Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Mary Kenny and the Celebration of W.B. Yeats

Mary Kenny sat before the bank of spotlights on a small raised stage in the corner of the seminar room at the National Library of Ireland. She was beside Sophie Gorman, who was there to introduce her, to prompt or question her if needs be, but in fact sat silent, as her guest, who was launching Summer’s Wreath, delivered a flawless elegy on William Butler Yeats.

Summer’s Wreath is a two-week festival about Ireland’s poet, elegiac in nature, a little bit mournful over the problem of what more there is to say and who shall say it. Well, the National Library has solved that with a series of talks and readings that go on until the end of next week and started, last Tuesday, with Mary Kenny.

‘Yeats,’ she said, ‘is the writer who has stayed with me all my life.’ Joyce? Beckett? Cold fish. And she would also give away Orwell, Chesterton, Graham Greene, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. But not dear Willie; he is the father of modern Irish literature much more than Joyce, she claimed, and the one she loves best.

Mary has taken recently to wearing huge blue spectacles, dramatically emphasising her eyes. The rather sharp spotlights into which she stared made her blink, like an owl. She has that bird’s same round face. She is a very pretty owl and she dresses more like a bird of paradise, coloured scarf casually round her neck and when she went out, at the end, walking with an elegant, Edwardian-looking stick, she added a big floppy straw hat. Mary chooses her clothes with such aplomb and wears them with panache.

She read several poems and talked about Yeats’s advice to writers. ‘Put pictures in your prose’ he suggested. ‘Prune, prune and prune again,’ he told the multitude of poets who have followed him. And she mentioned how Conor Cruise O’Brien had emphasised how everything Yeats did was done to service his poetry. This is writing pared to the essential, sometimes cutting a swathe through human life, as both Anne, Yeat’s daughter, and Michael, his son, often explained about him. As his wife, George, would have said, had she lived in more modern times. Poor woman, she was solitary, deserted by her husband, mourning her loss of him.

He is the father of modern Irish literature. Among other things he creates a cathedral-like space with words and makes it echo with the magic of the sound of his poetry. And yet that cathedral is small enough to fit into the hearts and minds of all who read him. The words echo, but the space is filled. This is his gift and Mary Kenny conveyed it very well.

She told us also about herself. She said how she was given away when she was seven. Her mother’s sister, who was married but had no children of her own, came to visit and gazed at the four Kenny siblings. ‘How nice it would be to have a child,’ she said. ‘Take one of mine,’ said Mary’s sister, waving her hand towards the seven-year old. ‘Take Mary.’ ‘It was all right,’ said Mary. ‘You know, fostering was an ancient habit with the Irish.’

This was a rich beginning to the fortnight’s celebration. The seminar room was full of people and they asked questions at the end. Mary Kenny was followed the next day by Fiona Shaw, the actress, reading Yeats. Then there was Alan Gilsenan, the film-maker and director. And yesterday it was Barry McGovern’s turn to read from the poet.
Summer’s Wreath resumes on Monday with another actor, Don Wycherley, two writers, myself and John Banville, Alan Stanford and Patrick Bergin.

There was a one-day ‘Immersion Course’ in Yeats directed by Gerard Dineen, last Thursday, with poets discussing him at an evening event. Today, at eleven o’clock, as one of the Children’s Events, Aideen McBride will tell stories drawn in part from Yeats’s dreams. She does the dreams in English and Irish. And this will be followed at noon by a special tour of the National Library’s Yeats Exhibition for children aged four to seven, accompanied by their parents.

The exhibition is a wonderful experience, designed to draw people in. It includes a ‘trail guide’ to help slightly older children, seven and above, with their families, to absorb the rich and complex details of Yeates’s life and his writing. It can be done all at one go, which means between an hour and an hour and a half. Or it can be revisited and dealt with in sections.

It is called ‘My Yeats’. This is what Mary Kenny gave us, as did, or will, the other lunchtime speakers. Whether or not Yeats is ‘warm’ as Mary suggests, there is about him an intimacy that makes him real and close to his readers. The National Library has recognised this – as it did with its James Joyce exhibition – and the impact is very special. The same was done some years ago, when Jonathan Swift – not the easiest of writers to get close to – was given a new dimension by the emphasis on Swift’s childhood and youth. It is as if the National Library is taking careful note of something that Mary Kenny said about the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, which she has attended and where she found a tendency for his life and work to be enveloped by too much academic attention and too little human understanding.

All writers fear this, if they are any good at all. Joyce was acutely aware of the hoards of men and women out of universities who would descend, like vultures or crows, upon the texts and tear them to pieces in search of new and unusual meanings. Yeats had the same fear. His son, Michael, used to joke about the absurdities that were conjured out of the chickens that were kept in their garden when they lived in Churchtown, myths ripped from the poor fowls’ feathers or extracted from the claws that scratched in the dust.

The dust is just dust and the feathers are just feathers. But the words are immortal, the rhythms magical. They embody what we all are, as great poetry does. Understanding Yeats and laying Summer’s Wreaths in our hearts would be a duty were it not a pleasure.