Taking issue with Yeats, May 2017

There’s a quote by Yeats that I’ve thought about for a long time. It’s from when he was a young poet, and is about when he met up with a number of other young poets. I imagine him thinking about standing in the middle of a crowded room or pub and looking about at all the other writers when he wrote it.

‘None of us can say who will succeed, or even who had or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.’

Yeats was clearly one of the ones who did succeed, but the quote has poignancy because at the time he didn’t know whether he would or not and he is seeing himself and all the others as someone else might see them; as aspiring writers competing to sit at a table that has a strictly limited number of places. What’s also implied, I think, is that success is partly given its value because it’s an exclusive club. If it was open to everyone, it wouldn’t be as special.

It’s slightly shameful to admit it, but one of the reasons I write is to feel special. So from that point of view it’s disheartening that there are so many writers and poets about, and so many good ones. I was at a workshop last week, and lots of people there produced really good poems, poems I’d have been pleased to have written. But were too many of us in that room last Saturday?

As I’ve got older I’ve come to believe that everyone can write great stories. Just as Chomsky believes that everyone has language ‘competence’ (though not always perfect language ‘performance’). I think that everyone has ‘story competence’. From that perspective, it’s not about trying to find the few people who can do it among a bunch of people trying to. It’s about anyone tapping into the potential they have if they want to. Which means Yeats was wrong, there are never too many. However many we are, we’re exactly the right number.

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