In November, we looked at five poems by W.B. Yeats, a poet I have heard of a lot but have not yet read myself in any depth.
Gail, our leader for this session, had done a great amount of research on 4 of the 5 poems and guided us through the discussion of each poem expertly. Instead of dropping the 5th poem (‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’) we decided to attempt a close reading together right there on the spot. It was rich.
Then Gail threw us a curve ball: she gave us this short poem, adhoc, and asked us to do another close reading.
The Balloon of the Mind by William Butler Yeats
Hands, do what you’re bid;
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.
Skipping the title, since it is repeated in the poem, we first asked ourselves who is talking to whom? We felt the speaker (a person) was addressing his/her hands telling them to do what has been asked of them, which is represented by the remaining three lines of the poem.
Then we read line 2 and 4 together: bring the balloon in the shed. We figured the balloon is a metaphor for thoughts, ideas, concepts we create in our mind; lofty floating matter, rising vapor that, if not caught and tied down, disappears into the sky or nothingness.
The narrow shed, to us, was the head/intellect where we would determine how to realize or materialize thought into action or an object. The shed could also directly mean, bypassing the stage of the intellect, dense matter. As broad and far reaching as ideas and concepts can be, once they are being actualized, they are forced into one form, one shape, one action; that single, narrow interpretation of this expansive thought. And the object is never exactly the idea, only an approximation, therefore, the term ‘shed’ and not ‘mansion’.
The most fascinating line to us was the 3rd line: the balloon ‘that bellies and drags in the wind’. If the balloon (idea) was fascinating and sound, it would be floating. ‘Drag’ is a passive verb, which implies resistance. How can a floating balloon be dragging against the wind? We considered ideas resisting being shaped or people resisting to materialize thoughts so they stay forever ‘young’ and fresh and expansive.
Then we considered a hot air balloon (rather than a little rubbery balloon filled with helium) and how it takes a while to get the air out once it is on the ground. During this process the balloon could still belly and drag as wind fills it with new life making it harder for the hands to bring it in the narrow shed. But that interpretation felt very much like the idea was faltering, ceasing to exist. What you would bring into the shed wasn’t anymore the original idea, but a crumbled heap, the broken corpse of an idea.
– We couldn’t settle on a good explanation of line 3. What do you think?
Once we were done with the poem, another interpretation popped up, quite in line with Al Filreis’ tendency to see a
meta-poem in every poem: what if the poem described the process of creating poetry?
The poet has an idea (the balloon). The poet battles with the idea (it bellying and dragging in the wind). Then the poet finds the right words and brings it home in the form of a poem, which is usually a tight squeeze of highly concentrated language in the smallest space possible (the narrow shed). And here, too, the finished poem is always imperfect and only a shadow of the original idea, thus, the shed.
In January, we are going to look at five poems by Gertrude Stein.