Would @WilliamButlerTweets have written worse poetry?
If WB Yeats really could be “all over” YouTube and Twitter, he’d suffer many writers’ greatest problem
The White Birds or Angry Birds?: WB Yeats. Photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress
A professor this week suggested that, such was his interest in the new medium of radio in the 1930s that, were WB Yeats alive today, “he would be all over YouTube and Twitter”. What a delightful and thoughtful analogy. It would be a disaster.
He would arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, and then spend the rest of the trip complaining about being unable to get a solid 3G signal.
He would comment on every one of Maud Gonne’s Facebook posts, and jump in on her Twitter conversations (via his handle @WilliamButlerTweets), his initial friendliness mutating first into a relentless creepiness and then into a snarkiness that betrayed his bitterness at being rejected.
After that he would send a friend request to Maud’s daughter, Iseult, and begin sending her inappropriate private messages.
With his soft spot for the more ludicrous elements of spiritualism, Yeats would spend too much of his days bouncing from episode to episode of Britain’s Most Haunted.
He would bombard your email with messages looking for support for his FundIt campaign to get his national theatre project of the ground. “Funders of €1,000+ receive a limited-edition replica of Cathleeen Ní Houlihan’s cowl.”
Or maybe Yeats would realise the folly of it all. As of now, most of the more established generation of Irish writers are largely absent online. Only Roddy Doyle, with his reactive and brilliant Two Pints dialogues on Facebook, has found a gap in the fence through which to push something useful.
Maybe Banville, Enright, Tóibín and McCann are lurking out there, but they have remained in the shadows.
And when it comes to the Yeats example, it is perhaps instructive that the modern giants of Irish poetry are nowhere to be found on social media. Seamus Heaney is not Instagramming his dinner. Michael Longley is not interested in making contacts on LinkedIn. Paul Muldoon is in a rock band, but he has yet to engage in a Twitter fight with Amanda Brunker.
Few writers praise the productive qualities of the internet. When the Guardian in 2010 asked writers for their 10 tips on successful writing, a popular response was: turn the internet off. Here’s Jonathan Franzen: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”
Among Zadie Smith’s tips in the Guardian: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” The acknowledgments in her most recent novel included a thanks to internet-blocking software Freedom and Self-Control “for creating the time”. Freedom and Self-Control. That is the language of addiction therapy.
That need to disconnect is a common obsession among writers. I know of one whose partner is expected to take the modem out of the house every day so that the writer in question is forced to remain alone and focused in a distraction-free environment.
That approach of physically removing the internet from the vicinity appears to be a popular one, and the consequences of forgetting to do it are considered dire for that day’s productivity.
The modern trap is that publishers hope their writers will be as engaged as possible with their readers, or potential readers. You’re damned if you Tweet and damned if you don’t.
So, if Yeats were, as Prof Margaret Mills Harper of the University of Limerick suggested at the Yeats Summer School, “all over YouTube and Twitter”, then we can assume that although it is impossible to know what impact it would have on the quality of his work, it would likely affect the quantity at least. He would reach for a notepad to write The White Birds. He would pick up his phone and play Angry Birds.
As it happens, WB Yeats is all over YouTube and Twitter anyway. You can hear an 80-year-old BBC recording on YouTube, and it is worth hearing, not least to test his boast that when on radio “I speak quietly, with confidence, as if I were addressing my wife”.
That clip has been listened to 187,000 times, which is impressive, and its upbeat comments thread has yet to lead someone to call someone else a Nazi, which is even more impressive.
He is also quoted regularly on Twitter. Only this week someone posted a few lines from When You Are Old, adapted into 140 characters: “Murmur a little sadly, how love fled&paced upon the mountains overhead, &hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”
It’s how he would have liked it. And possibly retweeted it.