Saturday, 3 September 2011

High Talk and Reeling Thoughts: Gjertrud Schnackenberg on 'High Talk' by W.B. Yeats

American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg won the Griffin International Poetry Prize earlier this year for her latest book of poetry, Heavenly Questions, which is published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK in September. Writing in The American Prospect, Eliza Griswold said: 'Schnackenberg is best known for her stunning command of prosody. She is the most accomplished master of blank verse on the planet.' Jonathan Galassi interviews Gjertrud Schnackenberg about Heavenly Questions elsewhere on Bloodaxe Blogs. Here she discusses an inexplicably neglected late poem by W.B. Yeats, 'High Talk', first published towards the end of his life in 1938.

'High Talk' by W.B. Yeats

Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern Stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.

Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.

All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn breaks
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.



That we cannot say what poetry is, and that we don't know what it is, and that we likely can't know and never will know what it is, is a paradox that for me becomes only curiouser and curiouser as I grow older. Poetry's truths don't merely invite us to see that there are some truths which in principle we must leave alone: they enjoin it. But apparently helpless to stop ourselves, we paraphrase these truths and watch as they immediately escape, irreducible, almost extra-verbal, whole and shining in their projected imaginative worlds, as indivisible as prime numbers and as untouchable as soap bubbles. We see this happen, and nonetheless we try again to reparaphrase these truths, and then watch as they escape again—and we can see, in the same moment of their escape, how they instantaneously and magically re-form themselves.

Even William Butler Yeats, the arch poet, couldn't say what poetry is. His biographer R.F. Foster, in The Arch-Poet, quotes a sentence which Yeats was dwelling on at the very end of his life: "Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it." His monumental last sonnet, "High Talk," is one of several poems about poetry from his last poems, a circus poem written at the same time that he was writing "The Circus Animals' Desertion." "High Talk" is many things, a thing of thingness: it is a piece of unholy, perpetrated music, and a valediction, and a self-portrait of the artist as a maniac, and it is a stupendous piece of poetic terribilita that embodies, without a trace of beauty, what it cannot know—or what it cannot know in any other words or ways.

Professor Ben Reid pointed this poem out to me in 1975, and since that time, I have asked nearly every literary scholar and critic I have encountered what they think of the poem: almost invariably they have forgotten its existence or are unfamiliar with it, and invariably when they reread or read it, they are startled by the spectacle and mania of it, and by its bizarre, meaning-drenched metrical footwork. With consideration and grace, almost all of my interlocutors over these many years have held back from writing about what we discussed, sometimes at my request, sometimes out of instinctive courtesy, and I gratefully acknowledge their forbearance, which has allowed me to gradually collect and write down my own reeling thoughts about this poem.

Mr. Yeats

Yeats wrote "High Talk" six months to the day before his death, and it was published in the London Mercury in December 1938, about six weeks before he died on January 28, 1939, in a boardinghouse on the French Riviera, in Roquebrune.

In the New York Times obituary published on January 30, 1939, we see Yeats in a last, brief glimpse, as a tattered coat upon a stick: "Mr. Yeats was able only to take short walks in the gardens of the house where he stayed. He was confined to his bed since Tuesday."

Short walks? In the garden? Mr. Yeats? The body is sinking, but the spirit's riposte is already published in the Mercury, well named for the messenger of the gods: "night splits, and the dawn breaks loose; / I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on."

Poetic Feet

"High Talk" is not a comic poem (and not a tragic poem), but it abounds with jokes, jests, and puns, above all about "poetic feet," as well as with witticisms about the history of sonnet forms, and heroic and mock-heroic couplets, and the meaning of triple rather than duple meters, and of the stilt-like thunking of spondees, and of extra-long, lumbering line-lengths of hexameters, and of the rhythmic pause exposed, as an abyss is exposed by the height of stilts—and there are many other stunts, japes, mockeries, tricks, and plays, beginning with the pun of its title. Yeats is caught up by his "poetic feet," and by the meaning of "poetic feet," and by the divine lengths to which the "poetic feet" of these hexameters transport him.

