164. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death: Y. B. Yeats

I began reading mystery novels last spring. Well, perhaps a year earlier when the Robert Downey, Jr. movie “Sherlock Holmes” came out; I didn’t much like the movie (I wanted to, but so many wasted opportunities) but I was inspired to download a few of the A. Conan Doyle originals to read in the dark on my iTouch while my kid fell asleep. Then I read more, and more, until I had read the whole Holmes canon. (Side note: The modernized “Sherlock” series on Masterpiece Theater, available through Netflix stream, are amazing).

Still, that was Doyle.

Not an entire genre.

My only other enjoyable foray was John Mortimer’s “Rumpole” series, which is classified in our local mystery section because they don’t know what else to do with it.

Last spring our local library had a display of mystery titles, including Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Swedish “The Laughing Policeman”. I still cannot explain why I picked it up, but I really enjoyed it. In fact, I read the preface by Jonathan Franzen and he captured the reluctance-to-read-this-book/joy-of-finding-the-series perfectly. So, I read the few other titles from the series our library had. Then, I bought the rest (there are ten novels total in the Martin Beck series), used, through Amazon.

I was sad there were only ten.

Last summer, as I planned to go to Iceland, I saw Arnaldur Indriðason’s “Jar City” on display; same library, different display. Long story short, Sjöwall and Wahlöö turned me onto Scandanavian mysteries. I like the pacing; Martin Beck often takes months to solve a case, and the cases aren’t often serial killers but simple revenge killings. Indriðason’s Detective Erlandur is much the same, and he cemented my interest. There is also something to be said for the sparce settings and hardscrabble people. Other series, less even in their writing, include Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander and Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole (very uneven, but engaging at its best).

I’m running out of authors and titles. I hated the first “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” book (I don’t know where to start with my criticism of it, although the Swedish video adaptation of the book is pretty good), and I can’t warm up to American authors–either too tepid, cliche, or gruesome.

And then I bumped into Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series.

It’s not Scandinavian, but the Edinburgh weather is horrible and Rebus completes the checklist of detective cliches (drinking, smoking, ex-wife, loose cannon, unreliable car, etc.) while still keeping it fresh.

Poetry? What does this have to do with poetry?

I spent the past twenty-four hours reading my third Rebus novel. In the end, an ex-RAF pilot quotes from this poem–the first four lines.

The point? You never know where your poetry is going to come from, but you should go with it. I’m reading Scottish mysteries because…. I don’t really know, but I’m enjoying them. And from this comes Yeats.

Here is a video of him reading the poem.  It’s creepy animation; only use it for audio because it’s creepy and it’ll derail any lesson you might want to teach.  Seriously.  But I like to have it come from the horse’s mouth, so to speak:

As for teaching it, talk about balance. It is easy to write about what we love and what we dislike, but Yeats talks about measuring the trade-offs. It is not that war or killing is bad, but that the cost of this war is not worth the benefits. It is about injustice. When your students talk about fairness, what do they mean?

One of the concepts students have the hardest time with, I find, is making a choice. When I start the day with a simple question–“What’s your favorite drink?”–I will get qualifiers and dual answers (In the morning I like… but sometimes I like…). They can’t decide. More important, they have never done cost-benefit analysis of their choices. Instead, they want it all and then are surprised when they don’t get it. In the end, they become fatalistic instead of empowering themselves with choice.

There is always a choice.

In fact, this year I have been focusing on laying out choices and then reminding them of choices when they complain; it stops the complaining. We begin our discussions about where they are–poor or rich, oldest or youngest, struggling student or not–and then look at the choices those people might be faced with. Have them inventory choices they make daily.

Then, according to cost-benefit analysis, when did they make the wrong one?

See what Yeats is getting at?

Now imagine a life was in the balance.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Y. B. Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.


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