Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

‘Yeats’s handwriting resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram,’ writes the late Daniel Albright in his preamble to the marvellous Everyman Library edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems, which he edited.

Albright gives a similarly forthright account of the poet’s spelling and punctuation, excerpted below. While acknowledging his debt to Richard Finneran, who oversaw a different collection of Yeats’s poems, Albright parts company from him in two ways:

First, he is more respectful of Yeats’s punctuation than I. He supposes […] that Yeats’s punctuation was rhetorical rather than grammatical, an imaginative attempt to notate breath-pauses, stresses, and so forth; and that the bizarre punctuation in some of Yeats’s later poems is due to the influence of experimental modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Laura Riding. I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

W. B. Yeats - The Poems - Everyman LibraryYeats had several ‘punctuational quirks’, Albright notes, including the fact that he seldom used hyphens. This tendency inevitably led to occasional ambiguity, such as when a tree is described as a ‘great rooted blossomer’. Albright’s evidence, which includes Yeats’s use elsewhere of the phrase ‘Great bladdered Emer’, points to the need for a hyphen in this case. I agree with his conclusion, but it’s not beyond all doubt.

Albright again:

An inattentive, half-blind, possibly dyslexic poet must rely on his editors, and in fact Yeats was often happy to do so. Yeats had a strong sense of decorum and propriety; he wanted his poems to look finished, indeed burnished, but he could not fulfil this wish without aid.

In order therefore to punctuate the poet’s text, Albright concludes, ‘one must first try to divine the purpose that punctuation must serve’.

This then is the task of editors: we must become mind-readers in a small, indirect way, fine-tuning the thoughts that lie behind their often imperfect expression, the better to bring a writer’s authentic voice to the light.

9 Responses to Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

  1. Harry Lake says:

    …and the same applies to translators…
    Fascinating stuff.
    Harry (translator)

  2. Chips Mackinolty says:

    @ Harry Lake, indeed for translators!

    I am having some English of mine translated into Sicilian via Italian … not a perfect solution … but it will work for the three of us involved.

    My Sicilian translator is fabulously resolute in championing the Palermitano branch of the dialect. In a recent email he described Catanian approaches to gender change between singular and plural as “delusional”. Not just wrong, but delusional! You have to love people and language! I am learning more about my crappy Italian through dealing with a dialect than I thought possible.

  3. cynthiamvoss says:

    I agree about the value of a good editor. It’s someone who knows what you’re trying to say and helps get your text to reflect that.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    Harry, Chips: Very true – there are strong parallels with translation. It’s no accident that editors often refer to ‘translating’ something from one variety of English to another, particularly if the source text is a sublanguage opaque to general readers, such as one with a lot of technical jargon. Coincidentally the book I’m reading today is about translation, but maybe I’ll save that for a future post.

    Cynthia: Yes, exactly. Joseph M. Williams spoke about how we’re our own worst editors because ‘when we read our own stuff, all we’re doing is reminding ourselves of what we wanted it to mean when we wrote it’. Editors are trained to locate that intended meaning when it doesn’t manifest clearly in the pre-edited text.

  5. erikleo says:

    I just picked up a collected poems of Yeats and realise I’ve read a few in the past but wondered if you could advise me on the essential ones to start with! Hope this isn’t too presumptuous! (I’m in the NE of England.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Erik. It’s not presumptuous at all, but I don’t know if my suggestions will be at all useful, since poetry is such a subjective thing. You might already know the following, but they’re among his best known and loved poems: ‘When You Are Old’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, ‘Sailing To Byzantium’, and ‘Easter, 1916’. Enjoy!

  6. erikleo says:

    Thanks Stan. I look forward to reading these.

  7. I have one Yeats poem on my shelf, and given that “I write my work so completely for the ear“, it’s probably just as well that the anthology I have it in came with a cassette tape.

    The particulars: It’s Broken Dreams, and appears on pages 33-34 of An Introduction to Irish Poetry. I’m sure it’s neither his best nor his worst work.

    I have some thoughts on the subject of poetry in general that I’d like to share sometime, but not tonight. Needs an un-tired brain.

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