Footedness, poetic, anatomical, inhuman, human, supernal—and inanimate, in the empty shoes being repaired and in the "timber toes" of the stilt man: the sonnet is choreographed with an impeded, uncanny, lumbering footwork by the poet we know to be "the dancer and the dance." "High Talk" is a bestiary of variable footedness: the four-footed circus animals (pony, bear, lion) from "The Circus Animals' Desertion," here being led from collar to collar, presumably chained; and the eight-footed daddy longlegs, and the web-footed barnacle goose (in stratospherically high flight); and the women whose task is "patching old heels" on worn-out shoes for other, absent human bipeds; and, in the poem's menacing last line, the footlessness of the spooky sea horses; and, overtowering all of these, the stiltwalker, whose human feet do not touch the ground as he lumbers along at a grotesque, self-inflicted pace through the triple-foot accents—or is the stiltwalker four-footed, if we count both his stilt stumps and his two feet in the footrests?—wading through the tripartite, wooden dactyls and anapests and thunking down in spondees, transporting himself with and across the hexameter lengths of his lines, like an embodied answer to all three parts of the Sphinx's riddle (an ironic embodiment, since the answer to the Sphinx is "man" and this stiltwalker is less human than humanoid, a hybrid of human and stilts) as the Sphinx is a hybrid of "Lion and woman and the Lord knows what." Apollodorus's version of the Sphinx's riddle is a riddle about a hybrid: What has one voice but is four-footed, two-footed, three-footed? "High Talk" is a bestiary compendium of the subhuman, the humanoid, the superhuman, the extra-human, the nonhuman, and the merely human, and it is filled with hybrids, zoological, anthropological, divine, spiritual, auditory, poetic, religious, cultural; its stiltwalker, oddly, freakishly belongs to all of these kingdoms, phylums, classes, orders, families, genera, species, and he is, as well, unclassifiable and a thing apart. "High Talk" teems with hybrids, and is about a hybrid, and it is itself a hybrid.

A Twice-Appearing Foot, in the Singular, with a Third Meaning

Linguistic hybrids abound as well in "High Talk"—puns, multiple plays on words, giant metaphors, staggering homonyms. One homonym, for example, is the word "stilts," used to mean over-sized circus crutches and to mean also the stiltedness, the exaggerated affectation, of Yeats’s hexameters.  And, equally importantly to the poem, the word "foot" is a homonym.

"Foot" appears only twice (bipedally, one could say), in the second and third lines, and, using it twice, Yeats invokes a third definition of the word: to the two implicit but pervasive definitions of "foot" which propel the stilt walker through the lines of "High Talk"—"foot" as the anatomical appendage and "foot" as the unit of prosody—Yeats here explicitly adds a third definition of "foot" as linear measurement (for the measuring both of the height of his stilts and the height of his poetic stature): he says that his great grand-dad's stilts were "twenty foot high" and that his stilts are "but fifteen foot." Yet even in using the word "foot" only as a linear measurement—and the word "foot" appears only as a linear measurement in the poem–Yeats further compounds the doubly defined (although otherwise merely implied) "poetic feet" of his stilts, and also thereby adds to the population of hybrids of which the poem is composed:  as a homonym, even this single word is itself yet another kind of hybrid, and another way for one to become two and two to become three (and, given the hybrid Sphinx's riddling focus on feet in Apollodorus, it is appropriate that the word "foot" should be the locus, and the weight-bearer, of this further compounding). Yet, in using “linear measurement” as the definition of the word "foot," Yeats retains and intensifies his focus on poetic meter  -- and this seems to me nearly miraculous—because, as we know, the word “meter” comes from the Greek word metron, meaning "measure."

And yet this hybrid word—the homonymous, punning, compounded, twice-appearing, triply-defined "foot"–is only one of the dazzling, multivalent witticisms in this entirely singular poem, and only one instance of its fused multiplicities. Some of the hybrids in "High Talk" are classical, the most prominent of these being the alluded-to Sphinx (which was a male in Egypt and a female in Greece, and which, in "The Second Coming," begins moving toward the town of Bethlehem) but "High Talk," for all its classical references and rough-shod hexameters, is not a classical poem.

