The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 29, 2011

High Talk and Reeling Thoughts, Part 2

Gjertrud Schnackenberg on "High Talk" by W.B. Yeats - Part Two of Six

Read the Poem "High Talk" (PDF) | Read Part One


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." 


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.


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Rob Schackne

I have so enjoyed reading (and re-reading the Yeats poem) the wonderful redactions here. All power to stilt-walkers everywhere... What moments. Thank you very much.

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