There are only two good reasons for attending graduate school: (1) getting a degree prerequisite to a teaching career, and (2) having nothing better to do. It was for the latter reason that I found myself in a seminar on Anglo-Irish literature at the University of New Orleans in 1979. The objects of our study and discussion were to be the absurdist (absurdest?) plays of Samuel Beckett, the irritatingly cryptic novels of James Joyce, and the delightfully intricate poems of William Butler Yeats. (One decent writer out of three is as much as a realistic graduate student can expect in a seminar.)
As an undergraduate, I had had the privilege of studying prosody with Thomas J. Assad at Tulane University. Dr. Assad is an expert on meter, rhyme scheme, stanza forms, and all the other things that make poetry poetry, and not prose. Having been a fighter pilot during the war (WWII), he also knew a thing or two about life and death and heartache (unlike most of the other professors I had, who had gone straight from college to graduate school to teaching without ever holding a real job or taking a real risk or ever learning what life is really all about). He went to great lengths to develop in me an appreciation for the mechanics of poetry. He was a demanding teacher and, for that reason, an unpopular one.
Once, after I had presented what I thought was an exhaustive explication of Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," Dr. Assad had shattered my self-satisfaction with a simple question: "Why does the poem have four stanzas?" I had no idea. Worse, I soon realized that he wasn't going to tell me. I graduated from Tulane, with honors in English yet, without ever knowing the answer to that question. It wasn't until two years later, while reading another work by Yeats, that the answer came to me in a flash. "That sly old dog," I thought to myself, as I recalled the man who had made my life miserable by asking me a simple question about a poem that I had had no business reading in the first place. "He must have known I would figure it out, someday."
The instructor for the graduate course in Anglo-Irish literature was not Dr. Assad's equal. She began a discussion of Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" with the question, "In this poem, is Yeats saying that life, with all its misery, is still worth living?" That was the right question to ask, for that is the question that the poem addresses. Where she went wrong was in denying that the poem -- or, rather, the author of the poem -- provides an answer, a resounding yes. From a cursory reading of the poem, of course, one would naturally conclude that the answer is no, for the poem is written from the point of view of an Irish pilot who has given himself up to despair. But Yeats, one of the last true masters of English verse, constructed his poem in such a way as to make clear to the careful reader that the narrator of the poem, the airman, is mistaken.
I had read that poem over and over and over again, the night before the class, trying to figure out if Yeats was endorsing the despair of the pilot. Applying the techniques I had learned from Dr. Assad, I had dissected the poem, broken it down into its smallest pieces, and analyzed every one of them. For hours I got nowhere. Then, when I was all but ready to give up, I noticed a pattern in the poem, a consistency in meter that carried through every line but the last. I had my answer.
In the course of this 16-line poem, the airman weighs the arguments for and against life. Each of the first 15 lines divides naturally into two equal parts, corresponding to the airman's ambivalence. Then, in the last line, when the airman concludes that life is not worth living, the balance shifts -- in the opposite direction! The airman has chosen death, but Yeats, the poet, has contradicted him. I had found the proverbial smoking gun.
Needless to say I jumped at the chance to answer the question that the professor had posed. I presented my case, in much greater detail than I have here, pointing out the evidence in the poem that would support no other verdict but the one that I had reached. "That's very interesting," the professor said when I had finished. "Any other opinions?"
The fellow sitting next to me spoke up. "I think Yeats is saying that life is really depressing, and that there's no point in trying, and that you might as well give up." He went on in that vein, using the poem as a platform to express his own "feelings" about the tragic life of a graduate student, but he gave no evidence from the poem to support his assertions.
"Well," said the professor in response to these diametrically opposed interpretations of the same poem, "you're both right."
"How can we both be right?" I asked. "We've just contradicted each other!"
The professor made the usual appeals to intentional ambiguity, equally valid perspectives, the inability of the poet to know what he himself meant, and all the other mumbo jumbo of the disingenuous intellectual. But she never answered my question.
By the time the semester had ended, I had secured a job as a copywriter at a local advertising agency. I dropped out of graduate school, and swore I'd never go back -- unless, of course, I have nothing better to do.