I’ve decided that I don’t read nearly enough poetry anymore.
For a little while in college, I was really into it — I was mostly using German-language poetry to improve my acquaintance with the language (which it both did and didn’t do…nobody speaks in poetry anymore, apparently. Who knew? Heh.), and I got obsessed with Rainer Maria Rilke (whose work I still adore). There were two poems of his that really caught me: “The Angels” [“Die Engel”] and “Initiation” [“Eingang”], particularly as MacIntyre translated them. There’s a sort of reverent and sublime space in his words that always stops me cold, and I cannot help but read them again and again every time I start. There’s a music in them that I can almost hear, just whispering at the edge of audibility, like a half-remembered song playing on the radio in some other part of the house.
I also find myself tangled up in a strange love/hate/discomfort/obsession with W. B. Yeats. A print of a portrait his brother painted of him (hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland, which is where I got the print) currently stares down at me in my office. I find the expression on his face in that portrait irresistible — he looks like he’s about to say something clever and funny and sad and annoying at the same time, and I can’t help preparing to laugh every time I look up at him, waiting for the words that never come. Sometimes, I love what he writes. Sometimes, I am just…baffled by it. Relating to his poems is a bit like relating to the complicated person he seems to have been.
One of my favorites (for no reason that I have ever been able to articulate) is “Before The World Was Made,” which seems to mix so many different things that I like and loathe and reluctantly adore about Yeats. Rhythmically, it just bugs me. I am drawn by the images, the glancing irony, the depth behind it. It’s not like his more (for lack of a better word) Irish stuff. It’s a trifle, but a very personal and serious sort of trifle (if that makes any sense), a joke that covers something real (my favorite kind!).
I got excited, a couple of years ago, about the possibility of setting that poem to music. For some reason, it seemed to make more sense to try this trick with Yeats than with Rilke — I may be able to hear (almost) the music in Rilke’s poetry, but I don’t dare try to reproduce it. Of course, I failed utterly. I banged my head against it and gave up. I resigned myself to listening to someone else’s version of the thing. It’s a popular poem to make music of, and there are (interestingly) some accidental similarities among the assorted versions. I had a set of chords that I tried to fit it to for the longest time, and I just hated it. I tried to cover another version, and I hated that, too.
The other day, I came up with a set of chords I wanted to mess with, and I just couldn’t come up with any words. Every stupid maudlin thought I ever had tried to come out into stupid maudlin lyrics, and I hated them.
Bother the whole silly business.
So I gave up on words of my own and thought that perhaps it might be time to pull ol’ Yeats out again and have a go at it. The result is an original piece of music, but since the words are Yeats’ (in the public domain, y’all!) and the thing’s been made into song before, I figured I could post it in the series anyway.
I tried to leave the sound as natural as possible (slidey-screeches on the guitar and all). I don’t know how fond I am of the arrangement (guitar, voice, and two viola tracks) — I think I may sit down and try to get some kind of string quartet thing happening in there, if I ever have the time. I kind of like how the words fit, though, and it feels…well, it feels Yeatsy enough for now. I didn’t bother to make things scan correctly in the second stanza (beloved/moved), mostly because I liked doing it my way better. I’ve seen Yeats’ grave. He’s got plenty of room to spin in there if he has to.