The God of the Dragging Footsteps

Not a classical poem: in fact, "High Talk" is barbaric—although barbarity is, of course, a classical idea, a mental projection across an imposed cultural boundary—yet I do not doubt that Yeats is aggressively, brazenly taking on the landscape of classical Greek poetry in the extra-long reaches of these unstable, striding hexameters. Barbaric, but the poem's approximations of dactylic hexameters—though the dactyls wobble into anapests, unsteadily, like stilts—inevitably echo the oracular speech of Apollo at Delphi and the meter of the divine archive of Homer's poetry. And as Yeats fabricates his own stilts, it is impossible to not think of the golden leg braces or crutches that Hephaestus created for his own injured legs and feet, and it is impossible too not to recall how the artisan-god's hobbled gait provokes the unfeeling, inextinguishable laughter of the gods on Olympus—their laughter echoed in the laughter of the great sea horses at the end of "High Talk." And the height of the stiltwalker suggests the sheer size and out-of-scale, overtowering stature of the classical gods. In the Iliad, Ares and Pallas Athene are "huge in their armour, / being divinities, and conspicuous from afar, / but the people around them were smaller" (Lattimore translation, Book 18, lines 516–519).

Not classical but barbaric: Yeats's crude carpentry is a grimy mockery of the fabulous, wonder-working artisanship of Hephaestus, who even created thinking and feeling automatons, and who keeps "all the tools with which he worked in a silver strongbox"; and Yeats's lumbering pace is a mortal, labored shadow of the effortless gliding of the golden wheels of Hephaestus's leg braces; and his barbaric rudeness and contempt for the shoe-repairing women is a travesty of Hephaestus's loving, immortal hospitality to the silver-footed Thetis visiting his workshop—yet Yeats too manages, arduously, to fabricate an overtowering identity for himself, with brute materials and the crude workmanship of a mortal, an identity which culminates in "High Talk" as—to use a Homeric phrase for the marvels that Hephaestus creates in the remote god-world—"a wonder to look upon."

The Octave

Sifting through all the classical allusions of "High Talk," I must reiterate that this poem is barbaric: above all, all out of proportion, and out of all proportion, its attitude wanton, insolent, transgressive, brandishing its bad manners. Yeats insults himself in the octave with a debased description of the poet as a tawdry, cynical impresario of cheap thrills, performing for an audience he holds in contempt; he insults poetry as a base and gross entertainment, calculated, wooden, staged, and worse, he insists, verging into a crime, that poetry is an exhibitionistic performance for voyeurs, even making the repulsive accusation that he is an exhibitionist because the women "want it"—although it is his face that appears at the upper-story pane (in his aggressive accusation toward these women, there is a jape too about the Petrarchan sonnet form, invented once upon a time as golden nets of rhyme to capture Petrarch's lifelong worship of Laura). Barbaric: "High Talk" brags, boasts, swaggers. We feel indignant, incensed, in the presence of its octave, even faintly vandalized or stolen from—even as Yeats claims that he himself is the victim of vandalizing (a thought brought on at the moment that he calls himself a modern). This twentieth-century rogue showman claims that his stilts have been stolen and vandalized, his hexameters chopped up by another rogue, presumably an agent of modernism's inalienable, righteous, destructive force (I think the great-granddad is Shakespeare): "What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high, / And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher, / Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire."

A rogue victim of a rogue: but in the octave he perpetrates his own social crimes; alienated, he violates human bonds and ties with insult, accusation, bragging, and self-debasement—and with boasting self-elevation—and, presumably, he violates his mortal connection to more-than-mortals with his sacrilege and hubris.

