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Yeats’s Legacies

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Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

Emily C. Bloom, The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 224. ISBN 9780198749611

Emilie Morin

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  • 1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If (...)

1Emily Bloom’s monograph is the first study to trace the involvement of Anglo-Irish writers at the BBC. It is a wonderfully rich and enlightening book—so much so that it is difficult to do justice to the depth and breadth of the research—and it is beautifully written. The central case studies are taken from the works of W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett (in that order). There are compelling grounds for this selection: all of them wrote programmes, talks and plays for the BBC, and experimented with voice and sound techniques as well as radiogenic themes and genres. ‘Radiogenic’—the term that emerged in the 1920s to designates plays, poems and texts germane to broadcasting—is a concept central to the book, through which Bloom traces the legacies of figures as varied as Guglielmo Marconi, John Reith and Rudolf Arnheim, and discusses the processes through which literary broadcasts adapt, cite and reinterpret past literary works. The radiogenic tropes that Bloom discerns in the works of Anglo-Irish writers are numerous and include ‘uncanny repetition’; the ‘often melancholic pull of the literary past’; ‘returns, echoes and hauntings’; and ‘tensions between the unknown future in the distant past, embodiment and disembodiment, communalism and individualism, and ephemerality and permanence’ (3–4). For Bloom, it is especially important to investigate radio’s capacity to generate radically new conceptions of literary publics. Drawing on little-known archival sources, she shows how Yeats’s, MacNeice’s, Bowen’s and Beckett’s radiogenic works impacted upon their perceptions of their publics, as well as on their broader careers and perspectives on literary forms beyond the studio. Each of the four chapters excavates intricate connections between the radiogenic texts that these writers wrote for the BBC and their non-radiophonic work.

2The Introduction, ‘Air-Borne Bards’, borrows its title from Autumn Sequel, one of many texts in which MacNeice reflects on traditions of oral poetry and on the novel horizons opened up by radio broadcasting. Bloom gives a detailed overview of the political and cultural contexts that shaped the rise of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State, showing how ‘[t] he bardic model of public poetry on air captured the imagination of broadcasters, writers, and theorists’ and proved especially appealing ‘to Irish writers who, like MacNeice, were steeped in the folklore and poetry popularised earlier in the century by the Irish Literary Revival’ (1). As Bloom emphasises, radio offered ‘an alternative at once exhilarating and frightening’ to Anglo-Irish writers ‘who were experiencing a sense of displacement and homelessness’ and were ‘increasingly alienated from existing models of Irish and British national literatures in the politicised contexts of post-independence Ireland and the Second World War’ (21, 5). At the BBC, Yeats, MacNeice, Bowen and Beckett were in an unusual position, in that ‘they could be seen as both insiders speaking from the centre of imperial power and also as outsiders talking back to the centre’ (7).

3Radio enabled Yeats to explore a new dimension of the spoken word and to craft a new audience—an ‘intimate auditory audience for literature in an age of mass media’ (28). Chapter 1, ‘W. B. Yeats’ s Radiogenic Poetry’, charts Yeats’s keen reflection on radio as a public medium and its implications for poetic genres, offering some beautifully crafted close readings of the poetry as well as a valuable synthesis of formal and historicist traditions of scholarship through its focus on radiogenic forms. The chapter pays close attention to the poems that Yeats originally wrote for radio and discusses his evolving understanding of how information is disseminated through broadcasting. Bloom shows that ‘radio played a pivotal role as a medium through which Yeats performed, publicised, and published poetry at the end of his life’, and argues that ‘his interpretation of this new entity, the broadcast audience, was an active influence in shaping the auditory poetics of his late lyrics’ (29). Through his radiogenic poetry, Yeats ‘not only redefined his publication strategies but also reshaped the very substance of his poetry, blending oral traditions and print lyricism into radiogenic poetic forms’(29). ‘Roger Casement’, ‘Sweet Dancer’ and ‘The Curse of Cromwell’ carry Yeats’s hopes for a new audience and relay his attempts to imagine spaces for radiogenic poetry, from the poet’s pub to the poet’s parlour. The oral traditions that influenced his broadcasts were heterogeneous, and encompassed classical drama, bardic poetry, Irish broadside ballads, modern oral performance, and working-class and middle-class traditions of social recitation. Ultimately, the Yeats who wrote poetry for the BBC ‘was not the old man on the boiler, but rather an adventurous novice in a new medium, attempting to find the best reception for his new auditory publics’, who ‘went further than many of his contemporaries in incorporating these questions into the very texture of his poems’ (63).

4Chapter 2, entitled ‘Louis MacNeice in the Echo Chamber: The Soundscapes of War’, shows how MacNeice’s twenty-two-year broadcasting career nourished his poetry during the war years and beyond. His deep interest in radio, ignited at an earlier point, also informed his broader political perspective as well as many of his reflections on the political lucidity of wireless listeners. Like Yeats, MacNeice could occasionally be ambivalent towards the BBC; nevertheless, he found radio work fascinating and unexpectedly challenging. Bloom traces numerous shifts in MacNeice’s perspective, with radio initially operating as a ‘consistently negative symbol for interpersonal disconnection’ before becoming the source of many creative experiments with radiophonic voices and plotlines (68). The chapter explores the recurrence of echoes, which range from familiar tropes of poetic repetition and refrain, bolstered by poetic evocations of Circe, Echo and Narcissus, to the echo chamber sound effects embedded in plays such as The Dark Tower, The Mad Islands and Persons from Porlock.

