Inspired by Yeats: contemporary poets weigh in

William Butler Yeats, age 38_December 1903_portrait by Alice Broughton

William Butler Yeats, age 38_December 1903_portrait by Alice Broughton

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Hound Voice
Because we love bare hills and stunted trees
And were the last to choose the settled ground,
Its boredom of the desk or of the spade, because
So many years companioned by a hound,
Our voices carry; and though slumber-bound,
Some few half wake and half renew their choice,
Give tongue, proclaim their hidden name: ‘Hound Voice.’
The women that I picked spoke sweet and low
And yet gave tongue. ‘Hound Voices’ were they all.
We picked each other from afar and knew
What hour of terror comes to test the soul,
And in that terror’s name obeyed the call,
And understood, what none have understood,
Those images that waken in the blood.
Some day we shall get up before the dawn
And find our ancient hounds before the door,
And wide awake know that the hunt is on;
Stumbling upon the blood-dark track once more,
Then stumbling to the kill beside the shore;
Then cleaning out and bandaging of wounds,
And chants of victory amid the encircling hounds.
. . .
Margaret Atwood (born 1939)
Because We Love Bare Hills and Stunted Trees
Because we love bare hills and stunted trees
we head north when we can,
past taiga, tundra, rocky shoreline, ice.
Where does it come from, this sparse taste
of ours? How long
did we roam this hardscape, learning by heart
all that we used to know:
turn skin fur side in,
partner with wolves, eat fat, hate waste,
carve spirit, respect the snow,
build and guard flame?
Everything once had a soul,
even this clam, this pebble.
Each had a secret name.
Everything listened.
Everything was real,
but didn’t always love you.
You needed to take care.
We long to go back there,
or so we like to feel
when it’s not too cold.
We long to pay that much attention.
But we’ve lost the knack;
also there’s other music.
All we hear in the wind’s plainsong
is the wind.
. . .

William Butler Yeats
Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath.
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?


A tree there is that from its topmost bough
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew;
And half is half and yet is all the scene;
And half and half consume what they renew,
And he that Attis’ image hangs between
That staring fury and the blind lush leaf
May know not what he knows, but knows not grief.


Get all the gold and silver that you can,
Satisfy ambition, animate
The trivial days and ram them with the sun,
And yet upon these maxims meditate:
All women dote upon an idle man
Although their children need a rich estate;
No man has ever lived that had enough
Of children’s gratitude or woman’s love.
No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.


My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.
Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.


A rivery field spread out below,
An odour of the new-mown hay
In his nostrils, the great lord of Chou
Cried, casting off the mountain snow,
‘Let all things pass away.’
Wheels by milk-white asses drawn
Where Babylon or Nineveh
Rose; some conquer drew rein
And cried to battle-weary men,
‘Let all things pass away.’
From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
‘Let all things pass away.’


The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?


Must we part, Von Hugel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh’s mummy. I – though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb – play a pre-destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.
. . .

Harry Clifton (born 1952)
Chez Jeanette

My fiftieth year had come and gone.
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop…
– W.B. Yeats
And so do I, past fifty now,
In the gilt and mirror-glass
Of Chez Jeanette’s immigrant bar.
Wine, cassis, an overflow
Spilt on the table – marble
Like Yeats’ but more of a mess.
Behind the bottles on the shelf
A real, a transcendental self
Is hiding. Great Master,
Tell me, as you sat with your cup,
And grace came down like interruption,
Did these flakes of ceiling plaster
Also drown in your dregs?
The fallen angels, broken spirits
Told like tea-leaves, disinherited,
Sold into Egypt? Child-wives, pregnant,
Hide the future, keep it dark.
Splinter-groups of young Turks
Stand at the counter, arguing.
And the saucers of small change
Accumulate. The minutes, the hours,
If grace or visitation
Ever enter . . . A prostitute,
Bottom of the range,
Her hangdog client, middle-aged,
Go next door, to the short-time hotel.
In the hour that God alone sees,
We are all anonymities,
No-one finds us, we cannot be paged
In Dante’s Heaven, Swedenborg’s Hell
Or the visions of William Yeats.
And whether the hour is early or late
Or out of time, I do not know.
But for now, it comes down to this –
The marble top, the wine, cassis,
And the finite afterglow.