Hubris, Hybris, Hybrid

"Hubris" is from the Greek word hybris (in the dictionary, hubris is "overbearing pride and presumption toward the gods"; hybris is a wanton, swaggering insolence, verging on violence): these are words for aggressively taking on the gods. I have tried to count the forms that hybridism takes in this poem, and I know I haven't found all of them, but a partial list would include the hybrid stiltman, the hybrid sonnet forms, the hybrid meters, the hybrid slowness-swiftness of stiltwalking, the hybrid barbarian-classical craftsmanship, even the presiding ghost of the hybrid Sphinx, and the ghastly sea horses which, although not hybrids (unless they have been secretly compounded with the gods), look and feel to us like hybrids, like freaks of nature. And of course, this is a poem about poetry: and metaphor too is hybridizing, in and of itself a compounding.

But for me the poem's most astonishing insight is about a hybrid of poetry, and is more an oracle than an insight, a pinnacle-peak, oracular truth about poetry, of poetry, in poetry: that meter and metaphor are one, fused in revelation. "All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all": the stilts are both the oracular hexameters and the metaphysical heights they bestow upon him, at one and the same time; the hexameters are the way that he is raised high enough to see what he sees; his rugged craft is inseparable from his visionary sight and insight.

The Feet of the Gods

"Poetic feet," footedness, footwork: in the classical world, in Greek poetry, a god's disguised feet, if visible to a mortal, can be a giveaway that discloses the god's divine identity. Mortals on earth are allowed only fleeting glimpses of the divine heels, calves, footprints of the often barefooted gods. Though mortal, Homer is allowed to see, in his Muse-endowed poetry vision, the silver-footed Thetis as she visits the Olympian workshop of Hephaestus, who is the "god of the dragging footsteps" (Lattimore translation, Book 18, line 371). In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, a fascinating passage is devoted to Apollo's inspection of the bewildering footprints left behind by the branch-woven shoes—or stilts—of the messenger god: "monstrous footprints… such as are a noble god's wondrous works." Divine feet, when they touch the earth, may seem lame or inadequate, perhaps because they are inexperienced, although, in Greek poetry, this is only hinted, not stated or elaborated, only lightly touched upon. In her remarkable and disquieting book The War That Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander alludes to the trouble the goddesses Hera and Athene have in the Iliad when their feet touch the earth: she describes the dove-like gait of these terrifying goddesses who, having arrived on earth to intensify the warfare, can't disguise very well that they are not experienced in walking. These goddesses customarily fly at the speed of lightning bolts, hurling themselves from Olympus like comets; but when they touch down among mortals onto the earth, they are hobbled, they walk overly quickly, oddly bobbing, as if on birds' feet: "the two [Hera and Athene] set forth ‘in little steps like shivering / doves, in their eagerness to stand by the men of Argos'—this image of the bloodthirsty divinities shivering in excitement as they mince toward their prey is inexpressibly sinister."

When I was writing The Throne of Labdacus, I was haunted by the fugitive, only barely hinted-at suggestion that Oedipus's injured feet—for which he is named—may indicate a perhaps partially hidden, perhaps partially manifest alliance with the antagonist divinities who torment him, a connection which I wanted and tried, but failed, to uncover. But this much is known, recorded in the Sophocles tragedy: that Oedipus's feet are injured, and that it is the injury to his feet by which Oedipus is not only named ("Swollen-Foot"), called, and known to others, but through which he finally discovers and knows himself, in his catastrophic, Delphi-driven self-revelation. The ancient injury to his feet is the secret, and the answer to the secret, of who and what he is.

Gods are not the only beings identified by their feet; humans are identified by their feet as well, as much in ancient poetry as in the modern anthropological definition of bipedal feet as a signal trait of human evolution. Homer's poetry is the first written account to distinguish humans (from gods) by the fact that the feet of mortals walk on the earth; and Aristotle defines humans as footed: "animal, mortal, footed, biped, wingless." When Eurycleia bathes the feet of the disguised Odysseus, she feels his scar, and knows him.

