The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 30, 2011

High Talk and Reeling Thoughts, Part 5

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

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


Cheap Thrills

"I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on."

Is poetry cheap thrills, then, mere amazement, dream states, rhapsodies, and trances, ecstasy for its own sake, something to gape at, a medium for bringing on goose bumps, shivers, the jimjams? (Is revelation?)

Yeats answers: No. The wish that he made so often in his poems, as he figuratively blew out the candles, year by year, herein comes true—that he stay aroused, that the fury intensify rather than wane, that he keep faith with his poetry's ecstasy and "its bitter furies of complexity" until his death. And that his poetry prove that intellectual ecstasy, in dragging its language through the fury and mire of existence, engenders meaning. 

Of course, poetry means multiple things to Yeats, but I want to concentrate on one aspect here: a vision of poetry as the final cause. I think of "High Talk" as a companion sonnet to "Leda and the Swan," where Zeus's sacred fury and sacred crime engender images in which we glimpse, in a phosphorescent flash, the Trojan War, or rather a vision that the Trojan War, meaningless as it unfolds, is engendered in order to become the Iliad, its meaning. "High Talk" is another step in Yeats's experience of thinking about poetry as the purpose of meaning for which existence is engendered and upon which existence is spent: history exists, the cosmic drama exists, the human story exists, spiritual insight exists, existence exists, in order to be turned into poetry; that is, all that desire and suffering of human life, all the fury and mire, all the labor of insight, all that has happened—"the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, and Agamemnon dead"all are brought about, and all unfold, in order to be turned into poetry. In this vision, poetry is the end-state meaning for which the Creation is engendered (poesis is Greek for "creation"). That mortals should live and die to this end is another discussion entirely, and it needs to be acknowledged that, of course, this is a poet's revelation and explanation for the Creation and human suffering. But perhaps it is more than that; perhaps other kinds of minds, other than the minds of poets, are opened in reading poetry to a consideration that poetry turns human existence into the realization of its meaning.


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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