Irish poet WB Yeats honoured with worldwide 150th birthday celebrations

From a new Irish stamp to a public reading by Fiona Shaw, global events in honour of ‘a great public and private poet’ begin

Open thread: which is your favourite Yeats poem?

The 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1923, is being marked this year with hundreds of events and celebrations around the world.

The author, whose poems took six out of the top 10 slots in a vote at the end of 1999 to find Ireland’s favourite poem, was born in Dublin on 13 June 1865. The year-long celebrations centre on a four-day festival in June in Sligo, the inspiration for much of Yeats’s poetry; one of Yeats’s best-known poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, is about an island on Lough Gill: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; / Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

More than 40 countries are marking the anniversary with a range of concerts, readings, talks and screenings. These will include a daily reading of a Yeats poem in a Sligo pub – “they range from the sublime to the ridiculous to the great,” said Ian Brannigan, who is running Yeats 2015 – an exhibition about the poet’s life in Singapore, a conference in Budapest and a performance in Vienna.

In London, Poems on the Underground is currently featuring the final stanza of Sailing to Byzantium, and his love poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, while an event on 29 April, featuring the actor Fiona Shaw, is due to draw large crowds to Kings Place, in London.

“That’s really quite something for contemporary poetry,” said Isobel Colchester, director of arts organisation Poet in the City. “Yeats as a poet is not someone who is a passive narrator. He’s very much involved in issues of national identity – he’s referred to as a voice for Ireland. His poetry stands for the personal, but there is always an underlying message about the world around him. In a time now, when the arts are often called into question, it’s interesting to look at this poet with such influence, such a strong voice.”

Poet Bernard O’Donoghue, who is hosting the London event, said that Yeats was “a great public and private poet, and is almost unique in that way. There’s that great thing that TS Eliot said about him, that he was somebody without whom the history of his own time could not be understood.”

In Ireland, there will be a new stamp honouring the poet’s 150th birthday, as well as a limited-edition €15 coin, while the team at Yeats 2015 are asking people to record their own version of a Yeats poem in an attempt to create the world’s largest audio archive of his work. President Michael Higgins has contributed a reading of A Prayer for My Daughter, the family of Seamus Heaney have given permission for his recording of What Then? to be used, and the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson is reading The Song of Wandering Aengus.

Shaw, who will be reading the Nobel laureate’s poetry at the Poet in the City event on 29 April, said: “Yeats made sense of the world between imagination, childhood and history. The poems became my learning ground of a language that had nothing to do with school or adulthood – a private, fierce, beautiful language of rhymes and half-rhymes, the romance, failure, fear and celebration. He was a great poet.”

Yeats, who won the Nobel prize “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”, died in 1939.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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