The title of the William Butler Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” makes me cringe. Is it kind to encourage a friend whose talent may be nonexistent, or is it kinder to speak plainly, in other words, tell the truth? Friend, it’s my unfortunate obligation to say you have no talent in this area and must give this up, the sooner the better, because you‘re wasting everyone’s time and making yourself crazy and are playing the fool on the world’s stage.
Then, there is the other friend who may be the most talented man at the open mic, and this poor soul just can’t catch a break. He’s got looks, lyrics, musicality, but he’s a shy boy and doesn’t know how to promote himself. He spends years writing elegant, intelligent songs that go way over everyone’s head, but those few who hear these songs recognize his heartbreaking talent, unknown, as Yeats writes, that comes “to nothing.” Shy boy knows the world’s great poets. He actually reads Wallace Stevens and can recite Yeats and deeply loves Robert Frost and all those dusty, bearded New Englanders. He stays home year after year in the quiet of his lonely room and writes notebooks worth of lyrics and records songs on a little recording device and spends long evenings with his acoustic guitar in hand. I say perhaps Yeats is being a bit harsh? Maybe shy boy encourages others, maybe just one or two others, and from those two, perhaps good will come from what seems barren. And, hope upon hope, maybe someday shy boy will crack the glass ceiling and rise in “Triumph.”
Perhaps I’m more optimistic than Yeats. Yes, the writer, the musician, the artist, the creator, desires recognition, desires to leave something of herself behind, as a memento of a life lived. “Now all the truth is out,” whose truth, Yeats, the world’s truth, the money men’s truth, the truth and inner depths of the artist? “Be secret and take defeat,” go in the corner and quietly lick those wounds; take it like an adult. “How can you compete,” yes, you unknown writer, how can you compete with, say, a television personality who writes one book after another and then gets to promote it every night on HIS television program, quite brazenly and without any shame at all? Or that rock star sitting in the corner at the party listening to his own records, how can you compete? Yes, “turn away,” turn away from the things of this passing world, and let the creation of your own work bring you inner joy, ah, easier said than done. Yes, it’s difficult to labor away, year after year in oblivion, but what else is there to do? Who can decide: should you keep this up or give it up? Only the one, you. Be joyful in the creation of your good work.
This is a true story, and I don’t want to give hope to the hopelessly untalented. I had a cousin in Cape Cod who was married to a musician for years and years. I imagine she thought he was hopeless; she was frustrated, resentful, discouraged. They got divorced. Musician moved to Australia . . . and became a big time recording artist. Cousin is all alone and sad, reminiscing of younger musical days.
Yeats, methinks your poem is sweetly supportive. The artist is brave, whether successful or not. He stands naked in front of the world and must accept the world’s rejection, silence, indifference, scorn, jealousy, mockery, criticism, harsh and ill-formed opinions for everyone to read on Internet reviews. But
the great thing, the brave thing, is that he gets up there and does his art, and does it again, and again. What say you Professor Mark Van Doren so many years ago at Columbia University with your own mad “hot blood of youth” students of English literature “Out naked on the roads” ii who turned the world upside down and faced rejection, scorn, and trials, too?
i Yeats, William Butler. “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”
ii Yeats, William Butler. “The Cold Heaven.”