The Stiltwalker's Feet

In "High Talk," Yeats's feet do not touch the ground as he walks, and his gait is, of course, disabled, off-balance, wrong-rhythmed, immensely laborious (and self-inflicted). The disabled gait and superhuman height of his stilts suggest ancient divinity and give the poem's insight about poetry the aura of a more than human authority.

The sight and sound of stiltwalking is perturbing, even menacing, in its inhuman pace, its inhuman height, its flouting of human proportion, rhythm, balance, and the pace of the stride: the stiltwalking performer, having vaulted up and away, looms, isolated by unnatural height, thing-like and suspended apart from and above human concerns and engagements and conversation; the performer's face is no longer face-to-face with others but is obscured by the height ("love fled…/ And hid his face amid a crowd of stars").

Eerily slow, yet space-grabbing and therefore paradoxically fast: built into the stiltwalker's pace-rhythm is a mid-stride stall, a beat's hesitation between steps, before the expected next step thunks down; the hesitation is ominous and can give a bystander a frisson of cold goose bumps. Yeats depicts this disturbed walking rhythm with the tripartite dactyls and anapests—uncomfortable in English but well suited to introducing this extra beat of hesitation.

And then there is the caesura: Yeats spotlights and exaggerates the suspended hesitation, or pause, that crops up naturally midway between the phrases of a hexameter line (or, on stilts, between strides) with a brilliant, heavily choreographed move. He metrically depicts what happens when a stiltwalker comes to a full stop and stands still for a long moment, swaying overhead, regaining, reassessing, and reasserting his balance, and he accomplishes this full stop with two heavy stresses in a row (spondees: THUNK THUNK) right before the caesura, so that the pause opens up—like the precipice before a stiltwalker, a sudden height-created abyss. Arrested mid-line, precarious, the stilt man teeters above the caesura, before he heavily swings out again with the long, slow swing of the next stride (I hear three thunks before the caesura and only two thunks after, the fifth stress audible but not part of the stride; I don't know why my ear registers it this way, except that scansion is a subjective art, not a science, and each of us reads and hears in our own way):

ProCESSions that lack HIGH STILTS / / have NOTHing that CATches the EYE.

WHAT if my great-GRANDDAD / / had a PAIR that were TWEN-ty foot HIGH,

And MINE were but fifTEEN FOOT, / / NO modern STALKS upon HIGHER,

Some ROGUE of the world STOLE THEM / / to PATCH up a FENCE or a FIRE.

I Hew, I Fell, I Carve

These exaggerated caesuras feel, to me at least, sawn through. In the dictionary I found something that I had known and forgotten long ago, that the original root of "caesura" comes from a Late Latin verb which means "to hew, to fell, to carve," an etymology miraculously appropriate to these woodworked, hand-sawn, planed, and chiseled hexameters, of which Yeats is the mad carpenter: "I take to chisel and plane."

Sonnet Hybrids

Two sonnet forms, the Petrarchan, named for its Italian inventor, and the Shakespearean, named for its English master, often are conjoined by sonnet writers in English—with the more profound and beautifully proportioned weight-bearing structure of the Petrarchan model (eight and six, octave and sestet) supporting the less well-paced and well-timed English model, whose rhyme scheme was recast as a solution for the comparative difficulty of rhyming in English (four, four, four, and two, three quatrains and the bedeviling couplet with its too-quick, too-shallow closure). Most sonnet writers in English conjoin the Shakespearean sonnet structure to the shadow of the Petrarchan, seeking the time and space the sestet offers, its sweep and sway, its greater depth; and the memory of the all-important ninth line of the older Italian form has proven indelible in the newer English form. But Yeats achieves a more fused, conjoined, intrinsically meaningful sonnet structure: his compounding of these two kinds of sonnets is a part of the meaning of his choreography, the dance steps of an awkward, modern, towering biped; and in "High Talk" the turn at the ninth line proclaims a new identity and an embarkation for a change of worlds so momentous that the memory of the old world of the octave is annihilated.

