Voice of the Poet: Things Fall Apart

April is National Poetry Month, and three quarters of the days are already gone. Still not too late for me to offer a poetry post. At present, I’m reading Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (more about that in a later post). To start off her book, Didion uses W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, from which her book title originates.

Yeats wrote the poem in 1919, shortly after WWI; it was published in 1920. Didion used it like an epigraph for her book published in 1968, about fifty years later, apparently finding it speaks to her collection of essays on her experiences in 1960’s America.

Now almost another fifty years later, the poem still has not lost its relevance. Yeats’ mythical references aside, and just listen to the clearer and more direct words, I can hear the Poet’s voice speak hauntingly to our present world.

**

The Second Coming 
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

**

Especially the first stanza… hear what I mean?

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Voice of the Poet: Things Fall Apart”

  1. One of my favourite poets, and one of the poems that caught my attention when I was quite young, making me realize that an “old” poem could have the power and immediacy of a rock song. Thanks for highlighting it.

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  2. I try to enjoy poetry but I have such a hard time doing so. Of course, I appreciate the words upon the page after reading them and I’ve taking classes where we study certain pieces but once I am done, I tend to not want to reach for poetry again. I don’t know why. When I took this one class, the younger students in the class could not understand the structure so the teacher brought in rap lyrics and showed the class how similar the structure was. I thought that was brilliant. Instantly, they were engaged. I was too, for a little while.

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    1. Ti,

      Interesting class you have in intro. you all to poetry. I know what you mean. I have difficulty ‘getting’ the symbolism and metaphors in poetry too. But sometimes the words just speak to me plainly. I had read this poem of Yeats’ before, but only in the past few days as I read it again in Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem did I find these lines starkly relevant as I look at the condition in our world today:
      “The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
      Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.”

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  3. I do see what you mean about the first stanza. I love the passionate conviction of the second stanza, that surely all this has to mean the end of the world…and we want to know what form that will take. We believe we want to know. But we don’t, not really. It’s bigger than an individual human consciousness, how bad things have to get for it to be the end of the world.

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    1. Jeanne,

      I think in Yeats’ mind, things were pretty bad for him to think of The Second Coming, albeit not exactly the same kind as the Biblical version. Almost another hundred years had passed since he wrote this poem, that first stanza remains ever so applicable… we have had more wars, conflicts, terrorism, anarchy, loss of conviction, and misplaced passion than he could ever have imagined.

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  4. Yes, that first stanza is spot on. A little frightening — and spot on.

    I have to confess that I have trouble with some poetry and I find when spoken or read aloud I can deal with it better or perhaps the better thought is that I can make better sense of it. Garrison Keillor has a five-minute radio program that some stations air (and online) called the Poetry Almanac and at the end of “this day in poetry and literature” he reads a poem. They come alive, just jump off the page in their relevance and beauty. I’d love to hear him read this one.

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    1. Jeanie,

      Poetry is meant for listening I believe. Yes, that radio program sure sounds like a gem. Don’t think we have that though. Anyway, my fave is the poetry of Wordsworth and Robert Frost. Their works are not too hard to ‘get’.

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  5. I’d forgotten about this poem, but it certainly is relevant. I’m sure you know that Chinua Achebe took the title for his book, “Things Fall Apart,” from this poem.

    After this week’s revelations about the Clinton’s role in the Canadian/Russian/uranium transfers, the poem is even more striking. There’s no question that the uranium will find its way to Iran via Russia, or, absent that, that Russia will be stockpiling one of our most important natural resources. If we survive all this without nuclear holocaust and/or other equally imaginable horrors, I suspect there will be some interesting books to read, once those who know the truth begin cashing in by writing the tales.

    It’s too bad some of them aren’t willing to speak truth to power now.

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    1. I’m “rediscovering” Joan Didion lately. Amazed how relevant this Yeats poem is for our time, and also how relevant Didion’s essays are. Things have been falling apart for years and even centuries, I’m not an optimist in our human society, and one who does believe there’s a literal Second Coming. Anyway, we all have to learn to live our lives despite all that’s happening, and it’s to the poets and prophets of today that we here that voice from the wilderness.

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