If there’s a better poet than Yeats, I don’t know him. Some as good, maybe, but none better.
“But I’m a novelist, not a poet,” you say. All the more reason to study poetry. You use words, right? Poets use them with more concision, precision, and figurative beauty than any other human beings. Yeats also had plenty of ideas, concepts, and thematic depth that can inspire your thoughts and get your own words flowing.
#1: Be a Bard
Don’t talk, do. Don’t say you’ll write, write. Make yourself into a Bard—a famous purveyor and showman of words.
“Art is but a vision of reality,” said Yeats. By the power of sheer will, you can create yourself into what you want to be. The little lost lizard “Rango” did. (Terrific movie. More for adults than kids. Great script.) He declared himself to be a hero and, thereby, became one. He forced himself to live up to his own invention of a “self” he wanted to be.
Look at the many great rappers and DJs from the hood—guys who had two strikes against them from birth, thanks to their environment. They picked themselves up, created personas, and used words—their powerful rhymes—to turn themselves into Bards. Their vision of the reality around them became their art.
#2: Explore a belief system
If you’re lost in space, with no moorings, no belief system, then write about that. But it’s not much of a credible or admirable sort of life—chaos and anarchy. Though, admittedly, it may make for some good stories.
Let’s say you’re a Catholic. Flannery O’Conner wrote some brilliant stories incorporating Catholic theology. Maybe you’re Jewish. Have you ever read Bernard Malamud’s astounding brand of magic realism? His novels and stories are permeated with his Judaic faith.
Maybe you’re not religious at all. That could work for a writer, too. Yeats explored various traditions of esoteric his whole life: mysticism, folklore, spiritualism and finally symbolism.
He was a pretty disenchanted, skeptical guy, imagining a “rough beast…[that] slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
He was always seeking what he called “There,” with a capital T. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? “There” is some center, some ultimate spiritual reality that made sense, that held everything together. Where is your “There”?
#3: Use symbolism
Yeats’ first volume of poetry was “The Wind Among the Reeds.” Published in 1899, it ushered in the Modern era in poetry, characterized by a highly self-conscious use of symbolism.
Yeats believed that symbols have a mystical effect of evoking the Spiritus Mundi, the memory of Nature itself, that would allow many minds to flow together and create a single mind, a single energy.
He was a pretty heavy dude. Always exploring occult traditions; always seeking some unified explanation of the world and the soul. Symbols are his theosophy; he found belief in God through mystical insight.
What’s your heavy side? What deep, far out—forgive the 60’s slang, but no early 20th century writer was any closer to the hippie 60’s than Yeats—ideas do you have?
#4: Ponder life’s interpenetrating opposites
One of Yeats’ main symbols is the gyre:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That’s the first stanza of “The Second Coming,” one of the 5 best poems ever written. (I’ll share the other 4 with you some other time.)
Life is a journey up a spiral staircase: the trip is both repetitious and progressive. Gyres rotate, whirl into one another’s centers, merge and separate. They come in shapes of paradoxical mysteries: time and change; growth and identity; life and art; madness and wisdom. They go together. They’re interpenetrating opposites.
How can you practically apply this concept to your writing?
- Through conflicts. All consciousness is a conflict of opposites.
- Identify and set the opposites in your life—or in yourself—against one another. Show how they interpenetrate.
- Think Batman in “The Dark Knight” or “Spiderman” in his dark moments: characters conflicted by their superpowers and their humanity, their love and their hate, their social consciousness and their desire to say “screw everything.” Those opposites merge into one being.
#5: Do you “get it”?
All outward things take their character from being internalized. Have you ever stood under the stars, walked through a forest, or gazed at the moon and been in awe, feeling that sense of wonder and amazement at it all? And have you ever done so with someone who couldn’t care less and thought you were nuts for being so moved by the experience of gazing, of “getting it”?
That’s what the writer in you must do: Get it. Find “There.” Be a Bard with a belief system that you set to lyrics or characters and stories that resonate with symbolism through your exploration of the paradoxically interpenetrating opposites.
Got that? Get it and you’ll write a masterpiece.