Sonnet Jests

"High Talk" makes an amazing joke about the two compounded sonnet forms: in this poem Yeats has pried out the ending couplet of the English sonnet, like a piece of lumber, and hammered it over and across the Petrarchan sonnet form, turning the whole of this sonnet of the end, about the end, and at the end, into a sequence of endings upon endings upon endings: a poem of the end, built entirely out of endings—endings which are furthermore pronouncedly end-stopped in most of the octave (as heroic couplets and dactylic hexameters are), jammed into the structure of the octave but not enjambed, although in the sestet mere anarchy begins to be loosed among the end-stoppings.

But Yeats knows of course that one of the strengths of the Petrarchan sonnet is precisely that it does not have an ending couplet: its couplets occur in the middle of the octave (abbaabba), where, so far from summing the sonnet up or clicking it closed, the couplets are on the move, easily drawing the lines forward through the octave, as if on magic wheels. And there is more jesting to this: in English, couplets are not only sonnet enders but are independent forms with their own associations. In English, the "heroic couplets" (in the hands, for example, of Samuel Johnson) and the "mock-heroic couplets" (in the hands, for example, of Alexander Pope) are imbued with their usage for both elevated, high talk and for trafficking in mockery—and "High Talk," both bristlingly hubristic and self-belittling, is, at one and the same time, heroic and mock-heroic.

And there is another, larger jest here: the sonnet, especially because of the ending couplet, is renowned as a closed form, a legendary locked box for which poets have sought and sought the key. Yeats upends and subverts the brevity and shallow solutions of the meaning conveyed by the ending couplet: after hammering his ending couplets all over the closed box he has constructed, contrary to any lingering logical or emotional or musical expectations, he simply blows the sonnet up—not formally but metaphysically. The sestet, having jettisoned the octave, forgets what it leaves behind and melts down toward a horizon-bending, unforeseeable, and unbelievably powerful "ending" (metaphysical, physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, poetic, superhuman), as the possessed craftsman veers into a state of being which can't be contained by anything, much less by a sonnet couplet.

This final jest about sonnet endings is also a jest about the end of life, not neatly locked with a rhyme like a key on a charming Elizabethan ribbon but violently exploded in an immense, stilt-staggering shock, unforeshadowed and cosmic.

The Sestet

No reader could foresee, from the end of the octave, the cataclysm of the sestet. We last saw Yeats at the end of the octave, trapped in the circus world, fiendishly taking to chisel and plane (I always think of him chiseling away the rungs from a ladder in the rag and bone shop, using its twin rails to build his stilts). But a change of worlds occurs between the eighth and ninth line (we are not shown how, when, why, where): the octave, with its reprehensible, run-down, pathetic atmosphere, vanishes. Malachi Stilt-Jack has finished constructing his stilts and has already mounted them, and he is hugely striding away, abandoning the human world—possessed, maniacal, disengaged, unreachable, and implacable, in a sudden, furious momentum. Instantaneously, at the ninth line, the disabused stunts and tricks in the octave fall away: cynicism about poetry reverses into mysticism, the performer's base and tawdry motives for writing poetry reverse into inspiration, gross conduct metamorphoses into high-flown, heroic aspiration, the run-down circus-performer metamorphoses into an awe-inspiring, god-touched humanoid, a metaphysical alien, a sort of possessed, Hephaestus-derived automaton, the transformation occurring out of sight, off-site, in the space between the eighth and the ninth lines which is, we now understand, an abyss.


"Malachi Stilt-Jack am I."

I hesitate before the name Malachi, knowing that Malachi in Hebrew means "messenger," but I am not at all persuaded of the likelihood of a meaningful Hebrew reference in this unbiblical, pagan poem; and, having pondered the information from Richard J. Finneran's footnote to the poem that Malachi has three possible references—the biblical prophet, the medieval Irish saint, and Oliver St. John Gogarty—I can't believe that Yeats means to refer to any of these. In part because of the declamatory way he announces his new name, with a stilted, distance-creating, reversed grammar, it seems more a declaration of a nonidentity than of an identity. In Greek Religion, Walter Burkert writes that to the Greeks the names of the Greek gods—even Zeus's name—are without etymologies, that the names are, in a sense, empty. This news is disconcerting; both ancient and modern people reflexively seek the meaning of the names of the gods, and of heroes and humans. (Again, when I was writing The Throne of Labdacus, I learned that Apollo's name is perhaps uniquely mysterious among the gods' names, and I became almost fixated on the two lambdas in the middle of Apollo's name, wondering if the letters could hint that perhaps the god is a secret double of Oedipus, knowing from the Etymologicum Magnum that the lambda is "the same as Labda," a Greek nickname for a lame person.)

