150 years since the birth of the great Irish poet, W B Yeats (13 June 1865). It’s a shock – one and a half centuries for a Modernist writer. I have the fat green paperback of his Collected Poems, expertly annotated by Norman Jaffares. The spine is cracking in four places and several poems are wafered with post-it notes for quick access.
I re-read familiar poems but always with a sharp intake of breath at their wild, strange, faultless music. What varied poetry he produced: the early favourite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, the powerful political poems such as “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”, the devastating “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (one of the last poems he wrote).
It’s impossible to forget “The Wild Swans at Coole”. The poet describes the birds: “lover by lover, / They paddle in the cold / Companionable streams or climb the air”. Swans pair for life (“lover by lover”) but the poet counts “nine-and-fifty swans” and suddenly I realise that one swan is without a mate – surely an allusion to Yeats’s unrequieted love for Maud Gonne.
I was reminded of Yeats one morning this week when the BBC Radio 4 news announced that the poet James Fenton had won the PEN/Pinter Prize, an annual award for a writer who looks at the world with an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze and shows “a fierce intellectual determination ... to define the real truth of our lives and societies.”
You can read two of Fenton’s “unflinching” poems, “A German Requiem” and “Wind”, on the poethunter.com website. The former begins, “It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down”. They are political poems in the widest sense of the word. Two poets have won the prize before – in 2009 Tony Harrison, and in 2012 Carol Ann Duffy.
One of the most moving political poems I have ever read is Lorna Goodison’s “The Woman speaks to the Man who has Employed Her Son” which is about a mother’s love for her son who has been “employed” as a child soldier.
Last year “The Lioness of Iran”, the poet Simin Behbahani, died at the age of 87 (see my blog post for 12 November 2014). Her work tackled women’s issues and social and political injustice. For ten years her work was banned in Iran and she was subjected to police harassment. But her work was greatly admired and a measure of her popularity was that her face appeared on T shirts and placards.
It takes courage to venture above the political parapet and write.