On an Encounter with William Butler Yeats

This blog post is a brief response to Avies Platt’s memoir “A Lazarus Beside Me” which was printed in the London Review of Books.  It’s a charming narrative of a younger woman meeting the elder statesman of letters, but something in the telling rings false to me.  Not dishonest per se, but insincere.  That is, I don’t quibble with the facts.  I take issue with the telling of the story–the words on the page–the insincerity of expression.  Although the writer seems to be telling an honest story, she’s not because the writing isn’t honest.

Here are two examples of what I mean.  Platt writes:

“I admired him in parts, his skill, his knowledge in his own field, and for the rest I liked him and disliked him by turns. There were times, indeed, and these I fear were the most, when I disliked him very heartily.”

OK, now what is she saying here?  What are readers supposed to feel or imagine with these words?  Another instance, she writes:

Because something was happening, happening to me. What, I did not know, but the result was I could no longer concentrate. It was something even more urgent than my intensely excited condition. Then I was conscious that it was in the room and it emanated, or so it seemed, from behind me, and my instinct was to get up and turn round and look. But manners forbade. At last, however, I could bear it no longer. I turned as I sat. And then I saw.

The chairs behind me were still only taken here and there, but two rows back stood the most striking-looking man I had ever seen: tall, somewhat gaunt, aristocratic, very dignified: a strong, yet sensitive face, crowned by untidy locks of white hair: horn-rimmed glasses, through which shone strange, otherworldly eyes. He wore evening dress, with a soft shirt. He leaned slightly forward, resting both hands on the chair in front of him, and on the little finger of his left hand was a large, exotic-looking ring. How long I looked I do not know, but I know that I saw all this, and that all the time he just stood motionless and gazed. And although those eyes seemed unseeing, I knew they had met mine.

I turned again, feeling as though I had committed a crime. Yet, I asked myself, was it my fault? What had happened? Who was this amazing creature? A magician, who had willed me to turn? I was acutely conscious now that he still stood and still gazed. Then I became aware that he had moved forward and had sat down, the row behind me, a little to my left.

This is simply bad writing–melodramatic, naive, and shoddily novelistic.  Platt reports facts and feelings, but are they really here?  What do readers feel?  Skepticism?  Cynicism perhaps?  These words sound a bit too pathetic.

And would she have been interested in talking with the “white-haired man” if he had not been Yeats?  The story-telling feels too breezily star-struck and her dwelling on “MM” is annoying, not because of the contrast of his character with Yeats’s presence in the story, but because Platt comes across like a schoolgirl who lacks the worldly wisdom of Crazy Jane.

Platt mentions that she reached out with her story to Yeats biographers Joseph Hone and Richard Ellmann.  I really can’t fathom their response other than how I responded to it.  I found the narrative to be charming, sensational, and naive.  There also seems to be something insincere about it–perhaps her initial response to Yeats as an attractive older man.  Or her asking Yeats to speak with “MM” in person about the rejuvenating effects of the Steinach operation.

The story is hardly told dispassionately and yet therein is the draw.  I mean, those of us who love Yeats continue reading Platt’s memoir because we would love to sit hours on end with the great poet, listening to his thoughts on “art and life,” not to mention sex.

Indeed, what would it feel like to sit with Yeats in a car parked in front of the Athenaeum Club until the wee hours of the morning?  Surely, the fact that Platt was an attractive, intelligent girl with aspirations to be an artist (she went to art school like Yeats did) had something to do with it.  And the fact that Yeats mentioned his Steinach operation as a kind of sexual invitation.  Not such an innocent encounter then.  Also bothersome is that her story doesn’t mention even in hindsight Mrs. W.B. Yeats.

But it’s true that Yeats believed the Steinach operation had brought him back from the dead.  His renewed sexual potency influenced his life and work.  Perhaps we can reflect on such things as he did–

Why should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

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One thought on “On an Encounter with William Butler Yeats

  1. I must say I wondered when I read the LRB piece if it was a hoax. And there’s something very peculiar about the photo of Avies Platt, in which her head is as big as her torso. But as far as I can work out, she’s a real person and this encounter did happen. You’re right about the melodramatic quality of the writing. The end, with is summing up of their conversation as “a mystical torrent of words” is particularly overwrought.

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