December Poem of the Month: “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” by W.B. Yeats

Selected for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Hellman Visiting Artist Jane Hirshfield

John Singer Sargent Portrait of William Butler Yeats, 1908

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

November Poems of the Month

Selected for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Hellman Visiting Artist Jane Hirshfield

Margaret Gibson

Margaret Gibson

The three November poems of the month come from an extraordinary forthcoming book, The Broken Cup, by Margaret Gibson. The poems were written in response to what Gibson has called “traveling The Way of Alzheimer’s” with her poet-husband David McKain. After David’s initial, tentative diagnosis in 2007, Gibson wrote no poems for two years; but then, as she has described it, poetry returned, and writing became for her a kind of grounding lightning rod that allowed both moving forward and transformation. “Poetry,” Gibson writes, “is an animate form—it breathes, it discovers and restores voice. A poem is another way of being present.” The poems below, and the full book they are drawn from (to be published by Louisiana State University Press in fall 2014), bring a breathtaking eloquence to the witnessed, lived through, resilient, and necessary intertwining of full presence and love.

Margaret Gibson is the author of a memoir and ten books of poems, most recently One Body and Second Nature. Her numerous honors include awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her husband David McKain is the author of three books of poems and a memoir. Both taught for many years in the English Department of University of Connecticut. Read more

October Poems of the Month

Selected for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Hellman Visiting Artist Jane Hirshfield

Yannis Ritsos

Yannis Ritsos

The poetry of Yannis Ritsos (1909–1990) is strongly marked by the era he lived in. During the Nazi occupation of Greece and subsequent civil war, he fought with the communist guerillas. In 1948, he was imprisoned for four years, and in 1967, again for his leftist views, he was jailed, sent into exile, and forbidden publication for five years during the rule of the military junta; he also suffered from tuberculosis from the age of sixteen. Much of Ritsos’s early poetry was explicitly political, and he was one of an early group of major 20th century Greek poets who took up writing in the demotic, spoken language, rather than formal, literary Greek. In the search for a freer and more supple rendering of experience into words, he also turned in the 1930s to the imaginative strategies of surrealism. By the end of his life, Ritsos’s commitment to the dignity of ordinary people had merged with an aesthetic of transforming images into a poetry of what feels an almost simple and implausibly direct seeing. He saw what was outside his window as not separate from what was inside his own experience and heart, and wrote with tenderness and compassion for—and of—all who share a human fate.

The two poems given here come from late in a life equally prolific in action, observation, and writing.
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