Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Meagerly Yeatsian"

The adjective "Yeatsian" incessantly nips at Van Morrison's heels. Where the blame lies is not so much Morrison's verses and choruses, but persistent talking points. For every verse he committed to exploring themes even casually associated with mysticism, he devoted three interviews to prattling on about the creative, otherworldly impulses behind such lyrics.

Critics, biographers, and fans have seemingly identified instances of mysticism in just about every deep fold and shallow crevice in the Morrison catalogue. W.B. Yeats and the singer/songwriter are frequently and enthusiastically cited as two peas in an ethereal pod. The opening of Steve Turner's book Too Late to Stop Now features a full-page photograph of Morrison sitting pensively among sunset-colored drop cloths and lagoon-colored drop cloths, complete with a Yeats quote for the caption: "Above all, it is necessary that the lyric poet's life be known, that we should understand that his poetry is no rootless flower but the speech of a man."

The reality is Morrison's indebtedness to Yeats is overblown at best, disingenuous at worst. "Marginally Yeatsian" is a more promising description or "meagerly Yeatsian" or even "Yeatsian to such a tiny degree it's hardly worth discussing with friends over pints or with strangers at bus stops." Morrison's writing style is beholden to no single influence other than his own quote/unquote cleverness. It's why the task of penning lyrics often finds him guilty of committing the most unconscionable artistic sins. From biographer Johnny Rogan: "Meaningless repetition, poorly thought-out imagery, cloying sentimentality, cosmic buffoonery, faux and gratuitous literary name-dropping, heavy-handed symbolism or decorative words employed purely for their poetic association are all there in embarrassing abundance."

Morrison's true intersections with Yeats: his "Before the World Was Made" appeared on 1997's Now and in Time to Be: A Musical Celebration of the Works Of W.B. Yeats; also, his intent was to record a musical adaptation of the poem "Crazy Jane on God" for 1985's A Sense of Wonder, but he was denied permission by Yeats' executors, which prompted a sullen Morrison to respond, "I thought I was doing them a favor—my songs are better than Yeats."

Nonetheless, despite spending several hundred words poking holes in any Morrison-Yeats parallels, there are three Yeats lines that have long reminded me of Morrison and his Belfast home:

"Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn / Come clear of the nets of wrong and right"

"But I, being poor, have only my dreams / I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams"

"I had this thought a while ago / 'My darling cannot understand / What I have done, or what would do / In this blind, bitter land"

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