But Burkert's observation about the names of the Greek gods contradicts this instinct:

One very conspicuous peculiarity concerns the divine names: it is not only the modern historian who expects divine names to enshrine some meaning . . . By contrast [to the names of the gods in Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Hittite], the names of the Greek gods are almost all impenetrable. Not even for Zeus could the Greeks find the correct etymology. But in this paradox there is plainly a system: at most semi-intelligibility is admitted . . .

But the names of the heroes are . . . to a large extent encoded . . . or else simply inexplicable like Achilles or Odysseus. Clearly the object is to make the individuality of a person, especially a person not physically present, stand out more memorably by giving him a striking name . . .

"Impenetrable," "semi-intelligibility," "inexplicable"—it is strange to think of the superhuman names as without derivation, etymology, reference, parallel, counterpart, history, or meaning. But when set beside the sestet of "High Talk," these words reverberate for me behind Malachi Stilt-Jack's proclamation of his name—a proclamation from the heights that does not invite a response:

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.

All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits, and the dawn
     breaks loose;
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.

This is insanity, as well as crazed, fabulous poetry: this Malachi-Nijinsky has escaped from an asylum, encumbering his legendary footwork with stilts, self-obliterating yet self-assertive: a visionary exponent of poetry is revealing the irrational ecstasy of poetry's source and showing us the conditions, however grotesque and unassimilable, out of which poetry is engendered. "Those images which yet / Fresh images beget . . ." At which point (or before which) the unknowable Malachi Stilt-Jack is seen to be abandoning the human world, unaccompanied and unaccompaniable.

Cheap Thrills

"I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on."

Is poetry cheap thrills, then, mere amazement, dream states, rhapsodies, and trances, ecstasy for its own sake, something to gape at, a medium for bringing on goose bumps, shivers, the jimjams? (Is revelation?)

Yeats answers: No. The wish that he made so often in his poems, as he figuratively blew out the candles, year by year, herein comes true—that he stay aroused, that the fury intensify rather than wane, that he keep faith with his poetry's ecstasy and "its bitter furies of complexity" until his death. And that his poetry prove that intellectual ecstasy, in dragging its language through the fury and mire of existence, engenders meaning.

Of course, poetry means multiple things to Yeats, but I want to concentrate on one aspect here: a vision of poetry as the final cause. I think of "High Talk" as a companion sonnet to "Leda and the Swan," where Zeus's sacred fury and sacred crime engender images in which we glimpse, in a phosphorescent flash, the Trojan War, or rather a vision that the Trojan War, meaningless as it unfolds, is engendered in order to become the Iliad, its meaning. "High Talk" is another step in Yeats's experience of thinking about poetry as the purpose of meaning for which existence is engendered and upon which existence is spent: history exists, the cosmic drama exists, the human story exists, spiritual insight exists, existence exists, in order to be turned into poetry; that is, all that desire and suffering of human life, all the fury and mire, all the labor of insight, all that has happened—"the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, and Agamemnon dead"—all are brought about, and all unfold, in order to be turned into poetry. In this vision, poetry is the end-state meaning for which the Creation is engendered (poesis is Greek for "creation"). That mortals should live and die to this end is another discussion entirely, and it needs to be acknowledged that, of course, this is a poet's revelation and explanation for the Creation and human suffering. But perhaps it is more than that; perhaps other kinds of minds, other than the minds of poets, are opened in reading poetry to a consideration that poetry turns human existence into the realization of its meaning.

