Selected for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Hellman Visiting Artist Jane Hirshfield
John Singer Sargent Portrait of William Butler Yeats, 1908
For the final of this year-long series of poems that touch on aging, memory, and the gathering-up of a life as it enters its final turnings, I can think of no poem more richly apt than “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” by W.B. Yeats (1865–1939).
Ralph Waldo Emerson described a poem as “not meter, but a meter-making argument.” Yeats himself said that an argument with others is merely rhetoric: a poem is an argument the poet is having with himself. The central argument of this poem is not, as it first may appear, about inspiration’s diminishment in age, or writer’s block. It is an artist’s—and art’s—own self-questioning: Does a life given over to imagination’s workings feel, in the end, one that has been worthy? “Players and painted stage took all my love,/ And not those things that they were emblems of”—the admission is not dishonest. Yet this poem, a wrestling with rhyme and memory, with history and this moment’s clear-seeing, proves its own statement false. Yeats’s final, much-quoted lines return us to a realm in which art’s aspirations and the unembellished, unbeautied world (“the rag and bone shop of the heart”) are recognized for what they truly are: inseparable. However difficult, at times impossible, the heart-mysteries’ unfolding, the task of expansion and expression is not vain.
I thank the Memory and Aging Center and Hellman family’s generosity for the privilege of having been the Hellman Artist in Residence this past year. Read more