. . .
William Butler Yeats
The Folly of Being Comforted
One that is ever kind said yesterday:
“Your well-belovéd’s hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.”
Heart cries, “No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild Summer was in her gaze.”
Heart! O heart! if she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

. . .

Rita Ann Higgins (born 1955)
The Bottom Lash
One that is ever kind said yesterday:
My dearest dear,
your temples are starting to resemble
the contents of our ash bucket
on a wet day.
What’s with your eyelashes?
They grow more sparse by the tic tock.
Are you biting them off
or having them bitten off,
like the lovers do during intimacy
in the Trobriand islands?
You have no bottom lashes at all.
Personally, I wouldn’t be seen out
without my bottom lash.
A bare bottom lash is tantamount
to social annihilation.
A word to the wise, my dearest dear,
the next time you lamp the hedger
you might ask him to clip clop
your inner and outer nostril hairs.
It’s not a good look for a woman.
By the by, doteling,
I’ve noticed the veins on your neck
are bulging like billio
when a male of the species
walks into the room.
Is that a natural phenomenon
or is it a practised technique?
Up or down you’ll get no accolades for it,
nor for the black pillows
under your balding eyes.
Apart from that, my dearest dear,
your beauty is second to none.
. . .

The above poems by Atwood, Clifton and Higgins, first appeared in The Irish Times (September 2015).

For other poems by W.B. Yeats (including translations into Spanish) click on the link:

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Thomas Moore: “A Canadian Boat Song”

Irish songbook_published in 1892 in the USA, with an engraving of Thomas Moore on the cover

Irish songbook_published in 1892 in the USA, with an engraving of Thomas Moore on the cover


Thomas Moore (Irish poet, singer, songwriter, born Dublin, 1779-1853)

A Canadian Boat Song” (1804)

Faintly as tolls the evening chime
Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time.
Soon as the woods on shore look dim,
We’ll sing at St. Anne’s* our parting hymn.
Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast,
The Rapids are near and the daylight’s past!
Why should we yet our sail unfurl?
There is not a breath the blue wave to curl;
But, when the wind blows off the shore,
Oh! sweetly we’ll rest our weary oar.
Blow, breezes, blow, the stream runs fast,
The Rapids are near and the daylight’s past!
Utawa’s* tide! this trembling moon
Shall see us float over thy surges soon.
Saint of this green isle*! hear our prayers,
Oh, grant us cool heavens and favouring airs.
Blow, breezes, blow, the stream runs fast,
The Rapids are near and the daylight’s past!

.     .     .

Thomas Moore, who would later be renowned for poems and songs such as “The Minstrel Boy”, “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms”, visited Canada when he was 25 years old. He wrote “A Canadian Boat Song” during his time here in 1804.


*St. Anne’s:   Moore visited this church – Ste-Anne-du-Bout-de-l’îlelocated in the town of Ste. Anne de Bellevue, on the tip of Montreal Island where the St. Lawrence River joins the Ottawa River.

*Utawa:   an 18th/early 19th-century spelling of Ottawa

*“this green isle”:  Montreal Island (L’île de Montréal )

The Lachine Rapids, near Montreal Island_early 20th century postcard_These are The Rapids that Thomas Moore wrote about in his A Canadian Boat Song.

The Lachine Rapids, near Montreal Island_early 20th century postcard_These are The Rapids that Thomas Moore wrote about in his A Canadian Boat Song.

.     .     .

