Poetry – A Contention

26 July 2003


“This is no country for old men,”

       sings my friend,

              that greatest of poets,

All the summer long they sing,

       the young in one another’s arms

              whatever is begotten, born, and dies,

So my friend the poet,

       with an eye upon eternity,

             sets ship to sail for the holy city of Byzantium.

I have harkened not his call,

       to board that ship,

              to where the gold-wrought artifice,

Of poetry, art, and literature reside,

       to where the collective memory of the past,

              is anthologized for drowsy students,

Or bought to decorate the halls of power,

       between the Renaissance and the Blue Period,

              where stolen wealth craves blessings on its deeds.

This country of fish, flesh, and fowl,

       in this respect is also not my country,

              friend poet,

But it is the country of your widening gyre,

       where the center does not hold,

              and the blood-dimmed tied is loosed upon the world,

It is the country of widening hunger,

       of planetary misery, unnatural death,

              of weapons, and endless war.


Who will encounter that rough beast?

       that slinks through town and village,

              the young in one another’s arms oblivious,

Who will mount a crusade to Bethlehem,

       confront the infidel in his lair,

              and retrieve the holy grail of history?

Do you too, friend poet, lack all conviction,

       that you wish to escape,

              to the holy city of Byzantium?

Does the hour of the beast,

       come round at last,

              portent a fatalism beyond hope?

Where are you, friend poet,

       when there is need of vehicles,

               for the word and hope of God?

Surely you have read your Blake,

       surely you know that God exists

              and lives only through the human heart.

This is no country for old men,

       for the ceremony of innocence is downed,

               by the Lords of the Earth,

Who summon that rough beast,

       with greed, injustice,

              and endless war.


Does a poet have no role to play,

       in this summer land of birth and death,

              where the innocent in one another’s arms,

Are inundated by the blood-dimmed tide,

       digested by the Lords of Earth,

              and severed from the God of history?

Who is the voice of hope,

       in this land of birth and death,

              which is the land of history?

Of struggle and hope,

       of reflection and redemption,

              of miracle and ecstatic life,

You should have read your Lawrence,

       for whatever the dead or unborn may know,

              they cannot know this miracle,

Of being alive and potent in the flesh,

       this once only, the impact,

              of this miraculous, shining cosmos!

The rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem,

       but it need not be born,

              for the great hope of history,

Exists and lives,

       through the human heart,

              thy kingdom come!

This is precisely the country for old men,

       my poet friend,

              for we are not in one another’s arms,

And we are freed,

       like the prophets of old,

              to listen, and to speak,

We can hear the crawling of the beast,

       moving toward Bethlehem,

              and discern the blood-dimmed tide,

We can hear the call of God,

       and like the navi of old,

              we speak because we hear,

We must not set sail,

       for the holy city of Byzantium,

              we belong here.


This is our country,

       for deeper than whatever is begotten, born, or dies,

              lie the depths of history,

We are the voice of the kingdom,

        the voice of the great hope,

               for mercy, justice, and redemption,

Do poets have no function,

       but to keep a drowsy emperor awake,

              in the holy city of Byzantium?

Set your sails for battle, friend poet,

       in the storms and squalls of history,

              forget that gold-wrought eternity,

Our ship must fly the banner,

       of eternity breaking into history,

              in action for a transformed world,

Old men must wield the helm,

       who hear that voice and heed that call,

              to write the poems of history,

Our ship must sail beneath the banner,

       abreast this blood-dimmed tide,

              of the holy city of Jerusalem.

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