Over the last few months I have found myself writing a lot of poetry. This is something I've always dabbled in, but that seems lately to have acquired a new urgency and facility. As a result I have found myself reading a lot more poetry than I have at any point since my twenties when my early favourites were established (I've just turned fifty one). My recent reading has included the discovery of the excellent Tony Harrison, and a re-acquaintance with two early loves, Baudelaire and Rilke. I then found myself looking around for a new unfamiliar voice with which to engage. I had been introduced to several of Yeats' major poems at school, where they had made enough of an impression on me to still be able to recall sizeable chunks. Thus, I decided to give his Collected Poems a go.
I've been reading my poets cover to cover, and so I undertook to do the same with these. This took perhaps a week or so, and at the end I found myself rather under-whelmed, and rather glad to be finished. I couldn't understand the fuss. A Nobel laureate? The language seemed so quaint and un-spectacular, and yet he was considered modern? The references to Celtic myth were somewhat irritating, as what knowledge I had enjoyed in this area had grown stale with disuse. But most of all I found the meanings of the poems extremely obscure. Despite frequent re-readings I found I could make very little sense of by far the most of them. When I got to the end I had come to the conclusion that whatever reputation he enjoyed must have arisen from academic delight at obscurantism.
But just as I was about to put the book away, on a high shelf, I found myself with the feeling that I must have missed something. Surely such a reputation, guaranteed by the likes of Eliot and Auden couldn't be entirely without foundation? So, I decided to read them all again. This time I took them one at a time, very slowly, obliging myself to read and re-read each one, until I could untangle its meaning before proceeding to the next. Thus, it has taken me several weeks of careful, occasional reading, to get to the end of the book for this second time, with penetration to the meaning and music of some of these poems being a major personal intellectual challenge and achievement. The result has been a revelation and a completely new kind, for me, of poetic experience. I had no idea that you could work so hard reading a poem, and that the corresponding reward could be on the same level of intensity as that acquired from, say, an hour long symphony. I have realised that, until now, my appreciation of poetry has been confined to an overly imagistic level, with language assuming only a minor, secondary role. I have now learned that every word in a poem, no matter how seemingly small, is significant, and that the combination or juxtaposition of even familiar words can open up semantic spaces to which we have been inured by their unimaginative use in daily life. Reading this book has opened me up to a whole new artistic experience, and also, as a side benefit, completely altered my own poetic style of writing.
It is hard to communicate the love and affection I have come to feel for this man and his extraordinary mind, as one does after the most profound encounters with art.