The Two Types of Yeatsians

 

This is a piece I wrote for Penguin Plays Rough about a year and a half ago, performed in the State Library of NSW in a room that was 100% haunted by things.

 

I was inspired to look at the story again because last week was William Butler Yeats’s 149th birthday.

 

Happy birthday, Willie! Enjoy this story and please don’t sue, I have good intentions, I promise.

 

Image

(this is a photo owned by Penguin Plays Rough and is of me reading the story and also inhabiting a fashion phase called ‘swiss cheese sleeve’)

 

THE TWO TYPES OF YEATSIANS

 

Hello! Are you a Yeatsian? If you know what a Yeatsian is; if it makes your eyes perk up all soft and gooey, then you are a Yeatsian!

 

And if you frown a bit at this, roll the word around your mouth for a familiar taste, and, nope, you do not taste anything you know – then you are not a Yeatsian.

 

But the main way to work out if you’re a Yeatsian is – have you forked out 2100 bucks to fly to Sligo to attend a Yeats International Summer School, which is 2 weeks of YEATS YEATS YEATS ALL THE YEATS up in your throat?

 

Then you are definitely a Yeatsian. And you will meet other Yeatsians. And something odd and electric will happen when you first shake their pale sun-deprived hands – there’ll be what we call a “Yeats buzz’ – because 2 very unique obsessive souls will have clicked, in a way that is not opportunistic, but genuine.

 

And this is different from when you’re met Irishmen in bars, and they’ve quoted Yeats at you in the same way you might unenthusiastically plop out a rote-learnt verse of “I Love A Sunburnt Country” – the sort of men who’ve learnt that a random Yeats quotation to an obsessive Yeatsian is mysterious bra-loosening catnip, while Dorothea McKellar just makes you a little misty-eyed AT BEST.

 

No, this is different. You are connecting because you share one big weird obsession. You are all the type of people who highlight unattributed Yeats references in Sydney Morning Herald News Review articles and say things like “do they even REALISE they are unknowingly quoting HIM”, and so you will latch onto anyone who is like you.

 

You will join forces at Yeats Summer School, and you will attend lecture after lecture together on William Butler Yeats, and his family, and his homeland, and then all will be well and good, all ‘fairies and goblins and clover and prancing’ until something changes.

 

Two camps will suddenly form in this huddled mass of nerds – 2 types of Yeatsians.

 

There’s Type 1 – fans of the idealistic youthful Yeats. Type 1 fans love Willie’s early poems. The love for country, for rural life, for folklore and myth as the key to Ireland’s cultural identity. And most of all, Type 1 fans love his crippling lack of sexual confidence.

 

We LOVE this shit. A Nobel Laureate who can’t speak to a hottie without nervous-vomming down the front of his cravat? How approachable! How accessible! How come he never considered that the cravat might not be the pussy-magnet he always assumed it was? Never mind!

 

Young Yeats wrote poems about love and loss and longing that were the 1890s over-share equivalent of that girl on your facebook who’s always ‘liking’ articles about the empowerment of late-life virginity.

 

A great example of this over-share is Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans at Coole, where Yeats is literally bitching out a gaggle of swans for all the boning they’re getting up to while he sits alone on the shore, watching his dreams of an heir evaporate into the bright Coole sky.

 

So that is Yeats Camp 1. I am Yeats Camp 1.

 

Yeats Camp 2 are the VISION peeps. What is a Vision peep? To tell you the truth, I only sort of know.

 

If you’re an expert on this, then I’m really sorry, but I am about to talk about A Vision with the sort of blithe overconfidence that comes from knowing the low low odds of there being a Type 1 OR Type 2 Yeatsian who is blog-literate enough to be reading this. So, let’s go.

 

From the 1910s, Yeats had started dancing to a new groove. He had been hanging regularly with a Kabbalah expert called Madame Blatavsky, and he liked the shiz this woman had to say.

 

He’d found a new bunch of friends in an occult group called The Order of the Golden Dawn, friends who thought his cape/cravat combo was a COOL look and not a weird look, and together they hung out at nighttimes talking spirituality and babes.

 

Their kind of spirituality was based around a bunch of triangles and Stars of Davids doing a bunch of things that made these guys’ brain and souls and gonads go WHOA, and so this was well and good.

 

Because: Yeats wasn’t even that sexually frustrated anymore. He’d found a lady to take his flower – just a couple of times – and with that rose well-plucked, he was ready to – you know –

 

So while he continued to write love-sick poems to his unattainable muse Maud Gonne, these poems were more of the “LOOK WHAT YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON” ilk, and less of the “Please please please touch it” variety.

