Yeats's Wireless

Article excerpt

William Butler Yeats took to the radio in the 1930s with poetry that he hoped would sound a public theme and stir the public interest.

On February 2, 1937, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote to a half-dozen friends, calling himself "a fool," "a bore," "an ignoramus," and, most improbably, "a humbled man."

This rare moment of self-reproach came not from artistic failure or political defeat, but from his radio. He was sure he had utterly failed in an ambitious scheme to use the new technology to advance a longstanding hope of engaging public issues through poetry, directly and without the mediation of the printed page.

Arguably the greatest poet to write in English in the 20th century, Yeats the dramatist, senator, elitist, converser with the spirit world, father, loyal friend, meandering husband, social theorist, authoritarian, editor, lustful old man, and Nobel laureate increasingly kneaded his public and private lives--and his confusion about them--into his verse, prompting the American poet Archibald MacLeish to call him "the best of modern poets." Accepting the declaration of the German writer Thomas Mann that "in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms," MacLeish wrote in a 1938 essay that he found in Yeats's later verse "the first English poetry in a century which has dared to re-enter the world.[ldots] It is the first poetry in generations which can cast a shadow in the sun of actual things.[ldots] Writing as Yeats writes, a man need not pretend an ignorance of the world, need not affect a strangeness from his time."

Yeats's experiments with radio between 1931 and 1939 extend this aspect of his modernism. He played down the radio work to Ezra Pound as "a new technique which amuses me & keeps me writing," and to his wife as a means to "pay for my legitimate London expenses," but he devoted much time and energy to the "remarkable experience" of speaking "to a multitude, each member of it being alone," sometimes even seeing in it "an historic movement." In all, he participated in 11 radio broadcasts, and at least three more were planned when declining health made him concede in 1938, "My broadcasting is finished."

Wireless voice transmission was barely a decade old and the BBC only in its ninth year when Yeats began his experiments. But poetry on the radio was not entirely new, and the medium's potential for the literary artist was under broad examination. In 1930 John Masefield, the poet laureate of Britain, urged poets to recover their heritage through radio. Imagining ancient times, when poetry was central to the lives of every member of a relatively small and simple community in which "all ranks and classes of men met together," Masefield decried the printing press as "a detriment to the poetical art" that "put away the poet from his public." "It may be," he concluded, "that broadcasting may make listening to poetry a pleasure again, tho' this can only come about with difficulty and with a great deal of hard work."

In America, Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, a cradle of American modernism, was musing on the same questions. Although not herself "a radio fan," she granted that "this radio subject" called for serious attention. Among her many worries--that only inferior poetry seemed to find its way to the studios, that poets might make poorer radio readers than trained professionals, that publishers seemed oddly uninterested in allowing poets' works to be broadcast--she sounded a theme similar to Masefield's: "The public cannot yet listen intelligently to poetry, for they have had no practice in listening since the invention of printing." Monroe lamented the "500 years poetry has been silent," suggesting that "the radio is the poet's one best chance of escape from that condition. Poetry is a vocal art; the radio will bring back its audience."

Among the first poets in Britain or America to take to the radio, Yeats clearly started out with little theoretical intent and even less knowledge of the medium. …