The poetry of a great master such as William Butler Yeats marvels us. His written words leap off the page and dance. Evocative images and subtle emotions emerge from the act of reading it.
His poem “The Pilgrim”, from New Poems, is short and succinct but delves deeply into Yeats’s journey for the meaning of existence. In his pilgrimage, Yeats searches everywhere for answers, from worldly pleasures to the realms of spirit, but his questions are never answered in anything other than a nonsensical phrase – “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” Embracing what he has been given, he decides in the last stanza that this absurd wisdom is the answer he was looking for the entire time.
The ultimate understanding that Yeats was striving to comprehend can never fully be expressed in words alone. “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” is as good as any other answer when using the limited tools of language. It bypasses our logical side and opens us up to the great mystery that this life is. And it can also be used as a mantra when we are at work. Similar to one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, the phrase can lift you out of stuck spot and inspire you to take a completely different direction. It can even be used to simply get you started on a creative endeavor.
The spirit of “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” is proudly anti-perfectionist. Not that it doesn’t admire an ideal, but it doesn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The wisdom lies not in the content but in the process. The Cornell Yeats volumes allow us to see this by providing us with Yeats’s unpublished drafts and manuscripts. Peel back the curtain on the creative genius of Yeats and take a look at the initial drafts of this poem:
It’s a bit of a mess.
The additional pages are no better, with large sections crossed off and revamped:
Even the more orderly type-written final draft got revised:
Now let that sink in. The creative process of one of the greatest poets in history is messy. Chaotic. Confusing. Just like yours.
So embrace the mess, embrace the chaos, and the confusion. Let go, embrace your creativity and follow its meandering path to see where it leads. And if you run into obstacles in the road that stop you in your tracks, you now know the words to move yourself forward . . . “Is rol de rol de rolly O!”
Suggested post-reading watch:
About the author of this blog post: Jonathan Hall is the Digital Marketing Manager at Cornell University Press. He embraces chaos with his trusty saxophone, Taoist martial arts, and mountain biking.