 

This left a lot of space in his mind to put sex-trauma in the bottom drawer, and instead work on his wider spiritual journey. Part of that journey entailed asking himself questions like:

 

  • How is life structured? Do we live and then die, or does something spookier happen?

 

  • Is life one straight line, or is a turning, wobbling gyre, a concept that I think means: does life look like one of those slinkys that go downstairs by themselves, connected to a whole bunch of other slinkies, all of them going downstairs at the same time, connected to different parts of their slinky torsos?

 

  • If the end of the world involves a rough beast, its hour come at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born – does he mean a massive tan-coloured hybrid of lion + elephant, a Day of Retribution Liophant – some sort of apocalyptic creature with emerald eyes and a long striped trunk – because that would be AMAZING amirite?

 

Yeats got to a stage of life where he was contemplating all of these big questions –

 

Would it have eyelashes, this beast?

 

Can you look it in the eye and survive?

 

How do I even pronounce ‘gyre’?

 

Yeats put all of these Qs and these As in a book called A Vision, to be forever cherished by the weirdo Type 2 Yeatsians out there.

 

And obviously, with questions like this taking over your waking and sleeping hours, there’s not a lot of room anymore for “where dips the rocky highland of Sleuth Wood in the lake, there lies a leafy island, where flapping herons wake the drowsy water rats”.

 

While that sort of poetry is pretty and dreamy and beautiful, it is quite easily trumped by “THINGS FALL APART. THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD. MERE ANARCHY IS LOOSED UPON THE WORLD”.

 

And this is what brings us to this story’s dilemma.

 

It’s the 1917 wedding night of WB Yeats and Georgie Hyde Lees. Maybe their first time alone together. They’ve only been dating for a month. They’re in their private marital chamber, and Georgie’s got her copy of “The Celtic Twilight” clutched to her bosom.

 

“You are Diarmid and I am Grania! Let me free your love harp like Cathleen ni Houlihan freed the hills of Erin! We can roleplay Deirde and Naoise if you like, but I am not cool with blackface!”

 

And eyes brimming with hope – erotic hope – she waits for Willie’s sexy, floaty, fairyland offer in return.

 

And what she gets is: TURNING AND TURNING IN THE WIDENING GYRE. THE FALCON CANNOT HEAR THE FALCONER.

 

Whaaaat? This might sound like a risky sex dare from Irish Cosmo, but it is nothing nearly as good as that.

 

This is not what Georgie wants. What happened to soft words, romance words? Why is the occult in her bridal chamber? Why have dudes gotta be so fucking complicated?

 

This is a test. This is about what Georgie can offer William, beyond his basic “human needs”, aka “rogering”.

 

Is Georgie his spiritual equal, or just a young girl who has been swept away into something bigger than she realised? And if so: what is she meant to do about it?

 

Think carefully Georgie. A lot rides on this. Think. Think.

 

And so she thinks. And she decides.

 

And she raises her eyes somewhere higher. Her mind and her body and her love are not enough for this union. Not enough to keep this old man and this young girl together, properly so, in the way that she wants.

 

A higher plane is needed, an avenue she had not considered open til now, until circumstance makes it essential.

 

So she picks up a pen.

 

She closes her eyes.

 

And says something like, “there’s a voice speaking through me, and I need to write it down. I’ve always had this gift. I’ve never told anyone before.”

 

And the poet’s eyes prick up, like a tipsy Yeatsian noticing another tipsy Yeatsian in a bar called Shoot the Crows around closing time, on the final night of Yeats Summer School.

 

“Do you really, Mrs Yeats?”

 

“She’s beyond the grave, and speaking to me. She wants to be heard. Shall I write down what she says?”

 

And she pours voices onto pages, for him.

 

Voices he connects to time and people before and after him, different narratives from different slinkies, knotted together on the great circular staircase of many, many lives.

 

And as she writes these findings, these dredgings, of past life, of the hope for new love, this is the vision we are left with.

 

For him, the life he wants.

 

For her, the concession she’ll make.

 

For the rest of us: a mystery.

 

Christmas with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

 

The thing about Would Jess Like It that you may have noticed by now is that there’s not a lot of rigour to my posting. Usually I update this blog when I’m between playwriting projects and looking for a creative outlet, because if I go for too long without writing I end up spending all day in bed watching Parks and Rec and crying solely at the happy bits.

