Feature Articles

YEATS AND THE UMBRELLA: THE YEATS FESTIVAL 2009 by Kevin Kiely
(PI News September/October 2009)

At Lough Key, Maurice Harron’s 'Gaelic Chieftain' is the ‘silver’ metal sculpture of a horseman holding his long sword. Pass by for Sligo and Knocknarea: the tomb of Kevin KielyQueen Maeve on its summit, and the other ‘famous’ mountain described by an Irish poet as ‘the upturned huge boat of Bulben’ where Yeats was cradled in Celtic Mythology.

Across the Garavogue river from Wine St, the abutting Ulster Bank has an army escort guarding the Brinks Van along Stephen St where the statue of Yeats stares on. Rowan Gillespie’s bronze has pipe-like legs depicting Yeats with words all over his clothes — ‘I made my song a coat’. The bank receptionist points through the window: ‘Almost four years ago to the day there was a car crash. Yeats was knocked down.’ she smiles. ‘And like Humpty Dumpty they put him back together again. Welded, I believe’.

Stella Mew in the Yeats Building has an Anglo-Irish accent: ‘It is registration day, and we have to install an exhibition on WB too’. Her face is calm but she ‘is extremely busy’. ‘Our weather is mixed,’ Mew remarks, ‘you’ll see lots of umbrellas.’ She points with her thumb to the poster 'Jack B. Yeats: The Sligo Paintings', (conveniently) upstairs. One is very familiar with works in oil such as ‘Leaving the Far Point’ and ‘The Sea and the Lighthouse’— the distinctive stylistic blurred figures, worked deep into the paint merging with the background. In one room, people are discussing late and early Jack B Yeats, and which is more critically favoured.

The Heaney Reading is sold out in the Hawk’s Well. The event starts late: Heaney reads with gusto in the clammy theatre. Bottles of Glencar Water are a necessity. You can tell that the famous file from Mossbawn is much loved, however this ebullient event is a social gathering also, and various notables clash with decorum. Denis Donoghue is there, the tallest professor except for Roy Foster who is due later in the week. Also amidst the throng are Helen Vendler, Bruce Arnold, Colbert Kearney, Mary Morrissey, and Niall MacMonagle. Afterwards there is much jostling, many introductions and lots of plans for meetings as discourse pervades the scene. Many discuss Seamus. Many more discuss WBY — he is admired only by academics, it is suggested: a pure academic preserve. Yeats’s status is among his people, the poets as well as the academics, but, is our greatest poet more lionized by the latter crowd? There is no definite answer to these questions tonight. Andrew McGowan of the Yeats Society of New York speaks of a twenty-year relationship with the festival. After offering libations, the majority drive off to get a night’s sleep. There’s an early lecture but a few ‘slootherers’ make for the taverns, ‘the romantic looking pubs’ someone says. No one wants to make it a late night. ‘Pace yourself: there are days ahead,’ is the mantra.

Noon: a day later and the town is not quite flooded with Yeatsians, identified by their round badges. Johnson’s Court across from the Gaiety Multiplex seems an unlikely venue for luncheon rolls but various groups are being led or following others. Talk easily rises to WBY: who else! You must know the canon, the early commentaries, not just Ellmann, Jeffares, Henn, Kathleen Raine, and so forth. America holds the royal road in exegesis along with China, Japan, you may as well say: the world.

After festival lectures by cognoscenti including Warwick Gould, Maureen Murphy, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Edna Longley, Meg Harper and Anne Margaret Daniel, everyone is equipped with their own theory. Here goes: there are really two schools of Yeatsian scholarship divided between those who see his magic, mysticism and especially the supernatural declarations in A Vision as central; and those opposed, who read Yeats as Modernist despite his Celtic Twilight, Celtic Dawn.

His occult-realist play Words Upon the Window Pane, fittingly staged, reveals Yeats learning from Dean Swift how to deal with the Irish. Lunchtime performances of The Cat and The Moon utilize Noh theatre: music, masks and a new input - gyres made of straw, perhaps hinting of Douglas Hyde’s Casadh an tSúgáin.

Poets fear Willie, but come to read. Divided between slots in the homely Yeats Building, its central bustling location has an extra measure of excitement: Dennis O’Driscoll and Julie O’Callaghan, Maurice Harmon and Leontia Flynn.

Visitors can become irate about the unpredictability of our weather: do not mention it. ‘You get all weathers, every day in Ireland’ someone moans running indoors to avoid a soaking. The Methodist Church dating from 1832 on Wine St is a more sequestered venue and presents gallant duos: Gerald Dawe with Bernard O’Donoghue, Eavan Boland and Claire Roche, while Sinéad Morrissey who is also in town to conduct a poetry workshop and with Moya Cannon make a fine double act. Michael Longley draws his own crowd to the austere and dare one say, poetical Methodist Church.

The Glasshouse is the Manhattan style location for the Joan McBreen twin book launch. This is an imbibing hotel that appears to get drunk along with you. The sharp angles of glass that outline the building are like a sloping ship, if not tilting over almost onto the bridge. Is this in homage to Grandfather Yeats, the Pollexfen who owned the Sligo Shipping Company? And, if you get back late from Lissadell and Drumcliffe, you have missed the speeches for Declan Foley’s familial launch of a book of Yeats's letters.

Yeats had an Irish Unification agenda, so it seems to an American student outside Lyons Café who reads from Purgatory about the Ascendency and Planters: ‘Great people lived and died in this house;/ Magistrates, colonels, members of Parliament…to kill a house/ Where great men grew up, married, died,/ I here declare a capital offence.’ ‘George Moore,’ someone interjects, ‘said the poet looked like an umbrella left at a picnic.’ The student regains the spotlight showing her book spine, ‘I can read from the Collected Plays of WB Yeats without an umbrella today!’

Kevin Kiely's recent works include Breakfast with Sylvia (Lagan Press, 2005) and 'A Mystical Element in the Pisan Cantos' in Ezra Pound, Lanaguage and Persona, edited by Massimo Bacigalupo and William Pratt, (University of Genoa Press, 2008). www.KevinKiely.com

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