High Talk and Reeling Thoughts, Part 1
Gjertrud Schnackenberg on "High Talk" by W.B. Yeats - Part One of Six
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.
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."
"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.
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."
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.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1953. The Throne of Labdacus (FSG, 2000) received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Her most recent book of poetry is Heavenly Questions.