- Yeats’s Radiogenic Poetry: Oral Traditions and Auditory Publics1
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On 10 April 1932, William Butler Yeats took to the airwaves with a BBC radio program titled “Poems about Women.” This performance, one of nine poetry broadcasts he prepared for the BBC between 1931 and 1937, began with the poet’s description of his readings on previous American tours.2 At those lectures, Yeats maintained, listeners insisted on love poems, a demand to which he responded by self-protectively asserting his right to privacy: “I will not read you any poem of mine which any of you can by any possible chance think an expression of my personal feelings, and certainly I will not read you my love poems” (Collected Works: Later Articles and Reviews 234).3 If the love lyric appeared an inappropriate choice for the lecture hall and its seemingly intrusive public, Yeats envisioned a very different audience for his performance in the broadcasting booth; for his onair listeners he would expose the personal:
I remembered that I would not be reading to a crowd; you would all be listening singly or in twos and threes; above all that I myself would be alone, speaking to something that looks like a visiting card on a pole; that after all it would be no worse than publishing love poems in a book.(CW 234) [End Page 227]
No longer relegated to silent reading, the love lyric thus becomes a spoken genre in the broadcasting booth—although one privatized by the “visiting card” that invites listeners to attend to the writer “singly” or in micro-communities of “twos and threes.”4 As a radio broadcaster, Yeats moved beyond oppositional binaries that pit solitary reading against mass listening and conceived instead an intimate auditory audience for literature in an age of mass media.
He was not alone in responding to media change by re-imagining audiences. In the first half of the twentieth-century, radio created a distinctively new, yet also familiar, space for the promotion, dissemination, and reception of literature. Todd Avery argues, “radio’s existence brought into being a new kind of audience, the listener, whose emergence coincided with the moment of modernism’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s” (8). Widely dispersed across the globe, this new audience included Irish listeners who tuned in to the BBC, Radio Luxembourg, and Radio Éireann.5 BBC listeners and contributors lived on both sides of the Irish Sea and approached the broadcast medium with a diverse set of apprehensions and desires that the nascent field of “radio modernism” had begun to explore.6 Building on Ronald Schuchard and Colton Johnson’s analyses of Yeats’s broadcast career, I argue that radio played a pivotal role as a medium through which Yeats performed, publicized, and published poetry at the end of his life; moreover, I suggest that his interpretation of this new entity, the broadcast audience, was an active influence in shaping the auditory poetics of his late lyrics.
In the course of six years of broadcasting, Yeats not only read poems [End Page 228] that he had previously published in print form, but he also wrote five lyrics that were originally presented to the public on air: “For Anne Gregory,” “Roger Casement,” “Come on to the Hills of the Mourne,” “Sweet Dancer,” and “The Curse of Cromwell.”7 Focusing on two exemplary radio poems, “Sweet Dancer” and “The Curse of Cromwell,” this study reconnects Yeats’s late lyrics to their original intended audience: the radio listener. Both poems share a common radio context and a thematic focus on audience; however, they come to markedly different conclusions about the modern artist’s ability to reach changing publics—as the optimism of “Sweet Dancer” gives way to despondency in “The Curse of Cromwell.” Whether the tone is hopeful or forlorn, it is through the act of addressing listeners on air that the poet not only redefined his publication strategies, but also reshaped the very substance of his poetry, blending oral traditions and print lyricism into radiogenic hybrid forms.
“Never open a book of verses again”: Yeats’s Oral Imperative
The dialectic between orality and...