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Filtering by Tag: Yeats

Founding Mythologies

Howard Schaap

Uniquely Minnesota A place isn’t a place until you tell stories about it, says Wallace Stegner in “The Sense of Place.” In fact, Stegner says, “[N]o place is a place until it has had a poet.” He has Yeats in mind, who claimed about Ireland that “there is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some event or legend.” Stegner goes on to worry about the American “mythless man” who “lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”

As an undergrad, I had the pleasure of visiting Yeats’ County Sligo. I can hardly imagine a more Romantic place for an aspiring writer to visit. Even the names of the places—Glencar, Thoor Ballylee, Coole Park—were bewitching. Reading “Under Ben Bulben” while looking up at Ben Bulben, I knew what kind of writing I wanted to do, and I knew what my Ben Bulben was: Blue Mounds.

The first piece of writing I ever published was about a regional landmark called Blue Mounds, a place where the rolling prairie swelled into a bluff and caught my imagination. Once caught, I followed the imaginative trail to local species, specifically big bluestem, the prairie grass that gave Blue Mounds its hue. From there, the path led to the novelist Fredrick Manfred, who lived and wrote on the mound, and then to history: I mistook the cliffs at Blue Mounds for a buffalo jump, which they were not, but that imaginative mistake landed me squarely in Native America and in myth.

Arguably, the founding myth of the place originates not from Blue Mounds but from just up the road at Pipestone, Minnesota, and the National Parks site that protects the red stone used to make the pipe sacred to tribal people. Among the founding legends of that place are these: White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the sacred pipe to the Lakota, an act of special revelation; the stone found at Pipestone is the blood of Lakota ancestors who perished in a great flood caused by the water monster, Unktehi.

If Yeats and Stegner are right—and I think they are—and literary art should be tethered to specific places and myths, then we writers in an American context have some work to do. Not only do we have to learn and understand the myths of the places where we live, but we also must handle them with care: the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman is not my story and I cannot appropriate it without doing continued violence to a people group who continues to be underrepresented.

But the call for writers to know our places remains, despite the dangers. Writers going back to at least Washington Irving, who imported European myths, have most often looked past the mythology of the American continent. Even Stegner notes how Americans have been “[p]lunging into a future through a landscape that had no history.” It does have a history—and a mythology—and it’s one we must get to know to do justice to the places we live.

Radical Correspondence

William Coleman


We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.

– William Butler Yeats

I was twenty when I learned what is essential about metaphors. The poet Albert Goldbarth asked his introductory class to open the bundle of photocopied poems he'd made, and directed us to a page that lay, purposefully out of time, between Wordsworth and Sappho. Upon it were twenty words by Gregory Orr:

Washing My Face

Last night's dreams disappear. They are like the sink draining: a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.

I well recall the pedestal sink and pipe that Goldbarth drew with chalk to ensure we saw the shape the poem made. And I remember the way he drew the shape within the shape: surface petals made of water draining into a moving column of its making. And surely then he must have noted the iteration of that shape within us, for it comes so readily to mind: atop a column, the wakeful brain, an outgrowth of a stem. Further and further, he led us into the poem even as he led us deeper into ourselves. We talked of the cleansing agency of dream life, of the ways water and dreams relate. Only the clock stopped us.

Though I did not know Emerson's work at the time, I was starting to see what that cheerful visionary said was "easily seen": metaphors "are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there," but essential offshoots of our nature. Man, he said, has been "placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him." He described this relationship as a "radical correspondence," root-level connections that allow the world and ourselves to feel "full of life."

Wakeful life is draining; it can come to feel empty. That is why I read, and why I write, and why I try to teach. It is twenty-four years since first I felt a ray arriving from Orr's transparent rose. Now I am the teacher with the bundle of poems, endeavoring to draw the water.

The 59th

William Coleman

27 swans

In the fall of 2000, as part of my work for a literary magazine in Boston, I visited William Meredith in the home he shared with his partner, Richard Harteis, in a wooded community near Uncasville, Connecticut.

Nearly two decades earlier, at sixty-four, Meredith had suffered a stroke that had immobilized him for two years. As he recovered, it was found that he had expressive aphasia, a condition that arrests the ability to render into words what one perceives or thinks. Until then, William Meredith had made his living as a teacher and as a writer. He was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1978 to 1980.

Before we went inside, Richard showed me the view from their back yard. He said that he and William had been working on writing haiku. One image at a time, he said.

When I finally met Mr. Meredith, he was still in his bathrobe, eating cereal. I was early. He told me so. Then he told me to sit down.

There at the kitchen table, I asked my questions—veiled versions of "How should I live? How should I write?"

With each one, he watched me acutely, and then disappeared as he grappled toward utterance. "A good man," I remember him telling me over the course of half a minute, "is a useful man."

The first poem of his I ever read was called "Poem." My teacher, Albert Goldbarth, had handed copies of it around the workshop table one evening, and read it aloud to us.

The immaculate, stately phrasing of the first stanza immediately compelled me. I knew at once that those words were committed to my memory:


The swans on the river, a great flotilla in the afternoon sun in October again.

In a fantasy, Yeats saw himself appear to Maud Gonne as a swan, his plumage fanning his desire.

One October at Coole Park he counted fifty-nine wild swans. He flushed them into a legend.

Lover by lover is how he said they flew, but one of them must have been without a mate. Why did he not observe that?

We talk about Zeus and Leda and Yeats as if they were real people, we identify constellations as if they were drawn on the night.

Cygnus and Castor & Pollux are only ways of looking at scatterings of starry matter,

a god putting on swan-flesh to enter a mortal girl is only a way of looking at love-trouble.

The violence and calm of these big fowl! When I am not with you I am always the fifty-ninth.

In the years to come, I would see the justice of the poem's title, how the work gathers much of what is essential to his work as a whole: public speech about private matter, arising from kinship and deep reverence clarified by strict observance.

Daniel Tobin, in an essay in the Yeats/Eliot Journal in the summer of 1993, notes that for Yeats, "Man was nothing... until he was wedded to an image…Still, it took him many years of arduous labor…to realize fully personal utterance in his poetry."

Yeats was fifty-two when he imagined in Coole Park that he was wedded to a lone swan that would, with all the rest, one day fly from him, to build life on another's waters.

The desolation of his imagining that his imagination would one day disappear is of the kind Tobias Wolff describes for Mary in his short story "In The Garden of the North American Martyrs," when she finds that the words for her thoughts "grew faint as time went on; without quite disappearing, they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away."

Yeats died in 1939. Meredith wrote his poem in 1980.

Before Richard turned to open the glass door of the kitchen, he followed where my gaze had long since alighted. He lamented the power plant that had been built on the far banks. But the power plant was not visible to me. For there, on the river, were the swans.