A Colder Eye: Yeats, Radiohead, and the Economies of Late Style

(x-posted to The Valve)

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Stolen Child”

Now that Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows, has come to take its place alongside the rest of their canon, it is being compared to all the albums that preceded it. For many of my friends, who were in high school or college when OK Computer and Kid A appeared, the comparisons are grudging but basically unfavorable. The new album lacks the peculiar, engaging science fictions of the earlier albums; archetypal characters like the “Tourist” and the “lucky” man, and recognizable technologies like the airbag, were the only familiar faces in a strange country of fake plastic trees, karma police, and especially androids. The showcase “Paranoid Android” on OK Computer turned into the pseudo-concept of Kid A. He is an android-like character who is actually unnecessary to most of the songs on Kid A, but who nonetheless helped to create a feeling of continuity between the two albums, even as Kid A wandered off into icier, more despairing electronic territory.

For my part, rather than trying to suss out which albums beat out which others — an evaluation that tends to borrow heavily from the personal circumstances surrounding each purchase — I want to compare how Radiohead has evolved with how W. B. Yeats altered his style over time. When Yeats began writing, he wanted to create modern poetry steeped in Celtic myth. In part, he hoped to revitalize the heritage of Ireland; in part, the forlorn romanticism and uncanniness of those images corresponded to his own vision, which in “Coole and Ballylee, 1931” he called “traditional sanctity and loveliness.” Running through Yeats’s early writing, as in “The Stolen Child,” is the strange complement of a homely, rustic existence, and sudden glimpses into an esoteric other world of pleasure, threat, and love. The image of the weaver unites with the dance; the faery frolic is simultaneously the anxious dream of a troubled, exhausted world.

Yeats never repudiated these early works; the work that time performed on his style was much subtler. He became more involved in the practical labors associated with all of his idealistic hopes for a new Celtic poetics: he took on Irish politics, he investigated the supernatural and wrote mystical books, and he wrote a series of plays that could bring Celtic myth to life on the stage. Meanwhile, poem by poem, the Celtic mythos was taking its place alongside a host of other references, including Greek and Roman texts. The imagery of silver, and gold, and the dance, and the loom, and so on had not disappeared. Rather, they had become the touchstone’s of Yeats’s sensibility, imaginative structures through which he could accomplish life-writing, a term that encompasses autobiography and memoir, but also the vast and freer literature of self-reflection which, among other things, describes the lyrics of most modern pop music.

For example, in “Among School Children,” Yeats begins like this:

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
the children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

Which leads here:

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

Labor is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

(Apologies for the long quote — it’s hard to capture the sense otherwise.) Over the course of the poem, the aging Yeats thinks of his agony and the waste of time upon him, and reflects with sadness on the hope placed in children who nonetheless are destined also to fade. The ghostly presence of the Celtic “otherworld,” to which the child is stolen away in the earlier poem, is here the vision of pleasure without bruise, beauty without despair, understanding without toil, which is impossible.

The last few lines of the poem are often quoted, in part because they imply Presences and processes more real than persons: there is no dancer, only the process of the dance. The different times of a life are woven together like the parts of a tree, and so are the different stages of human life, juxtaposed in the classroom as Yeats moves among the children. But Yeats does phrase his ending as a question, rather than a statement, and gently suggests that the particular sorrows and peregrinations of his life do body him forth as himself. The poem moves dialectically between communal experience, including music, and individual experience, the body that sways but also loses its bloom.

The children resemble the young Yeats. They, like him, are the inheritors of poetry and history, to fashion as they will. They learn to sing, as he does in his poetry, and to cipher, as he did through his writings on mysticism. And, together with this, they are too clean — they cut and sew, weaving this, excluding that, in the ironically “modern way” that forms them into a mass. As Yeats aged, his references became messier, incorporating elements from many more traditions. His style began to vary even within single poems, as it does here, gliding between the old enchanted lyricism and a new sort of straightforward exposition. The style lacks neatness.

Returning to Radiohead, compare this:

Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge

With this:

You were not to blame for
Bittersweet distractors
Dare not speak his name
Did I cater to you
All your needs?

Neither quote reads correctly without the wailing sound of Thom Yorke’s voice, and the ominous backing from the band, but as foundations for the music, they are strikingly different. “Karma Police” is famously impressionistic. We have a sense that the man he describes here is a nervous, boorish square, and at the same time that Yorke is complicit in the poison of the scene because he is so irritable. But it’s just a sense, vaguely augmented by the paranoid invention of “karma police.” In the second song, Yorke’s singing to an unfaithful lover with a mixture of bitterness and resignation. The masochism of the relationship and the unhappy shallowness of it all are as vivid as initials carved with a knife.

Nothing can detract from OK Computer. The robotic dystopia that Radiohead created with their early albums is still fascinating. But it was also bound to devolve, like the commodity it was, into kitsch. The sad bears that Radiohead used as a brand, like the invented boy Kid A, became branded self-pity without a referent. The band Grandaddy took Radiohead so literally that they produced a whole album, The Sophtware Slump, that (in its unbearable preciousness) laid bare the roots of some of Radiohead’s imagery in 80s junk like D.A.R.R.Y.L. Like Yeats, who in “Sailing To Byzantium” compared himself to “a tattered coat upon a stick,” Radiohead has moved away from the uncanny multitude of their early sci-fi epics, to its complement, the searing, personal awareness of an absence.

You paint yourself white
And fill up with noise
But there’ll be something missing