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Poetry Now By John Holmes
FEW major poets have provided such self-analysis, such a key to a system, as William Butler Yeats has given his many readers in "A Vision." But, having long regarded him as unsurpassed by any living poet, and equalled only by one or two, I am depressed to learn how he wrote the poetry that made him so tall in my sight. The new knowledge is neither less nor more than I expected, but it has more of the arbitrariness of obsession, and less of indescribable inspiration than I like.
Into one volume Yeats has now put "A Packet for Ezra Pound," in revised form, and "The Stories of Michael Robartes," a poem called "The Phases of the Moon," and a very complex explanation in five books of the origins of his symbolism. The purpose of "A Vision" is, of course, to tell finally and fully how Yeats discovered soon after his marriage that his wife was a medium, and heard voices speak through her to him. In first writing of this, he disguised his wife with the name Robartes, and invented other circumstances for the event. For some times they applied themselves to recording all that the voices said, and when the visitations ceased, Yeats spent years studying and organizing the messages into the body of thought to which all his poetry has reference, all, that is, except his earliest work.
In "A Packet for Ezra Pound" the style is Yeats' finest. But after that one is repelled by the elaborate system which he takes so seriously, and the reading is dull, even for the devout. One could guess from reading the poetry faithfully all that he reveals now in detail, and some how the revelation does not greatly matter. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed; somehow it hurts his dignity, makes him look publicly foolish. The importance of the book is, as R. P. Blackmur has pointed out in an excellent essay called "The Later Poetry of W. B. Yeats," that it shows that the system is logical and complete, providing "an adequate mechanics of meaning and value." It is not important that Yeats seems now and then a little absurd as he tells of the messages and his interpretation of them, but so he does seem. It will be necessary to add "A Vision" to Yeats' collected poems, his collected essays, and his biographies.
The rest of the column looks at other books.