Zocalo Poets Editor’s Note:

My mother Eileen is a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, though her family emigrated to Canada more than sixty years ago. Ma is in her eighties now, and she most definitely lives in the “here and now”. Yet she has powerful memories of those early years in the new country. She tells me: “I learned A Canadian Boat Song in the early 1950s, after coming to Canada. It was a camp song for the Eaton’s Girls’ Club up at Shadow Lake near Uxbridge. …I also have a memory from back in Ireland: the sound of a marching flute band going by. As children, we simply followed the band, and whistled and sang, as they marched along. They were playing “The Minstrel Boy” by Thomas Moore – and all of it on flutes!”


For more favourite poems of my mother, click on the following ZP link:


Montreal celebrated its 191st St.Patrick's Day Parade on Sunday, March 16th, 2014.

Montreal celebrated its 191st St.Patrick’s Day Parade on Sunday, March 16th, 2014.

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Poems for Saint Patrick’s Day: favourites of “me Ma”

ZP_Eileen Thompson in 1948, not long after her arrival in Toronto from Belfast, Northern Ireland

ZP_Eileen Thompson in 1948, not long after her arrival in Toronto from Belfast, Northern Ireland_Now in her 80s she is an avid reader – still – and she has chosen the two poems we feature here.

Donal Og” / “Young Donald”

(from an old Irish Gaelic ballad, probably composed in the 10th century)

Translation by Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932)


It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

ZP_Irish labourer_a photograph from around 1850

ZP_Irish labourer_a photograph from around 1850


Eavan Boland (born 1944, Dublin)



In the worst hour of the worst season

of the worst year of a whole people

a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.

He was walking – they were both walking – north.


She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.

He lifted her and put her on his back.

He walked like that west and west and north.

Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.


In the morning they were both found dead.

Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.

But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.


Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:


Their death together in the winter of 1847.

Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.

.     .     .     .     .

ZP_The Jubilant Man, a sculpture by Rowan Gillespie at Ireland Park in Toronto_The Irish Potato Famine, known as An Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger, occurred between 1845 and 1852.  30,000 forced-out or fleeing Irish arrived in Toronto during 1847 alone - their numbers being greater than the actual population of Toronto at the time.

ZP_The Jubilant Man, a sculpture by Rowan Gillespie at Ireland Park in Toronto_The Irish Potato Famine, known as An Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger, occurred between 1845 and 1852. 30,000 forced-out or fleeing Irish arrived in Toronto during 1847 alone – their numbers being greater than the actual population of Toronto at the time.

Poems for Saint Patrick’s Day: Jenkinson, Davitt, Ó Searcaigh, Ní Dhomhnaill

ZP_An Irish language book cover from 1929

ZP_An Irish language book cover from 1929

Biddy Jenkinson (born 1949)

Cruit Dhubhrois”


Bruith do laidhre im théada ceoil

ag corraíl fós, a chruitire,

clingeadh nóna ar crith go fóill

im chéis is an oíche ag ceiliúradh.


Oíche thláith, gan siolla aeir,

a ghabhann chuici sinechrith

mo shreangán nó go dtéann falsaer

grá mar rithí ceoil faoin mbith,


Go gcroitheann criogar a thiompán,

go gcnagann cosa briosca míl,

go sioscann fionnadh liath leamhain,

go bpleancann damhán téada a lín.


Is tá mo chroí mar fhuaimnitheoir

do chuisleoirí na cruinne cé

ón uair gur dhein mé fairsing ann

don raidhse tuilteach againn féin.


Nuair a leagann damhán géag

go bog ar théada rite a líne

léimeann mo théada féin chun ceoil

á ngléasadh féin dod láimhseáil chruinn.


.     .     .


The Harp of Dubhros”


Harper, hot your fingers still

stirring me on every string,

look, the night has climbed the hill

yet your noon-day strummings ring.


Balmy night bereft of air

slowly take the murmur-strain!

All that is, was ever there,

fugued to fullness and love’s reign.


Until the cricket’s drumming rasp,

and insect leg of silver gut,

grey moth-fur emits a gasp,

on music’s web the spider-strut!


