Jul 14, 2011

Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion": Back to Basics

Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. 

My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is like Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” in the way the voice shifts from personal to public, then back to the personal.  In this case, the poet himself is aware of his change in tone; he actually divides a one-page poem into three numbered sections, each in a voice that's different from the other two.

"The Circus Animal's Desertion" - The Poem

I’m somewhat interested in the first section, but the second and longest section, which reviews the poet’s career in a somewhat detached, academic, public way, leaves me cold. If a reader is not fairly familiar with Yeats’ oeuvre, how is he to understand or care about the specifics in Section II?   Furthermore, the language, in spite of being self-deprecating, feels rather clinical, as it conveys an equally detached summary of Yeats’ plots, themes, tropes and strategies over his writing career.

But in Section III, we return to real people and their issues, which are both specific and universal—especially the awareness of encroaching old age, decrepitude, and death. Reviewing a life, how shall a writer, how shall any of us, confront the need to keep reinventing ourselves, our work, our sense of purpose? It is an intensely personal matter, and it requires a personal language if it's to ring true.

Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
Yeats’ answer comes right out of the streets. It is urgent, visceral, and full of basic human concerns. It has not one iota of academic or public distancing. That old ladder is gone; it is now too late in life to call upon those same circus animals that once danced, performed, deluded, distracted. How can anyone feel distance in these lines, which challenge us all, from the perspective of raving sluts and garbage in the street? 

If we look back and review our own lives, and find them full of frippery, what then? Lie down and begin again, where all the ladders start—in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”  Stamina, courage, integrity, work—they’ll wear us out, they’ll make us stink, but no other way means anything.

"The Circus Animal's Desertion" - The Poem

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?


Ken Mac said...

I'd like to hear this gig. Post an MP3!

Anonymous said...

Best poem I've ever read on writer's block. I don't think we lack things to say, we're just afraid we've said it all before and better.

And then there's the part about whether or not we've been true to the source of the inspiration. What's the debt. Sometimes where we started is unrecognizable. Does that matter.

Reminds me of this:

"So all my words, however true/might sing you through a thousand Junes/but no one would ever know that you/were beauty, for an afternoon."

Banjo52 said...

Ken, I can't remember the band's name. Maybe I'll investigate. I'm no expert, but I thought they sounded good.

AH, yes, tracking inspiration--is "fool's errand" too strong? I like what you quoted. Got a source for us? Would I know if I were hip? hep? down? money? word?

PJ said...

If you've ever kept a journal then you know that when you come back and read what you wrote, even just a year past, the reaction - for me at least - is always, "WTF?", who is this person? It makes me laugh every time.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, I know what you mean--in spades. But I've also had the opposite extreme, if I may sound immodest for a second. I've come across something from months or years gone by and been surprised by how promising it seemed or simply was. I always preach to kids about proofing, Put it in a drawer for 6 months. Don't peak. Forget about it. (You will). When you go back to it (or just stumble upon it), you won't need another proofreader--you'll be looking at the work of a stranger.

But with any luck there will be good surprises along with the dozens of bad shocks. Of course, 6 months is unrealistic in an academic setting, but I think some got the idea.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

really? it seemed personal all the way through. He was showing us his work process. Like stream of consciousness. questioning his characters, editing and eventually scrapping. Why judge a clinical assessment as not worthy of paper and pen? Kind of like watching the "Actor's Studio" on cable. Seeing the process except in that case, I always cringe at the human part or parting three questions...."what would you say to god when you get to heaven?" ehk!

Banjo52 said...

PA, Funny. And yeah, Actor's Studio is probably a category unto itself. (but I do get hooked once in a great while).

I don't know if I DISlike Section Two; it's just less interesting to me than I and III. "Here is my dossier" doesn't grip me like "Here is the trash heap of my psyche as I approach the end of life. In my dotage I'm gonna try to make gold from tuna tins. Again."

How about this: Yeats approaches a damsel at a Dublin pick-up bar and says, "Hey, baby, wanna see my work process?" But I suppose she might prefer that to his foul rag and bone shop. It's a materialistic age we live in.

I do apologize. Once that pick-up line popped into what's left of my mind (tuna tin?), I couldn't leave it un-shared. Be kind. Don't rewind.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I actually thought this poem was going to be about circus animals running away from the cruel circus. I am greatly disappointed. Really! I guess 'belly button gazing' was worthy of poetry even back in Yeats' league?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, why not think that, based on the title. But maybe Yeats' work was the circus, and he was its ringmaster? That has a strong strain of self-deprecation, doesn't it? Lofty poet and dramatist as carny act. I kinda like it.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

LOL, seriously, I did

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