Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A mass of shadows

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W.B. Yeats

For a long time now, I’ve maintained a collection of typographical errors that found their way into finished poems. My favorite example has always been W.H. Auden’s “Journey to Iceland,” in which a printer’s error transformed the line “The poets have names for the sea” into “The ports have names for the sea.” As Auden later wrote to his friend Christopher Isherwood: “However, as so often before, the mistake seems better than the original idea, so I’ll leave it.” I’ve written about this incident at length elsewhere, because it’s such a memorable illustration of how an artist incorporates chance into the creative process. Recently, though, I realized that my account of the story is incomplete. There are actually three different versions of the line that were published in Auden’s lifetime: “And the ports have names for the sea,” “Every port has its name for the sea,” “And each port has a name for the sea.” What this means, crucially, is that Auden saw the misprint and liked the effect, but he didn’t stop there—he used it as an excuse to keep revising until he had a version that satisfied him, or at least that he didn’t feel like rewriting further. An accident can be a source of inspiration, but the true artist takes it as a starting point, rather than as an end in itself.

I got to thinking about this more deeply thanks to another misprint, which occurred in W.B. Yeats’s famous “Among School Children.” In describing the face of the woman he loves, which he sees as if superimposed on the young girl before him, he writes:

Her present image floats into the mind—
Did quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

In the original draft, Yeats wrote “a mass of shadows,” which evidently became “a mess of shadows” in the galley proofs. (It’s also worth noting that “a mass of shadows” persists in a few editions.) Yeats must have seen instinctively that mess was more interesting than mass: by evoking the image of the mess of pottage for which Esau sold his birthright, it ushers in a new train of associations that enrich the poem as a whole. The trivial exchange of one vowel for another is like the flap of the butterfly’s wing that leads to a metaphorical hurricane.

"Journey to Iceland" by W.H. Auden

In an essay in The Practice of Poetry, the poet Robin Behm uses this line to shed light on the act of revision, which she describes as a kind of assignment that the poet gives to himself to uncover the underlying idea. Behm writes:

Sometimes it feels you must be two writers: the one who originates the text and the one who discovers it into its achieved version…When Yeats, in “Among School Children,” exchanges the word mass for mess in his famous image of Maud Gonne’s aging face…the total imagination of the poem is affected, not just the local moment. Mess is the palimpsest word written over the erasure of mass; mass was Yeats’s way of getting to rewrite: it was his assignment.

Which gets at something important, I think, about why randomness—even in so humble a form as a typo—can be so rewarding. In theory, the poet in charge of every word on the page, but complete freedom has a way of freezing into helplessness: when you’re overwhelmed by possibilities, you become paralyzed. In many cases, the best way to force yourself into action is to give yourself an arbitrary assignment, as if you were conducting a private seminar for a class of one.

And a mistake goes one step further. A typographical error is like an assignment that you’ve received from the poem itself, or, if you want to get grandiose about it, from the universe. It’s often in the places where the poet surrenders control—only to reclaim it, as Auden does when he takes the accident as the catalyst for a rewrite—that the poem assumes its true, unimaginable shape. One of the themes of “Among School Children” is how little a mother or a teacher can foresee of what their children will become. That’s true of poetry, too. Writing is a form of parenthood that constantly confronts us with our limitations, but it’s only when the work resists and surprises us that it can emerge from its mass of shadows into its final version. Poems are just another form of what Yeats calls the “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.” And as he unforgettably concludes:

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?

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2016 at 9:28 am

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