Dear Mr. Yeats,
I have been writing these letters for a little while now. I’m enjoying it. I am enjoying re-reading works that have meaning for me, but which I perhaps haven’t looked at in a long time. There is a certain sort of magic that has filtered into this process – words are springing up where I might not have noticed them before, both in my reading and my writing. I start some weeks not knowing who I will write to, but the subjects keep revealing themselves, as though they – you – have a plan of your own.
It has been a while since we have had a good sit-down together, and I had such a rush of nostalgia, reading you. I knew I loved you, but I didn’t realize how much I knew by heart, how deeply rooted your words are not just in my memory, but in my core. I’ve known many of your poems since childhood, when I poured over as many anthologies of Irish children’s literature as were given to me (many) and delighted in swirling under the roots of some old tree into Fairyland. There was a dark layer to your poems, a sadness that crept in, and this fascinated me.
You were a believer in magic. Your early poetry is romantic, twilit, rooted in the mythology of Ireland that I used to read about, and in a way I suppose you always wanted Ireland to be seen and remembered for its beauty, for its poetry. There are many stereotypes about Ireland which people happily embrace, at least in my experience in the Western world. But people who really know Ireland in a visceral way know that is is divided – North and South, Catholic and Protestant, mythical and political. So much of Irish writing is burdened with this division. You knew this, you felt it. You later work reflects on this dissonance more deeply and, I think, you were able to fuse these separate worlds.
Your ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one of my most beloved poems. You described it thus: “I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill…” It is the ultimate dream of stillness and solitude, and escape. It is a perfect poem. My parents have it framed in their house. It is, in many ways, their mission statement.
All of my life I have sought out such solitude. I am the oldest of four kids, and I spent my childhood carving out spaces – in closets, under stairs, under beds. When I was ten I built a platform in a tree in the woods where I could go to read and write. I am still this way. After living alone for four years, the culture shock of a house with three boys often challenges me and I seek escape for an afternoon, or a night, or a week. It is healthy for all of us that I do this. I am lucky to have a partner who understands the value of solitude, and who is glad for me when I seek it.
I learned this from my parents. My mother is Irish, born in Co. Armagh and my father’s father was born in Bray, Co. Wickalow, and settled in Toronto in the 1950’s. My parents met teaching in British Columbia; what was supposed to be a two year adventure for Mum, but, as they say, they ‘met their fate’ in each other, married and made four brats. They have been married almost thirty-five years, and for almost as long I have watched them seeking solitude. Dad is a poet and has always had a cabin in the woods (or a shed in the driveway) where he goes to write for an afternoon, a day, a week. Mum has made it home to Ireland most years since she left, often on her own. There was never any question that it was ok for both of them to do this. For as long as I can remember they have been creating space for each other so that each could grow, create, find stillness. They have also been planning to spend as much time in Ireland as possible, once the kids grew up. They have finally arrived. All four of us have left home, they are mostly retired, and as I write to you today they are touring Co. Sligo, your stomping grounds. Mum arranged a wonderful surprise for Dad: the rental of a cabin on Lough Gill, facing – yes – the Lake Isle of Innisfree. He was kind of giddy over it. He loves you even more than I do.
They have travelled around, they visited your grave, they have felt the poetry sweeping through the landscape. There has been much Irish poetry since yours, and I think many would agree that the purest origins of it come from you. You can hear your influence in poets since you – T.S Eliot, who refers to you in ‘Little Gidding’, Seamus Heaney, who writes in his introduction to your Selected Poems, ‘Yeats manages to create a heroic role for the poet in the modern world.’ Speaking of magic, the moment I sat down in a coffee shop to write to you, ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ by my favourite Irish band, The Pogues, came on – fairly obscure for Starbucks – and even their lyrics rang of your rhythm and influence.
Even the modern American band Fleet Foxes reference Innisfree in ‘Bedouin Dress’ (although they pronounce it wrong!). You, my friend, have built a mythology all of your own. Innisfree itself is now a part of this mythology, and in many ways it is a symbol of returning. My parents, my mother especially, have been called to return to Ireland again and again, and they always will. They are forever called towards their own ‘heart’s core’.
I love my parents in many of the same ways that all children of good parents love, but as an adult, as an artist, I love their commitment to their individual journeys. I love watching them journey together. I am so proud of them – with four kids and jobs and their hearts sometimes in different countries, they have continued to grow together. That is all you can hope for, I think. That is as much as you can ask for in a partner.
Thank you for your magic, and your Isle,