Begetting Images

And "High Talk," with its brazen oracle music, its gigantic exertion, and its unholy grasping for sublimity, is a knock-down, drag-out fight with death. Yeats is still standing at the end, precarious and perched, savagely unrecognizable, wobbling, but still able to see because of the height of his stilts, and still able to report that he can see ahead of him, presumably beyond his own death, "that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea."

Toward which, when we last see him, he still is stalking.

Mr. Yeats

"Mr. Yeats was able only to take short walks in the gardens of the house where he stayed. He was confined to his bed since Tuesday." (via)

The Terrible Novelty

"High Talk" is also a valediction forbidding mourning—although, in any case, we aren't mourning. Such heights, transport, insight, and metamorphosis—and such oracularly metered fulfillment—can't be mourned.

We see the dancer who is the dance taking his last steps in "High Talk." He is a vestige, a remnant, but so high that he is "Far up in the stretches of night," almost lost to the living, still frenzy-struck, a teetering spectacle of apotheosis—precarious, inalienable, magnificent, awkward, heroic, barbaric.

But because this is the end, we are able to see the dreadful rictus of the sea horses, and to hear the inextinguishable laughter of the gods, savagely marking this farewell as mortal. Yeats persists, implacable, undissuadable and not dissuaded, still gaining momentum and keeping his foothold, transported on the hexameter stilts he has laboriously fabricated and ingeniously mastered. This is, indeed, the end. But "no modern stalks upon higher."

Exit, self-catapulted.


Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in 1953 in Tacoma, Washington. Her retrospective Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2001) includes her four collections, Portraits and Elegies (1982), The Lamplit Answer (1985), A Gilded Lapse of Time (1995), and The Throne of Labdacus (2000), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. Her latest collection, Heavenly Questions, was the International winner of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize. Published in hardback in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010, the first UK edition is published by Bloodaxe Books in paperback in September 2011, price £8.95.

This essay first appeared on the FSG books blog The BEST WORDS in the BEST ORDER. Many thanks to Jonathan Galassi for permission to republish it here. The section entitled "A Twice-Appearing Foot, in the Singular, with a Third Meaning" is a later addition. Jonathan Galassi interviews Gjertrud Schnackenberg about Heavenly Questions elsewhere on Bloodaxe Blogs.


Perhaps this is already more generally known, but I couldn't help thinking that the stilts in the poem are also related to the stilts worn by Ancient Greek actors.

Years and years ago in Paris, I took a course in "Tragedie," for which, in the last two weeks, after we had explored tragic dimensions in a variety of vocal and physical exercises (including such practices as reciting the same lines about Achilles, over and over again, while throwing a rubber ball as hard as we could, while running across a room and jumping over a bench, while walking and pausing walking and pausing down a steep flight of stairs—the French modes so different from American Stanislavskian energy-draining inner-directed work), we strapped on our stilt shoes and recited while walking in a dark room toward the light shone on our faces. "Achille aussi bondit.  Il dit et tire le glaive aigu..." (or that's what sticks with me, from 1981). It was amazingly resonant—we were and were not ourselves, our ordinary classmates; we were given over, instead, to the scale of the story.

At any rate, in between ancient Greece and 20th century Paris, I'm sure there existed/exists a tradition of performing tragedy on stilts, alive metaphorically like Malachi etc even when not in actual practice.

A quick on-line search turns up these two quite different images, suggesting the range of possibility (and the storage jar image suggests that comedy, too, used stilts):

Storage Jar with a Chorus of Stilt Walkers, black-figured amphora attributed to the Swing Painter, Greek (Attic), active about 550-525 B.C. Terracotta, 16 1/8 x 11 7/16 in. (41 x 29 cm). James Logie Memorial Collection, University of Canterbury.

Paul Klee: Tragedy on Stilts (Tragödie auf Stelzen), 1912. MOMA, New York © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Jennifer Clarvoe is Professor of English at Kenyon College.

No comments: