June 23, 2008KR BlogReading

Sometimes It Is

If now were a time for thinking, I would write about a smart and expansive discussion happening right now on the Poetry Foundation blog. It’s about poetry, politics, and class. It was sparked by Mark Nowak, who asked “What is the relationship between contemporary poetry and the working class, the working poor, and the under- and unemployed?” It was furthered by Alan Gilbert’s wise assertion that “it’s not poetry but poets who bear the responsibility for the dialogue [Nowak] proposes.” They have a good mix of bloggers now, including Lucia Perillo who asked why poets are aligned with the left. Bless D.A. Powell for this remark: “[Larissa Szporluk] doesn’t reinvent the poem, she simply writes it.”

But it’s not a time for thinking. It’s high summer. Midsummer Night’s Eve, in fact. The time of year my cats glance but briefly through the open door before dashing back out into the dark. It’s time for magic. Time for Yeats:

The Cat and the Moon

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

Can a poem like this one, with its sacred moon and mysterious black cat, be of any interest today, after its images have become stock representations of the mysterious? Maybe the answer is inevitably up to the individual; however, the poetic tradition in which poetry and magic were tied–the Old Irish tradition from which Yeats drew–yields at least a decent thought-experiment.

For a moment, imagine believing that a well-crafted verse, a curse or spell, could work in the world, could raise boils on an enemy’s face (in Wikipedia’s example). Imagine believing that a specific combination of syllables, of spoken sounds, had that kind of power.

Many of Yeats’ best-known poems appear simple, full of simple words and images. But their consonances and repetitions make a tenacious music. Among the poems I’ve memorized, they surface quickly and completely. “Will you dance, Minnaloushe, will you dance?” This means nothing, but I hear it sometimes when I see a cat in tall grass, and sometimes for no reason at all. Weirdly, it sticks.

When confronted with the argument that “this ain’t no ancient culture,” Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s great figure of anachronism, said it best: “Sometimes it is.”