Archive for the ‘William Butler Yeats’ Category

I’m trying to get my old men/sad men poems posted before the end of January—I got waylaid by a broken laptop and a too-long repair job (truly the techno-dog ate my homework)—so to keep things moving along I’ll post two short poems today and the longer ones by Friday. Then I can say fare-thee-well to the old and move on into February, which is, I know, not the obvious month for a fresh start, but for us procrastinators, a veritable mulligan for new year’s resolutions.


(Is there anyone who doesn’t want this January to be over?)



A strange old man

Stops me

Looking out of my deep mirror.




I left (er uh, last December) a short poem by the seventh-century Japanese poet Hitomaro in a mirror in the men’s section of Nordstroms Rack. I had to slip it into a Michael Kors tie because I didn’t have tape. Notice how creased this poem is. It was one of the first poems I collected when I started Poem Elf nearly ten years ago. My plan was to have one of the men in my life leave it in a public restroom but I never found a volunteer.


Maybe I’ve kept it so long because I feel tender towards it. And respectful, the way one would feel about a pocket watch handed down from a great-grandfather long dead. The poem is a deep mirror itself and one I’ve never tired of looking at.


Little is known about Hitomaro’s life. He wrote for emperors and died around age fifty. So let’s assume he was in his forties when he wrote about the strange old man in the mirror. You’re still so young! I want to tell him, but I suppose the forties are the decade when bodily decline first surprises and shocks.


I’m pairing Hitomaro’s tanka with an excerpt from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.”

poem is on light post


An aged man is but a paltry thing

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing

            —W.B. Yeats


Excerpts are unfair to poems—it’s like showing a single buttock from a Rodin sculpture and saying, Look at this man think! But here it is, another piece of paper I’ve been carrying around for years and want to discharge.


Take a minute to read the whole poem, a rumination on aging and a celebration of creativity as an antidote. That’s how I read it anyway. Here’s what Yeats wrote about it (courtesy of Wikipedia):

I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.[1]


I left the excerpt in a parking lot at dusk in early December. I’m enjoying how the light and the poem transform a prosaic suburban strip mall into a jeweled and transcendent space.


Yeats is ever my favorite. Link here to an earlier post with his biography.



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The sixth annual Poem Elf Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz ran into some glitches this year, which is why it’s arriving so late. I knew it was going to be a few hours late because I’m on Hawaii time, but I didn’t expect (who does) to wake up on Valentine’s Day and discover my purse was stolen. I had to spend a few hours with the police and the credit card companies instead of on this post. I can’t complain because, well, Hawaii. Also because my son found my purse in the bushes up the street and the dumb kids who broke in only took my money and not my credit cards, license, favorite lipstick, or prescription sunglasses.

if you have to get your purse stolen, better here than in Michigan

if you have to get your purse stolen, better here than in Michigan


Anyway, the show must go on.


I’m without my own valentine this Valentine’s Day—he’s travelling in Asia–but his absence doesn’t dim my enthusiasm for my favorite holiday. Forget about chocolates and roses and candlelight—it’s a great day stripped of all that, a day to celebrate love in all its forms and manifestations. After all, what other holiday is dedicated to one single emotion?


Let’s start with a poem I’ve posted before (at my niece’s wedding). Fulvia Lupulo’s poem was just the thing to leave at a fancy hotel where couples go to canoodle and watch the sun set over the spectacular Hanalei Bay. This couple from Seattle was celebrating their third anniversary. Look how happy they are!


You don’t need to have a romantic partner to understand that being loved is transformational.



Honeymooners and babymooners (something I only recently heard of) are everywhere here in Hanalei, but I also see a lot of long-married couples. For them I taped “A Decade” by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) on a tree much older than that.


poem is on tree root

The ease of these older couples as they walk the beach or wade into the surf together is a delight to watch. Less red wine and honey and more morning bread.



Here’s one for brand-new Valentines, “Rondeau” by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). I taped it to a park bench under a tree on the beach, just right for a first kiss.

poem is on bench back

poem is on bench back

Hunt’s poem is a sweet reminder of the thrill of that first contact.



Galentines is a thing these days, not a typo, a day (the day before Valentine’s Day, actually) to celebrate friendship. I’m changing it to Palentines so men are included, and so for all pals I left an excerpt from Shakespeare’s “To Me, Fair Friend” under a wooden statue of an old surfer in Hanalei Town. The surfer is making the shaka sign, a friendly greeting made popular by surfers and Hawaiians.



The gray-haired, wrinkle-chested surfers you meet around here truly are, in dress and demeanor, ageless. Boys by any measure of the spirit.



For those who find Valentines Day painful, I taped William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) “Down by the Salley Gardens” on a flowery phone booth right outside a lively bar where couples are busy coupling.


Yeats is the poster boy for unrequited love. He courted Maud Gonne for thirty years and it all came to this: But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.



For break-ups that are more bittersweet than heartbreaking, I present this Frank O’Hara poem (1926-1966), “Animals.” I wedged it in a display of Valentine animals of unknown species in the grocery store.


