See notes below for background and allusions.

Olivia:
Daughter, shall we sit and grieve together,
And tie our two bêtes noires up with a tether?
You had Ezra Pound and I had Yeats:
Two poets now enshrined among the greats.
God knows it was no picnic. We both fell
For men who put us through an earthly hell.

Dorothy:
How strange to be so similarly paired!
Two women and two poets who all shared
The world of letters, loves, and lilting lines;
Salons of artists, playwrights, gilt-edged spines
Of small-press volumes of exotic verse;
Musicians, ballet scores—and what was worse—
A life caught up in endless witty chatter.

Olivia:
I know. The bons mots and aesthetic patter
Grew to be too much. Will’s Holy Grails
Were séances, old castles, mythic tales
About romantic Ireland’s faery-elves,
When I just longed for us to be ourselves.

Dorothy:
My Ezra was like that, except that he
Got caught up in the tangles of theory:
The abstruse workings of financial credit,
Taxes, usura, banks—poor Ezra said it
Mattered profoundly, though I barely grasped
A tenth of what he talked about. I gasped
In pure frustration at his wild digressions…

Olivia:
No one could beat my Yeats at mad obsessions.
The Celtic Twilight was a favorite theme,
Madame Blavatsky, and the gnostic dream
Of plumbing the hermetic depths for light.

Dorothy:
As long as your man loved you, that’s alright.

Olivia:
You know how much I cherished William Yeats.
Our link was strong, as though forged by the Fates.
He was still but a callow boy at heart:
I taught him how a man should love—the art
Of pleasuring a woman to the tips
Of toes and fingers, nipples, ears, and lips.
Each rendezvous began not with a kiss
Designed to set the stage for carnal bliss;
His foreplay was recitals from a page…

Dorothy:
Mother, please—that puts me in a rage.
Loving a poet is a sucker’s game:
With Ezra it was pretty much the same.
His lust was not so much for me, but for
The lines he’d get from that damned Muse, his whore,
And she was what he saw and kissed and stroked
While bedding me. A torment to be yoked
To one whose manhood does not rise for you
But for some Ideal Woman in the blue!

Olivia:
At least Pound married you. But I was chained
To a dull husband whom I would have brained
Except for bourgeois cowardice and fear.
You were all I had with him, my dear.
Unlike me, you were blessed with a son—
Yeats left me for that half-crazed slut, Maud Gonne.

Dorothy:
Yes, Ezra gave me Omar. That is true.
But did I have less pain, at length, than you?
He preferred that fiddler, Olga Rudge,
And had another child with her. Begrudge
His roving eye? No—men are born to roam.
They’re never satisfied with love at home.

Olivia:
Yeats forsook me for a moneyed brat
Who played with sex and politics—a cat
Coupling in alleyways and mazy nooks,
Inveigling men with coy, come-hither looks.

Dorothy:
What else is new? Your Yeats was just a child,
Unworldly, unsophisticated, mild—
A sheep as far as women were concerned.
No wonder you were dumped and he was burned.
Yes, Gonne was one damned narcissistic bitch
But that’s the way the world works. She was rich,
She had great looks, and she could charm a clock
Right off the wall, and lichen off a rock.

Olivia:
We had such joy together, me and Will!
Our flesh would mesh like cogwheels, and the thrill
Of intercourse was better every time.
No shame, remorse, or consciousness of crime…

Dorothy:
The crimes came later. Who could ever guess
How all our hopes and dreams would deliquesce
To unimagined outcomes, unforeseen?
As if a sumptuous feast were made unclean
By Harpies swooping down upon a table
And leaving it as muck-smeared as a stable.

Olivia:
All life is like that. Was the fatal thread
Not spun for Achilleus in the bed
Laid for his parents once their wedding feast
Was marred by Discord’s apple? Who released
That horror on the Greeks and Priam’s city?
Forces beyond our ken, and without pity.

Dorothy:
Oh please, mum—no mythology. I had
Enough of that with Ezra. Life turns bad.
That’s all we learn in our short space on earth
In that small march of years that starts with birth.

Olivia:
I have one consolation. When poor Will
In old age wanted heirs, I filled the bill:
I introduced Hyde-Lees to him. They married!
You can’t say that my matchmaking miscarried.

Dorothy:
Yes, my best friend Georgie. What a coup!
He was past fifty. Hyde-Lees said “He’ll do.”
Surely you felt some envy, did you not,
To see your quondam lover tie the knot
With a girl close to my age? That’s a whack
To cause a jilted girlfriend’s heart to crack.

Olivia:
Oh, I was past caring at that point.
And frankly, it was pleasant to anoint
Someone to be his wife when he had just
Been turned down by Maud Gonne again—he must
Have been insane to keeping on asking her.
What a noodle Yeats was—we all were!
You know he then asked Iseult, Gonne’s young daughter,
Thirty years his junior? P’rhaps he thought her
A substitute for what he could not woo.
She laughed at him, and I felt I could do
A favor for him with your friend Hyde-Lees.
In desperation he went on his knees
And got a wife at last, and settled down.

Dorothy:
Good God, this poet really was a clown!
But Ezra was no different. His insane
Investments sent our money down the drain.
Those broadcasts during wartime—what’s the use
Of saying they were pointless and obtuse?
And after all my wifely loyalty
Through years at St. Elizabeth’s, once free,
He left me for that ever-present menace:
Olga—to live his last days out in Venice.