5Chapter 3, entitled ‘Exorcising the Ghosts of Print: Elizabeth Bowen’ s Spectral Radio’, shows that Bowen’s involvement with broadcasting was more substantial than is commonly assumed. During the Second World War, radio became an important side-line in Bowen’s career, at a moment when writing for radio also involved responding to a literary marketplace radically altered by shortages and bombings (103). Bowen’s work for the BBC, which continued throughout the post-war years, remained marked by her awareness of radio’s difficulties; ‘Writing for the air frenzies me’, was how she put it (97). Her earliest connection to the BBC goes back to 1934, when she published a short story in the BBC’s periodical The Listener. She participated in a broadcast programme for the first time seven years later, and generally found radio extremely challenging due to her frequent stammer. The BBC only became willing to record Bowen speaking for major broadcasts when magnetic tape became available for recording purposes, enabling staff to cut and edit broadcasts (95). Bowen had a deep interest in radio’s perceived ties to the occult, and her wartime radio features, in which she summons the ghosts of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Fanny Burney, reveal that she perceived radio as ‘an irresistible opportunity to resurrect authorial spirits’, by staging ‘ghostly visitors who chastise, correct, or disrupt the expectations of their living readers’ (96). Subsequently, Bowen’s approach to literary history remained driven by a ‘radiogenic approach’; Bloom shows how her experiences at the BBC inflected the Gothic themes of her later novels, A World of Love, The Little Girls and Eva Trout.

6Chapter 4, ‘Samuel Beckett’ s Sound Archives’, associates the end of the golden era of radio with Beckett, showing how radio’s gradual move towards the obsolete and retreat to the archive frames Beckett’s work with sound. The chapter traces many twists and turns in Beckett’s relation to the Third Programme, from the BBC’s initial failure to recognise Waiting for Godot as an interesting radiophonic prospect (Val Gielgud deemed it ‘phoney’ (136)) to later wranglings over taped broadcasts. Particular attention is paid to the interplay between the archival and the ephemeral in All That Fall, a radio play commissioned by the BBC, and the stage play Krapp’s Last Tape, which, for Bloom, was informed by ‘the reception problems that plagued the live broadcast and the re-broadcast of All That Fall and Molloy’, and by the difficulties Beckett encountered when requesting access to recordings of his broadcasts in the BBC Paris studio. For Bloom, Beckett remains ‘an important critic of the assumptions underlying the arc of isolation of sound’, someone ‘whose voice still cogently addresses the changing sound archives of even this digital age’ (160).

7The conclusion, entitled ‘Legacies of Radiogenic Aesthetics’, offers broader considerations about the history of broadcasting as well as a thought-provoking account of cultural politics at the BBC. Bloom highlights the concealed hierarchies and biases framing the BBC’s interests in Irish Protestant writers, who continued to serve as ‘gatekeepers at the BBC’ long after the Second World War (177). The BBC displayed a marked preference for ‘beneficiaries of deeply ingrained privilege’ such as Beckett, Bowen, Yeats and MacNeice, who also stood as members of ‘model minorities who could access institutions of power while also, as outsiders, challenging these very institutions’ (171). Others—Seán Ó Faoláin and Kate O’Brien in particular—were not quite as lucky. Likewise, Patrick Kavanagh found that ‘the BBC citadel’ was not ready to listen to his ideas (175–77). It seems that Yeats held much sway in the late 1930s: Bloom cites an internal BBC memo enquiring whether or not Ó Faoláin had been recommended by Yeats, as a way of ascertaining whether or not the correspondence should be followed up (177). The conclusion also considers the contributions made by Anglo-Irish writers to the increasing multiculturalism of BBC programmes, presenting Yeats as a critical figure, eager to find allies among Indian, Irish and Egyptian broadcasters. For Bloom, Yeats remains one of a few artists who were, ‘from an early point in the development of radio, interested in its potential as a medium through which artists from the peripheries could “talk back” to power’ (179).

8As Bloom notes at various points throughout, charting the history of radio broadcasting and radiogenic writing involves a delicate juggling act between print, recorded and archival sources, and the careful piecing together of archived textual fragments and recordings that are not easily accessible. Extant scholarship poses further challenges: the seminal studies dealing with radio modernism tend to focus on isolated contexts, and modernist studies has been slow to acknowledge the significance of radio broadcasting to modernist aesthetics. Transnational studies of radio aesthetics and techniques often focus on single writers, and few attempts have been made to consider the complex webs of influence and the conceptual and practical reflections generated by radio as a transnational phenomenon. Bloom, however, remains attentive to the transnational conceptions of radio that emerged after the 1920s and emphasises their reliance upon ‘an elaborate pattern of exchange and cross-pollination’ between institutions, writers, national broadcasting stations and national borders (8). As such, her book represents a major step forward in radio studies and in modernist studies, and it will be of great interest to many Yeats scholars.

Bibliografía

Emily C. Bloom, The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the bbc, 1931–1968 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 224. ISBN 978019874961

Notas

1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at emilie.morin@york.ac.uk? Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

Autor

Emilie Morin is at the University of York, where she teaches modern British and Irish literature, theatre history, European modernism and the avant-garde. She has a particular interest in the history of radio broadcasting. Her books include Beckett’s Political Imagination (2017) and Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (2009), and the edited collections Theatre and Human Rights after 1945: Things Unspeakable (2015) and Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance and Modernity (2014), co-edited with Mary Luckhurst.

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