 

Therefore, I save up little scraps of valuable and memorable past experiences for these exact moments, easy little starting points for a creative undertaking that will take me less than thirty minutes to do, and will then let me get back to important things like meal planning and dog analysis.

 

One such creative scrap I have saved up is my experience seeing the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Christmas time in 2013. But first, you need some context.

 

 

I was in San Francisco in December, and it was a little cold and lonely. I had just left some of my favourite people in the world behind in Singapore, and spent too little time with my childhood best friend in Los Angeles, only to find myself alone, without any of these people, in San Francisco.

 

I had also had my jacket stolen, because apparently people steal jackets. An ex-cop called Kevin tried to help me find it, and that was a fun story, but not the story I’m telling you today.

 

Lost in the pockets of my jacket were a significant heirloom beanie that had belonged to my grandmother, and a series of business cards that described me as “playwright and dog enthusiast”. It was a low day, indeed.

 

I was also staying in a hotel way too posh for my liking, with all the requisite clinical robotic interaction from staff that I’m not so good at dealing with. I like my customer service to be robust, flawed, and verging on TMI. I don’t want some smooth operator with straight hair, high heels and prowess with credit card swiping. It just doesn’t work for me.

 

The other thing about this hotel is that the walls were paper-thin and the rotating bevvy of neighbours during my stay were all there for one thing: 6am morning sex.

 

I don’t know if this is some niche San Francisco tourist bucket-list item, but these people were punctual, and they were loud. I would shiver in my coatless loneliness, turn up MTV to drown out their sounds, and try to work out my itinerary for the day.

 

One of my days in town had been earmarked for a hipster walking tour of San Francisco. This had been recommended to me by my sister Roz, who actually researches trips ahead of time, instead of waiting til she’s in a hotel room buffered on all sides by moaning Gen Xers. She told me about a tour called Wild SF Tours and I decided: why not give it a go.

 

I left my hotel in my new coat (thanks for trying, Kevin), made significant eye contact with the neighbours, also leaving their room for probably some gatorade and carb-loading, and joined the tour.

 

It was a great tour, but that’s also not the story I’m telling today, so go on the tour yourself and write your own blog about it. I’m mentioning the tour because the guy leading it walked us past the Castro Theatre and said “hey, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is playing a Christmas show tonight. It’s going to be amazing. You guys should go.”

 

I got chatting with a very nice and extremely well-travelled woman named Jennifer and we decided that as people with no one to hang out with on Christmas, we would go see the show together.

 

And WHAT. A. SHOW.

 

The first moment I realised how amazing it was going to be was when two men came to sit down at the end of my row with a big white fluffy scarf on their lap, except, WHAT?

 

gay men's choir dog

 

That’s not a big white fluffy scarf! That’s a motherfucking BICHON FRISE and that bichon frise is HERE FOR THE SHOW.

 

It’s important to note that this was a one-hour show. There were shows scheduled for 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm. So we knew we wouldn’t be in the theatre for long. But that owner of the bichon frise pretty much decided that this was some important shit to experience as a FAMILY.

 

We were at the 7pm show, which the choir master called “the hump show”. Imagine someone saying that to a whole room of gay men and their hags. The hoots were at a frequency that could shatter glass.

 

Anyway. The bichon loved the show, and I loved the show.

 

Highlights included:

 

  • The sassy conductor who would not even PAUSE between hilarious jokes, all of which I have forgotten, because of high-tenor excitement and glee.
  • The guest singer Marina Harris coming onstage and admitting she had never been to the Castro before. The choir-master responded, “of course you’ve been to the Castro before; you’re either a lesbian or a fag-hag. Normal straight women don’t have dresses like that.”
  • The moment where another guest singer, Matt Alber, spoke about his church background and childhood. He said, “my church kicked me out, but I moved to San Francisco and found a new one.” And the whole room erupted with whoops and cheers and cries of support and the waterworks were happening freer and faster than the episode of Parks and Rec where Lesley gets married.
  • The chorus sung a bunch of Russian harmonies for solidarity with LGBT people in Russia and it was incredible.
  • The whole show had sign language interpreting going on and it was ANIMATED.
  • There was one song where the guys all dressed like flowers.

 

gay mens choir 2n

 

  • And this advertisement was in the program.

 

gay men's choir

 

So, that’s my experience with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. For one hour, I felt like I was part of the warmest, most inclusive community possible. I don’t know much about Christmas traditions (I used to think that an official Christmas food was macaroni), but whatever sort of alchemy trailed through the air that night still lives on in my memory, my soul and my spine.

 

Would Jess Like the Gay Men’s Chorus? Oh yes.