The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 29, 2011

High Talk and Reeling Thoughts, Part 3

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

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


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.

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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