Saturday, May 6, 2006

Breakfast with William B. and Edna St. V.

William Butler Yeats and Edna St. Vincent Millay read their work in distinctive voices -- highly musical, highly theatrical, or, if you prefer, totally over the top. Hugh Kenner tells a story of Yeats reading "The Lake Isle of Innisfree":

[H]e read it as he read everything, in a peculiar half-chant in which Ezra Pound heard keening, and other Americans heard Celtic melancholy, and Dublin heard Willie Yeats putting on airs. A no-nonsense American lady asked him to kindly infarm the audience (he recalled the sound she made as "infarm") why he read his poetry in that fashion. He replied that every poet since Homer had read in that fashion. She asked him to further infarm them how he knew that Homer had read in that fashion. He replied that the ability of the man justified the presumption. [From A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, 1983]
My wife Elaine, our daughter Rachel, and I were recently talking about Yeats and Millay. (Rachel worked on a group project about Millay and has now read enough of her work to last a lifetime, thank you.) Elaine suggested that we ponder the idea of Yeats and Millay talking over breakfast. My imagination went to work (or play, really) developing a scenario.
[William B. announces his plans for the morning.]

I will arise and go now, and go to the grocery
And a carton of milk I will buy there, and a dozen
      eggs or more,
And I will buy some bread there, for the bread
      truck comes today.

[Edna St. V. replies.]

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little trip.

[At this point, Elaine directed Katherine Hepburn to enter the dining room and ask if they'd be needing anything else this morning. Curtain.]
All this silliness is curiously appropriate, given Yeats' 1937 remark on the work of the poet:
[H]e never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.
Yes, and there is even a phantasmagoria of the breakfast table.

I'm no fan of Millay's delivery, I'll admit, and my passion for Yeatsian loftiness waned some time ago. My favorite readers of poetry are William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, vernacular Americans all. And here's another odd connection: Ted Berrigan appropriated "[T]here is always a phantasmagoria" as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand statement of his poetics.

If you'd like to hear Yeats, here's a link. I'm unable to find a recording of Millay online.

      » William Butler Yeats reads "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

Update: I found two Millay recordings.

      » Edna St. Vincent Millay reads two poems

comments: 1

Unknown said...


Ten bonus points.