Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Naturism | Poetry | A Coat

"Everybody knows that the naked man and woman are just a shining artefact of the past."
- Leonard Cohen

We’re going to begin today’s discussion of ‘naturism’ and poetry with this famous short poem by W. B. Yeats:

A Coat

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

It is often tempting with poetry to pinpoint a single word or phrase as being the ‘lynchpin’ of the poem; the idea upon which every other word is leaning. One instinctively points at that word ‘naked’ in Yeats’ poem as being the keystone, for it is the final word, being leant on heavily by the half-rhyme of ‘take it’, and it is the word with the widest obvious semantic field.

Nudity in writing is often seen as a symbol of honesty (as in ‘the naked truth’) and this is certainly part of what Yeats is aiming at. He is miffed at the way that his ornate verse has been misinterpreted and mimicked by those who have no comprehension of what they are mimicking – like a British hip-hop enthusiast shouting ‘Westside!’ with no idea of where this tradition comes from.

Yeats laments how ‘fools’ have taken the superficial forms of his poems on board, without every truly understanding their essence; the vehicle of this metaphor being ‘coat and wearer’ and the tenor being  ‘poetic form and content’.

But what then, of this idea of ‘enterprise’? We have the obvious link here with boldness and adventurousness in an endeavour (eg. Starship Enterprise) but, do we not also take from this poem the idea of enterprise as meaning ‘business initiative’? Yeats’ ‘enterprise in walking naked’ can certainly be paraphrased with the idea that ‘there’s more money in nudity’.

In this sense, I do not think that we can equate Yeats’ use of ‘naked’ with ‘honesty’ – I get the sense that he is being a little more bitchy. If he were implying that ‘naked’ verse is better than this ‘coat’-wearing kind that everyone’s been copying, then he is more or less implying that all of his old work is not worth bothering with. This is not the sort of thing that Yeats would ever suggest.

So we have the possibility that he is using ‘naked’ in its most literal sense of ‘not dressed’, or to take it even further, ‘not bothered to get dressed’. We know that Yeats was very much of the opinion that poets should be ‘lamps’ rather than ‘mirrors’ to the world, and so the idea of blurting out language designed to merely reflect reality is something that would seem lazy to him.

If we are to modify our metaphor in this poem to take ‘naked’ for ‘undressed’ then what Yeats is perhaps referring to is the idea that ‘there is more money or business potential in writing poems that do not seem to have gone through the poetic process but rather appear as fragments of the familiar’. More ‘enterprise’ then, because ‘naked poetry’ is the sort of poetry that has a wider audience, and this is the sort of poetry that doesn’t take as much effort to write.

To fully understand Yeats’ use of the word ‘naked’ however, we must take some notice of the fact that it is preceded by the word ‘walking’. This choice of verb is an interesting one when we know that it is being done in the nude. ‘Being’ naked would be no point of interest, but ‘walking’? Are we to think of the emperor’s new clothes here? I am more reminded of this iconic line from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

“who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.”

Whilst some read this as an ultimate depiction of crassness, I read it (and I feel that Yeats would read it) as the requisite lack of inhibition needed to write anything of value. By having his disorderly beatniks dragged off a roof holding their writing in one hand and their naked form in the other, he is forcing us to compare the two in terms of offensiveness. Ginsberg urges the conclusion that nothing he could ever write could shock or offend the status quo as much as the naked human body – and for what? As a species that require genitals for our continuation, why then such taboos over disrobing?

Which brings us to our final (at least for tonight) inference to be made from Yeats’ use of ‘naked’ -  nudity as symbol of vulnerability.

If you get nervous, just imagine everyone in the room naked, the age-old useless piece of advice goes.

It was so weird seeing my ex-girlfriend the other day, knowing we’d seen each other naked, we type into our instant messaging boxes.

Underneath your clothes, there’s a different story, that’s the man I chose, that’s my territory sings Shakira, one of the finest poets ever to have disguised herself as a pop star.

If we look back at what Yeats describes of his ‘Coat’ in the beginning of the poem; covered with ornate embroideries, full body-length in size; we get the definite image of what Neil Strauss would describe as ‘peacocking’, do we not? The idea of masking your insecurities by wearing the sort of flamboyant thing that only a very confident, secure and socially uninhibited person might wear.

So with the nudity comes that level of vulnerability and emotional earnestness that is at the heart of much of the literary heritage. I am reminded of a scene in one of the Bridget Jones films where our protagonist is trying to cover up her ‘lumpy bits’ with a duvet and Colin Firth in his loveable British way saying ‘don’t be ridiculous, I love your lumpy bits’.

For an interesting rebuke to Yeats’ ‘Coat’ however, one need look no further than ‘The Mask’, a poem in which he suggests that it is our lovers’ illusions and personas that we fall for rather than the naked self:

“It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat,
Not what’s behind.”

As with any great poetry, Yeats is clearly forcing every word to pull its weight and then some. In this particular case, ‘naked’ is being used to tie together ideas of honesty, lack of inhibition, vulnerability, laziness and intimacy all in two sexy little syllables. Nice work W.B., now put the kettle on.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

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