The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 30, 2011

High Talk and Reeling Thoughts, Part 4

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

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


"Malachi Stilt-Jack am I."

I hesitate before the name Malachi, knowing that Malachi in Hebrew means "messenger," but I am not at all persuaded of the likelihood of a meaningful Hebrew reference in this unbiblical, pagan poem; and, having pondered the information from Richard J. Finneran's footnote to the poem that Malachi has three possible references—the biblical prophet, the medieval Irish saint, and Oliver St. John Gogarty—I can't believe that Yeats means to refer to any of these. In part because of the declamatory way he announces his new name, with a stilted, distance-creating, reversed grammar, it seems more a declaration of a nonidentity than of an identity. In Greek Religion, Walter Burkert writes that to the Greeks the names of the Greek gods—even Zeus's name—are without etymologies, that the names are, in a sense, empty. This news is disconcerting; both ancient and modern people reflexively seek the meaning of the names of the gods, and of heroes and humans. (Again, when I was writing The Throne of Labdacus, I learned that Apollo's name is perhaps uniquely mysterious among the gods' names, and I became almost fixated on the two lambdas in the middle of Apollo's name, wondering if the letters could hint that perhaps the god is a secret double of Oedipus, knowing from the Etymologicum Magnum that the lambda is "the same as Labda," a Greek nickname for a lame person.)

But Burkert's observation about the names of the Greek gods contradicts this instinct:

One very conspicuous peculiarity concerns the divine names: it is not only the modern historian who expects divine names to enshrine some meaning . . . By contrast [to the names of the gods in Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Hittite], the names of the Greek gods are almost all impenetrable. Not even for Zeus could the Greeks find the correct etymology. But in this paradox there is plainly a system: at most semi-intelligibility is admitted . . .

But the names of the heroes are . . . to a large extent encoded . . . or else simply inexplicable like Achilles or Odysseus. Clearly the object is to make the individuality of a person, especially a person not physically present, stand out more memorably by giving him a striking name . . .

"Impenetrable," "semi-intelligibility," "inexplicable"—it is strange to think of the superhuman names as without derivation, etymology, reference, parallel, counterpart, history, or meaning. But when set beside the sestet of "High Talk," these words reverberate for me behind Malachi Stilt-Jack's proclamation of his name—a proclamation from the heights that does not invite a response:

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.

All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits, and the dawn breaks loose;
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.

This is insanity, as well as crazed, fabulous poetry: this Malachi-Nijinsky has escaped from an asylum, encumbering his legendary footwork with stilts, self-obliterating yet self-assertive: a visionary exponent of poetry is revealing the irrational ecstasy of poetry's source and showing us the conditions, however grotesque and unassimilable, out of which poetry is engendered. "Those images which yet / Fresh images beget . . ." At which point (or before which) the unknowable Malachi Stilt-Jack is seen to be abandoning the human world, unaccompanied and unaccompaniable.


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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