I know it’s not Tuesday, but I re-read Yeats’ poem again last night, which compelled me to write. But first, Yeats’ poem:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
~William Butler Yeats 1892
Few poems have stayed with me my entire life. Few resonate year after year after year. As a late teenager, early twenty-something it was love poetry, Petrarch and Catullus, unrequited, quite silly and partially mad. I didn’t have the patience yet for the great epics of Dante, Homer and Virgil. In my late twenties I found the aggrieved anger of Bukowski, and while many see him as a misanthrope and misogynist, I’ve always believed he was, at heart, a secret romantic, raw, shredded up and thrown into the dumpster of life, only to emerge from it, pristine, like an American phoenix.
After Bukowski came Rilke and all of his existential angst. I could relate to much of it, his peripatitc wanderings, his loves, his failures as a man, his disciplined lyricism and the visual feast his images conjured.
One year, however, stands out. On the cusp of my thirties I took a trip to Ireland and Northern Wales. I spent a month backpacking in the hills and mountains of northwest Ireland around Donegal and then in Northern Wales, a place that still haunts my dreams. The only reading I took with me was Yeats, determined to decipher the lyrical knot of his poetry. Of course, I’d read Yeats, and the ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ many times before. Ed Hirsch had introduced the poem to me while teaching at the University of Houston.
One unseasonably warm summer day, as the car I was in sped north between Donegal Town and Killybegs, I saw the ‘Lake of Innisfree.’ No, it’s not called Innisfree, or maybe it might be. Memory is fickle and the lack of notes in my journal prevent me from recalling.
It was still a time when one could hitchhike across Ireland–before the great real-estate bubble obliterated much of the country with American-like track housing—when a lone Yank wearing a baseball cap, carrying a backpack could catch a ride with a pregnant mother, two howling kids in the back seat. A long time ago, indeed, another Ireland. But, my benefactor that day, a young man from Sligo named Tim Egan on his way to deliver Guinness to Killybegs, noticed a copy of Yeats hanging out of my pack. He pulled over and said, “Aye, you’ll be liking this. They say this is where Yeats wrote some of his finest poetry.”
We looked at the dedicatory plaque, which said Yeats had built a house of sorts here with his bare hands. I smiled, looking about. There were no hives for honeybees, or bean-rows, but the day was bright with the sun and the soft flapping of linnet’s wings. In short, peace did come dropping slow.
Tim whispered the words of the poem. Horripilations rose along the edges of my spine. The words caromed around in my head and settled in my heart and then I forgot it all and the years passed. My tastes in poetry changed once again. Dante called. And so did Homer. Czeslaw Milosz made a guest appearance as well. But Yeats was ever there, lurking, hiding, biding his time. And from time to time I find myself thumbing the well-worn pages of that summer journal, filled as it is with lots of not-so-good writing and equal amounts of even worse poetry. What that journal has in abundance, however, is a voice–for it was that summer that I found my writing voice.
And in that voice I still find ‘nine bean rows’ in the discipline of writing. And I become an engineer of cabins and bee hives with my words, memories and images. I can feel ‘peace come dropping slow’ after a long editing-session, sitting back with a glass of scotch, pride in a job well done.
And best of all, the soft sounds of ‘lake water lapping’ can be found anywhere I choose: watching the silent silhouette of ships skating along the blue waters of the Bosporus, hearing the crush and throng of humanity in all its glorious diversity on an Indian railway station, pacing back and forth along the dilapidated battlements of the Great Wall, but easiest of all when I am sitting on the deck of my favorite Austin coffee house in the cool air of late winter.
I choose, then I remember, and then I smile.