Reading Yeats in the Age of Trump

By STEPHEN BURT

Yeats
W.B Yeats

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbours’ eyes. . . .
(W. B. Yeats— “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” – 1913).
.

Like many of you, I have spent the days since the election in a combination of frantic distraction; intermittent, flailing activism; attempts to focus on my private and professional life; and fear. The more I read from experts in relevant fields, the more I envision the next four, or eight, or ten years not so much as a Republican administration—enacting policies that will hurt immigrants, people of color, and the poor—but rather as a kleptocratic, potentially authoritarian, generation-long takeover, one that could extend outward and downward from Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue into the federal judiciary, the civil service, and the national security state.
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I have not lost my interest, nor my belief, in the powers of poetry. But my goals for my own poetry, and for the ways that I write about poetry, are not what they were before November 8. I used to believe, if not in Walt Whitman’s late-1850s optimism, then in the chastened patriotism, the qualified trust in elections and popular culture, that he found even in the Gilded Age. I have opposed critics who use, as unconsidered, generic praise, the word “revolution,” on the grounds that few good things are harder to break than to fix. I have argued—and I still believe—that our ways of reading and our ways of hearing poetry, like our ways of eating and our ways of understanding kindness and violence, have roots older than we are, older than the twentieth century, even though they have changed, and will change. And I have aligned my own poetry, most of the time, with incrementalism, with a way of reading that (like W.H. Auden’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s) pays some homage to the deep past.

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Filed under History, Poem, Study

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