The older I get, the more I love this poem and these lines in particular:

when we were still first rate

and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth



For my own Valentine, who wakes up today on the opposite side of the Pacific, I taped “Tides” by Hugo Williams (b. 1942) to some twigs and stuck it in the sand at high tide.


For that is happiness: to wander alone

Surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves



That’s it! Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Or Happy Day-After Valentine’s Day if that’s what it is by the time you read this!


And yes, Happy Valentine’s day even to the punks who stole my money—may you find the love that heals whatever ails you.


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Although I’m an Irish lass by genes and inclination, my idea of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration is soda bread, black tea and Yeats.  (If there’s an Irish version of “Bah humbug,” insert here.) Needless to say, I celebrate alone.  But I left some poems by Yeats at the local Irish pub for those whose celebrating takes a jollier turn.

poems are on lower left windows

poems are on lower left windows


Yeats’ “A Drinking Song” was a no-brainer for the occasion:


And a more sobering poem of his:



That one holds some of my favorite lines ever from any poem:

And under every dancer

A dead man in his grave


And because this particular pub is THE meeting place for old pals on St. Patrick’s Day, I left this:




Finally, you can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without a good toast and an Irish blessing, so I left both behind:




This one is dear to me:



Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Poem is above trash bin


When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats



When you are old and gray and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;


And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled

And paced among the mountains overhead

And hid his face among a crowd of stars.




I taped this poem to a trashcan at a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike.  I know, I know– I’ve done the old poem-on-a-trashcan routine before.  If this poem-elfing were a Broadway show, I’d be shuffling around with a top hat and cane right about now.


I could pretend there’s some metaphoric connection between the trashcan and the poem.  Yeats is hoping not to be discarded by the woman he loves. . . or how’s this   . . . anything left in a trashbin on a turnpike is not likely to be retrieved. Just so Yeats tells his beloved, take me now or I’m as out of reach as the stars.


But placing the poem here was a practical decision, not an artistic one.  Mostly I wanted to display it where it would easily be seen. I was also thinking that rest stops are such sterile places (or so we hope, considering that the two prescribed activities are eating and eliminating) that it would be a public service to leave behind something soulful and beautiful.


I love Yeats so much I could poem-elf him exclusively.  Of course I’m partial to all things Irish and Yeats especially, since I’ve always thought he looks like an old friend of my husband and mine (Paul, if you are reading, accept a compliment to your Irish good looks); and also because (I admit sheepishly) his poems are easy to understand, at least at first. (It will be no surprise to academic types that when it comes to poetry, I am a slacker.)


Yeats wrote “When You Are Old” for Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and famous beauty.  He was obsessed with her and over the course of his life would propose to her four times. Like Pip’s love for Estella, Scarlett’s for Ashley, Yeat’s unrequited love for the six-foot tall, red-haired Gonne shaped his life. She drew Yeats into her political causes and awakened his nationalistic feelings. He wrote a play for her to star in.  He even, after Maud’s final rejection, proposed to her daughter.  With her permission. (She had other boundary issues with mating and mothering—she had sex on her infant son’s grave in the hope of conceiving his reincarnation.)


This poem is just plain painful and not a little bitter.  The soothing rhythm almost sounds like a lullaby, but the singer is one boiled rabbit short of stalker status. People writing love poems usually praise the beloved’s face and figure, exaggerating their attractions: eyes like diamonds, breasts like pillows, and so forth.  But Yeats conjures up an image of Maud in her hoary-headed years, all beauty gone, alone and talking to herself, a doddering old biddy, drifting off to sleep by the fire.  Not very sexy, unless your name happens to be Harold.


While Yeats does pay the requisite compliments of love poetry—he notes her glad grace, beauty, and a dewy soft look in her eyes—his compliments come with a veiled threat.  Not only will she lose her beauty someday, but if she rejects him, she’ll never have any love at all. Out of all her admirers, only he truly loves her.


I suppose if he wasn’t a little off-kilter, a little psychologically suspect, he wouldn’t be that much fun to read.  And at least he loves Gonne for the right reasons. He sees beyond her beautiful face and lively spirit: he actually loved the sorrows of your changing face, that is her loss of beauty and her sadness.  (After just reading that men are turned off by the odor of women’s tears, I say, three cheers for Yeats, although he may have just been congested.)  Every woman, no matter how much time she puts into her appearance, and maybe especially if she puts excessive time into her appearance, longs to be loved for who she is.  What woman wouldn’t swoon to hear a man tell her he loves her pilgrim soul?  Yeats is a wily seducer, but his success was limited, at least with Maud, to the page.


Born in Dublin in 1865 to a Protestant family, Yeats spent much of his childhood in London.  Nonetheless, Yeats supported Irish independence. He loved and collected Irish folklore, was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and helped found Dublin’s Abbey Theater.  He was the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize, and served for six years as an Irish senator. At age 52 Yeats eventually married a woman half his age.  Theirs was a happy marriage but not a monagomous one, at least on his part, the old goat.  He died in Paris in 1939.



Pilgrim soul! Oh my.


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