxes, punitive regulations etc. The ‘lions of Zion’ is a popular idea for Zionists also, as in the ‘Lion of Judah’, but showcases its powerful predatory nature.

I am not Palestinian. What I believe about the word ‘Zion’ is that it is a degraded word, a degraded concept, so deeply sullied by the military imperialism of the Israeli government, that it may never recover. There is no exact verbal equivalent of ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli policy, which is why the word ‘apartheid’ is now so frequently used. The actual word to describe it is ‘Zionism’, which began as a movement to create a nation state for the Jewish people, but has ended up as a movement to wage a colonial settler-state war against the Palestinian people. Therefore the word ‘Zion’ has become synonymous with the word ‘apartheid’. It’s impossible to hear it in any context without a feeling of distaste. It is its own death-knell.

My poem ‘Zion’ is based on the actual topography of Jerusalem which I visited in 2014. That Zion is an ever-expanding concept can be seen in how it can refer to the Holy of Holies, to Solomon’s Temple, to Temple Mount, to Mount Moriah, and to Jerusalem itself. But the geography of Jerusalem also includes Mount Zion which is just outside the Old City walls. Its terrain boasts such landmarks as King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle (site of the Last Supper) and the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery, where many English are buried. They died in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem. It is a symbol of the Anglo-Zionism which is a major belief-system of such British leaders as Blair and Cameron. It being a hill means that I can use the word ‘hill’ with a double meaning, a passing nod to Sir Geoffrey.

mountzion2
‘Zion’ has been published in the groundbreaking political and artistic magazine STRIKE! in the March-April 2015 edition, with a photograph by Max Reeves, to coincide with the Israeli election in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party defeated the opposition Zionist Union.

To contemplate how a word can become dirty, think of the word ‘cleansing’.

http://strikemag.org/portfolio/mar-apr-2015/

Niall McDevitt

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PORTERLOO

Porterloo-Front-Render

Porterloo is a unique book in the history of poetry in English.

Irish poet Niall McDevitt has seen through the English tradition of ‘courtly poetry’ and demonstrated how a self-respecting poetry need have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The collection is an epic response to the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010 – albeit hamstrung by coalition – and the shock of not only observing how Conservatism treats human beings but of suffering it first hand. (As an immigrant who experienced unemployment and who has since ‘graduated’ to self-employment, McDevitt was among the lower echelons of the 99% whom the Tory whip was lashing.)

Other pursuits were abandoned. McDevitt began writing a new type of poetry to counteract the sheer psychic harassment he was being subjected to by Con-Dem rhetoric and legislation.

After attending a reading by the veteran Afro-American poet Amiri Baraka and particularly enjoying the sequence of political haiku called ‘Lowcoup’, McDevitt wrote a lengthy 30-page sequence of anti-Conservative haiku which he called ‘Fucku’, satirising the daily minutiae of Tory powerplay with the assistance of the invaluable Facebook page NOBODY LIKES A TORY.

The first subject he found to give a bigger canvas to was the imprisonment of Charlie Gilmour in 2010 for swinging from the Cenotaph flag. Sentenced to 16 months, Gilmour was being vilified in the Daily Mail and deluged with hatemail from its readers. As an antidote to this hatemail, McDevitt wrote an epistle, ‘Letter to Charlie Gilmour (aka ‘The Cenotaph Yob’)’, a poem in four sections which catches the mood of the 2010 riots but also meditates on one of the darkest episodes from English history i.e. the public hangings at Tyburn.

A later poem was a self-questioning celebration of the 2010 storming of the Tory H.Q. at Millbank by students protesting the hike in tuition fees. McDevitt is honest enough to examine his feelings of jubilation at hearing the news and and ask if they are unworthy. The poem was first published in the Spring edition of the radical new magazine STRIKE!

Porterloo’s title is a multuiple pun on portaloo/Waterloo/Peterloo and which alludes to the disgraced ex-Tory councillor and Tesco heiress Shirley Porter. Though her reputation was destroyed by her behaviour as leader of Westminster Council, the Conservatives continue to behave in exactly the same way, having learnt nothing from her notorious decline and fall. Once again, social cleansing and gerrymandering are the order of the day. The ‘porterloo’ imagery is sustained through the volume, from the portaloos of Tent City to the discovery of a dead Conservative in a portaloo at Glastonbury.

Porterloo thus becomes a codeword for the latest class war to be unleashed by the Tories, their first in the 21st century. In the climax to the first section of the book – called “P” – McDevitt imagines the precarious situation in which millions of people find themselves as ‘waiting to be flushed down the Porterloo’

Other poems lament social cleansing in Elephant and Castle and Camden Town, as well as the persecution of Julian Assange by William Hague and the British authorities,

Some of the satire is a Jarryesque gob-in-the-face of the British establishment. ‘Sonnet to a Monarchist’ criticises a poet who has fallen under the spell of Prince Charles. ‘Let Us Celebrate Dickens’ concisely shows up the hollowness and hypocrisy of the Dickens celebrations in 2012. ‘Thatcherism’ scourges the ‘militant mediocrity’ of Tories throughout the ages while celebrating the fact that ‘there is no such thing as mrs. t******r’.

The book is also distinguished by having a preface from the illustrious author-anarchist Heathcote Williams on the theme of ‘Insurgent Poetry’.

In contrast to the menacing ‘blue meanie’ parade of Conservatives that feature in the book, there is a bohemian backdrop of culture heroes such as Heathcote Williams, Amiri Baraka, Naomi Klein, David Graeber, Jeremy Reed, and Allen Ginsberg. The 20th Century English poet David Gascoyne is re-appraised in an essay in the appendix. What McDevitt has been taught by Gascoyne is that there is a ‘third way’ in poetry. One doesn’t have to choose between the solipsism of personal expression or the agitprop of political expression, a single poem can serve both needs.

Porterloo is personal-political poetry at its wittiest and McDevitt’s trademark shape-shifting is in evidence in the ceaseless formal experimentaion of the cycle. The art is primary, despite the political urgency.

The book covers a very important period in modern history which includes the year of the English riots and the year of the Occupy movement, but takes a long view. It will be capable of cautioning the future.

Poet Jeremy Reed has hailed Porterloo as ‘a brilliant explosive book… the best politically weaponised poetry ever’.

Porterloo is published by International Times with illustrations by Mike Lesser.
The book has been critically acclaimed in The Wolf, The Recusant, Stride, The Morning Star and was hailed as book of the year by poet AJ Dehany.

http://booksoftheyear.tumblr.com/post/71742361823/niall-mcdevitt-porterloo

http://www.stridemagazine.co.uk/Stride%20mag%202013/dec2013/Porterloo.McDevitt.spence.htm

http://www.therecusant.org.uk/#/illusion-austerity-part-2/4583238914

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