On Mouthfeel and Memory

A young student confessed to me recently that she’d never known how to pronounce the name of the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats. For a long time she’d been afraid to ask.

Me too. Not knowing was a part of my life. A child back in 1960’s India, I found hundreds of English words that I didn’t know how to say. When Sister Therese Curran of Loreto Delhi put a poetry anthology into my hand and said, “Read this. He’s a great poet,” I didn’t dare ask, “How do you say his name?” Later, an aunt in the know laughed at my bumbling effort and cleared up the mystery of the elusive vowels that seemed to hang so tenuously onto that opening “y.”

But that poetry. Those words. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” sang to me. It made me want to read it out loud, even though I had little context for some of it. I had no idea, for example, that wattles were distant, utilitarian relatives of the often exquisite grass mats known as “pai” in my native Tamilnadu. I cried over “The Cap and Bells” in the way that the young can anticipate love and loss without having known either. The “round green eyes and the long wavering bodies / Of the dark leopards of the moon” mystified me. Years later, The Stolen Child was revived in my soul through Loreena McKennitt’s liquid melody.

Dublin_YeatsSo it felt like an odd kind of homecoming to visit the National Library of Ireland in Dublin and see the Yeats exhibition there, to view original manuscripts and first editions, to sit in small themed rooms and learn about how time and place affect a writer, and to listen to that singsong voice intone, “I will arise and go now…”

More on Yeats 2015 here, a yearlong celebration of the poet whose work was all about sound and speech. He wrote: “I have spent my life clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to the syntax that is for ear alone.” His words with their “mouthfeel,” worked their way into my young heart forty years ago and have lived there ever since.

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