Olivia:
I know. It was disgraceful. But all’s past.
The texture of our lives is spun, at last.
We chose to love two poets, and that choice
Perhaps was foolish, but we helped them voice
Those lines that, when all’s said and done, persist
Through human folly, and its murky mist…
Lines that are etched forever, and that light
A bypath through the all-surrounding night.

 

Notes

Olivia Tucker Shakespear (1863-1938): a married woman who became William Butler Yeats’s mistress in 1895, only to be forsaken by him a year later when he became infatuated with Maud Gonne.

Dorothy Shakespear Pound (1886-1973): daughter of the above and wife of the poet Ezra Pound.

Maud Gonne MacBride (1866-1953): Irish nationalist agitator, and an heiress of great beauty. She had a number of torrid affairs, one of which produced her illegitimate daughter Iseult Gonne.

Omar Pound (1926-2010): only child of Dorothy and Ezra Pound. He was raised by his grandmother Olivia Shakespear. Ezra Pound was probably not Omar’s biological father, but poetic license allows me to manipulate the facts somewhat.

Iseult Gonne (1894-1954): child of Maud Gonne and her French lover Lucien Millevoye. Late in his life Yeats proposed marriage to her, after having been turned down repeatedly by her mother Maud.

Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968): wife of William Butler Yeats, and a close friend of Dorothy Shakespear.

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891): Russian occultist who founded the Theosophical Society.

Olga Rudge (1895-1996): concert violinist who became Pound’s mistress in 1923. She had one child (a daughter) by the poet.

Celtic Twilight: another name for the Irish literary revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Financial credit, usura: two elements of Pound’s obsessive economic theorizing in the 1920s and 30s.

Harpies: filthy mythological birds that befoul food and tables.

Achilleus: great warrior of the Trojan War, whose parents were married at the same feast where the Apple of Discord was left, and which set in motion the events leading to that war.

Priam’s city: Troy, destroyed after a sanguinary war of ten years’ duration.

St. Elizabeth’s: the mental hospital where Pound was incarcerated from 1946 to 1958.

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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13 Responses

  1. J. Simon Harris

    This is a really great dialogue! The meter and rhyme flow so well that the speech seems natural, so that it is punctuated rather than dictated by your technique. There are so many great turns of phrase that it is hard to pick out just a few. The ending is a good example: it is as if their conversation might go on, but the point has been made. Perfect place to stop.

    I knew a little of the backstory, but not in great detail, so it was also interesting to learn about the lives of those two poets from the perspective of their forsaken lovers. So interesting, as well, that their name was “Shakespear”. Do you know if there’s any relation to the bard?

    Anyway, thanks for this! Well done.

    Reply
  2. Jenni Wyn Hyatt

    Superbly written and so interesting. Held my attention throughout.

    Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    A discourse on one marvelous psychological entanglement of decisions by poets which no doubt influenced their works.
    Dr. Salemi, you must be proud to have discerned and written this.

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    Joseph,

    Even coming from a writer known for his brilliancies, this was absolutely brilliant. It read like a script from a great play, with all the dialogue completely natural, yet pushing forward the narrative. I found it riveting, and was astounded by the amount of research it must have taken to seal the verisimilitude of every nuance. I will go to bed happy tonight.

    Reply
  5. James A. Tweedie

    What they said! Unlike Mr. Harris, however, I will cast a vote for this couplet:

    She had great looks, and she could charm a clock
    Right off the wall, and lichen off a rock.

    It is rare, indeed, to read a poem that inspires, instructs and edifies all at the same time. Whatever amount of time you invested in creating this masterful slice of ars poetica, it was time well spent! Thank you, Mt. Salemi.

    Reply
  6. David Watt

    I found myself wondering how long it took you to create this scholarly, informative, and undoubtedly poetic dialogue. Brilliant work Dr. Salemi!

    Reply
  7. Leo Yankevich

    Only now have I sobered up after a weekend of debauchery and debt. Forgive me for being remiss in commenting: this is witty and brilliant. Only you could have written it. Masterful, entertaining writing.

    Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thanks to all for the many kind comments. To answer Mr. Watt, it took me about a week to write this poem, but I had pondered the relationships of the various persons involved for many years in the past, wondering if a worthwhile poem could be done concerning them all. The end notes were necessary, I think, since so much of this material is now rapidly becoming ancient history.

    Reply
  9. Leo Yankevich

    Well, I’ve re-read this many more times. It’s one of the greatest long poems ever written. A poetaster like “Sammie” Gwynn could never write something this grand.

    I hate footnotes, though. As my great English high-school teacher, Joseph Aiello, a Siciliano, told me once, in chastisement, don’t assume your reader is an idiot.

    Any serious poet must go to school, know every poem of every great poet, and also know with whom they slept, lost or won.

    Reply
  10. Leo Yankevich

    “A poetaster like “Sammie” Gwynn could never write something this grand.”

    should be:

    “A poetaster like “Sammie” Gwynn could never write anything this grand.”

    I am only a poor boy from Western Pennsylvania. That’s the way we talk, Scots-Irish influenced.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I’ve got a bit o’ the Scots-Irish in me right now, and “Sammie” Gwynn don’t stand no chance i’ this fray. Likely, he’s pullin’ up his drawers to hide his substantial deficits.

      Reply

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