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How Yeats echoes through our lives

Fallsapart is Sherman Alexie’s website address. Things Fall Apart is the title of Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece and also the title of the Mario Van Peebles’ upcoming film about a football player with cancer, starring 50 Cent.

chinuaachebe.jpgSlouching Towards Bethlehem is Joan Didion at her brilliant best. Dan Savage tips his hat to it in Skipping Towards Gomorrah.

When law professor Elyn R. Saks wrote about her illness – “paranoid schizophrenia with acute exacerbation; prognosis: grave” – she titled it, The Center Cannot Hold. Paul Krugman went to the same well this morning to explain the problem with Obama:

Mr. Obama’s attempts to avoid confrontation have been counterproductive. His opponents remain filled with a passionate intensity, while his supporters, having received no respect, lack all conviction.

Fans of horror fiction know H. R. Knight’s What Rough Beast. Even if they read few poems, chances are good they know where her title comes from.

Everybody’s quoting William Butler Yeats, and not from the range of his work but from a single short poem published in 1919, The Second Coming. Nearly a century later, it has become the key to the millennial divide.

    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: a waste of desert sand;

    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

    Wind 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?

He even got the geography right. This is the problem with judging art by the artist. From his person – weak-willed, ineffective, given to flights of fancy (talks to faeries), holds grudges and doesn’t hit his stride till he’s past middle age – who would guess Yeats would become (on the basis of mere handful of poems) the most powerful writer in the English language since Shakespeare? 

James Harris reminded me of Lawrence Lemaoana from the gallery’s current show. (With admirable restraint, Harris did not add, How could you have forgotten this?)

Lawrence Lemaoana,
Things Fall Apart, 2009
49 x 32 inches



  1. Easy to figure out the politics of this blogger.

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