Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.
Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.
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.
-- W.B. Yeats
There have been many attempts to define poetry, some about as successful as trying to nail a blob of mercury to the wall. The ones that work best suggest its physical effects: A. E. Houseman said his test was whether the words made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Even better is Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” W. B. Yeats’ poem “High Talk” makes me feel the same way.
Yeats is my favourite English-language poet of the 20th century. His writing embodies rich contradictions, which are apparent in this poem: it is classical in form (“High Talk” is an Italian sonnet with an AABB rhyme scheme maintained throughout), but modern in appreciation of the paradoxes and confusions that come with being human, and writing poetry in a time that does not prize poetry much.
Look at how this poem puts on its own stilts at the end of the eighth line. Up to there, it’s an appealing bit of cultural nostalgia, from the days when stilts alone could captivate people, and if you wanted a pair, you made your own. It is rhythmically brilliant -- try reading it out loud, and note how it strides along to a long-legged beat. But from the first line of the final six, we're in different territory. The poet informs us that all preceding words are “metaphor,” making us ask for what?
Suddenly the top of our head takes off, because we realize what Yeats is mirroring: the power of imagination, of creation. Whether we are Dr. Frankenstein, nuclear scientists or creative writers, we can never totally control what we invent. The Beatles couldn't predict that Chartles Manson would interpret the surreal lyrics of "Helter Skelter" as a call to racial violence and therefore a rationale for the murders his followers would commit. Everything, in the spirit of entropy, eventually runs wild. In this lack of control, the apprehension of the limits of our ability to know the future, to be not just smart but wise, we sense the source of our current ecological and climate crises. Humans are brilliant at finding short-term solutions to problems (DDT really did kill a lot of pests, including bedbugs), not so good at apprehending their long-term effects: how a series of different approaches and technologies might combine to affect, for example, the hormones that determine sexual differentiation in infants.
Yet in this head-opening shock of limits, or failure, there is still beauty. We just have to look out or up to see the barnacle goose, the dawn breaking, the sea-horses baring their teeth. This compensates for the fact that all we can do is to keep stalking on, laughing at our own pretension and artifices. "The terrible novelty of light" is a phrase worth, if not killing for, at least committing a felony in return for its authorship.
At once rueful and celebratory, plain-spoken and elegant, this is a poem that has it all going on. It’s personal, but successfully bridges from Yeats’ own Irish culture and experience to the universal. We have all seen our creations -- be they children, policies, poems or machines -- run wild. We know that, as a mortal species, we will eventually have no control over how the future uses or abuses what we make now. High Talk is human talk: this is who we are.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace