You Read Yeats as If You Wrote It, I Told Bob. I Did, He Replied

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 21, 2009 | Go to article overview
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You Read Yeats as If You Wrote It, I Told Bob. I Did, He Replied


Byline: John Waters

WE DON'T say often enough what a phenomenon of Ireland is Bob Geldof. To think that three decades ago he was scandalising the country, and now he is arguably the most towering moral force on the planet. Most rebels mellow with age, but here we find that the country on which Geldof cut his rebel teeth has gone more than halfway to meet him. We have banished most of the sacred cows and eunuch bulls that used to drive him crazy, making it unnecessary for him to recant as he grows older. Peace comes dropping.

Geldof is a voice of up-to-themoment moral authority. Having emerged from the poisonous piety of a moribund Ireland, he was possessed by an outrage that enabled him to spot nonsense on the horizon. He became one of the world's most famous voices by representing a gnarled goodness that raised two fingers to the ineffectual do-goodery of conventional politics. His first instinct was a refusal, but he soon found a way to turn the instinctual 'No' into a 'Why The Fook Not?' On Friday night, I attended Geldof's reading of the work of William Butler Yeats in the National Library - part of the Summer's Wreath series in which various personages read and give of their perspectives on the National Poet.

GELDOF TOOK us on a jaunt through what he called the 'greatest hits', drawing a pointed line between the moment of Yeats's role in the invention of this place called Ireland, and the moment now. We used to call him 'Modest Bob' for the same reason we called him 'Bob the Gob'. But there is a deep humility in Geldof, perhaps previously hidden under his anger, that emerges with his growing stature in the world. This, he promised, would be 'karaoke Yeats', before reading a score of Yeats's poems as well as the poet could have hoped. 'When I try to be an intellectual, I always fail,' he said, after explaining Yeats as well as he has been explained in 80 minutes.

Yeats, he argues, was a pop star of his day, having 'branded' himself as soon as he began to write. In a slip of the tongue, Geldof mentions 'Yoyce' and then grins at the idea that he may have created another brand. He lists Yeats, Auden and Eliot in the same breath as Dylan, Bowie and Reed. His argument is cultural, not literary, and is utterly right. He draws a comparison between pop's blue roots and Yeats's excavation of an Irish creation myth from the folklore of the countryside. He speaks of Yeats's determination to steal poetry away from 'eloquence' and give it back to the people.

He talks of Yeats's intense sense of 'modernity', his insinuation of a direction through the music of language. He quotes TS Eliot saying that Yeats was part of the consciousness of an age that could not be understood without him.

The same is true of Geldof. Having established the flimsiest platform in a meteoric pop career, he has gone on to grapple before our eyes with the great demons of the age. He speaks, before reading The Second Coming, of walking home through Battersea on the millennium night, surveying the champagne bottles in the gutter with Yeats's poem in his head, wondering what rough beasts were at that moment slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

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