A sounding box within my chest

for busy buskers everywhere,

for every decibel compressed

recurring in the brightening air.


When the spider tests his weave

sweetly on each glistening line:

all my harp-strings leap and heave

– knowing that the tuning’s fine.



Translation from Irish © Gabriel Rosenstock


.     .     .


Michael Davitt (1950 – 2005)

An Sceimhlitheoir”


Tá na coiscéimeanna tar éis filleadh arís.

B’fhada a gcosa gan lúth gan



Seo trasna mo bhrollaigh iad

is ní féidir liom



stadann tamall is amharcann siar

thar a ngualainn is deargann



Táimid i gcúlsráid dhorcha gan lampa

is cloisim an té ar leis



is nuair a dhírím air féachaint cé atá ann

níl éinne



ach a choiscéimeanna

ar comhchéim le mo



.     .     .


The Terrorist”


The footsteps have returned again.

The feet for so long still

and silent.


Here they go across my breast

and I cannot



they stop for a while, glance

over the shoulder, light

a cigarette.


We are in an unlit backstreet

and I can hear who

they belong to


and when I focus to make him out

I see there is

no one


but his footsteps

keeping step with my





Translation from Irish: Michael Davitt / Philip Casey


.     .     .


Cathal Ó Searcaigh (born 1956)

I gCeann Mo Thrí Bliana A Bhí Mé”

(do Anraí Mac Giolla Chomhaill)


Sin clábar! Clábar cáidheach,

a chuilcigh,” a dúirt m’athair go bagrach

agus mé ag slupairt go súgach

i ndíobhóg os cionn an bhóthair.

Amach leat as do chuid clábair

sula ndéanfar tú a chonáil!”


Ach choinnigh mé ag spágáil agus ag splaiseáil

agus ag scairtigh le lúcháir:

Clábar! Clábar! Seo mo chuid clábair!”

Cé nár chiallaigh an focal faic i mo mheabhair

go dtí gur mhothaigh mé i mo bhuataisí glugar

agus trí gach uile líbín de mo cheirteacha

creathanna fuachta na tuisceana.


A chlábar na cinniúna, bháigh tú mo chnámha.


.     .     .


When I was three”

(for Anraí Mac Giolla Chomhaill)


That’s muck! Filthy muck, you little scamp,”

my father was so severe in speech

while I was messing happily

in my mud-trench by the road.

Out with you from that muck

before you freeze to death!”


But I continued shuffling, having fun,

all the time screaming with delight:

Muck! Muck! It’s my own muck!”

But the word was nothing in my innocence

until I felt the squelch of wellies

and, through the dripping of wet clothes,

the shivering knowledge of water.


Ah! Muck of destiny, you drenched my bones!



Translation from Irish © Thomas Mc Carthy

ZP_The Half-Witted Cowboy_ book cover for an Irish language novel from 1960

ZP_The Half-Witted Cowboy_ book cover for an Irish language novel from 1960

.     .     .

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (born 1952)

Ceist na Teangan”


Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh

i mbáidín teangan

faoi mar a leagfá naíonán

i gcliabhán

a bheadh fite fuaite

de dhuilleoga feileastraim

is bitiúman agus pic

bheith cuimilte lena thóin


ansan é a leagadh síos

i measc na ngiolcach

is coigeal na mban sí

le taobh na habhann,

féachaint n’fheadaraís

cá dtabharfaidh an struth é,

féachaint, dála Mhaoise,

an bhfóirfidh iníon Fháiróinn?


.     .     .


The Language Issue”


I place my hope on the water

in this little boat

of the language, the way a body might put

an infant


in a bucket of intertwined

iris leaves,

its underside proofed

with bituman and pitch.


then set the whole thing down amidst

the sedge

and bulrushes by the edge

of a river


only to have it borne hither and thither,

not knowing where it might end up;

in the lap, perhaps,

of some Pharaoh’s daughter.



Translation from Irish © Paul Muldoon

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