Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Garden of Verse: Songs of an Ancient Land With a Strong Pulse

My poems about Greece are up on, the online journal that publishes a big batch of new poems every month.
          Greece is both a country with an ancient civilization and, judging by our recent visit, a population that refuses to grow old. Hence the phenomenon of bearded, well-fleshed motorcyclists that we encountered on busy thoroughfares throughout the country. It's not just "Ancient Greece" we encounter on our visit, but a very lively contemporary society.
            The prevalence of active graybeards on bikes put me in mind of a famous fist line from one of W. B. Yeats's most celebrated poems: "This is no country for old men." This sentence is probably best known today as the title of a film by the Coen brothers that won a best picture Oscar in 2007. That film was based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, who of course borrowed from Yeats's poem for his title.   
            The poem we're all borrowing from is "Sailing to Byzantium." a work gleaming with brilliant, enduring phrases. The poet's notion of old men is represented this way in the second stanza:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress,...

                Wow. Both great language and good advice.
                I can testify that in our recent visit to Greece, despite the country's serious economic woes in recent years, we saw no one resembling "a tattered coat upon a stick." Maybe that description befits the European Union in the wake of England's withdrawal vote. But, again, we saw few signs of senescence amid the perfect weather, perfect light, and pale blue and turquoise-green water surrounding the shores like a benediction from a better behaved god than any appearing in the tales of the ancient Olympians. Or in the courteous and capable people we met there. Greece may no longer be the center of the Western world, but tourists can visit the site where they once thought that center both originated and held: the world navel at Delphi.
                Byzantium, of course, is Greece, as it once was -- not the Hellenic Golden Age Greece that produced the Acropolis, democracy, theater, and the notion of applying reason to investigate natural phenomena. But Greece in the first millennium of the Christian era. When the Roman emperor Constantine, who embraced Christianity as the empire's official religion, decided to escape the barbarian threat by heading east, he chose Byzantium to build his new capital, which he called Constantinople, and which the world now knows as Istanbul.
                Istanbul today is the capital of Turkey, but for a thousand years it was the capital of a Greek-speaking empire and the center of the Orthodox Christian religion, worshiped in Greek.The arts and thought of that Byzantine civilization, its gold work, jewelry, tiled mosaics, sought after immortal forms and timeless truths. These are what the mind of the "old man" of the poem's first line longs for: "gather me [the poem's speaker asks from Byzantium] Into the artifice of eternity."
                There's a lot more to "Sailing to Byzantium," a densely beautiful construct of four stanzas of eight lines each, including the poem's insuperable characterization of mortal time itself, when the speaker compares himself to a bird who would sing "Of what is past, or passing, or to come."
                You really cannot write a better line that sings itself.
                And after all this necessary homage to Yeats, my appropriation of his poem's famous first line to a poem of five lines seems a very slight affair, which it is. It's a poor thing, but my own.
                Nevertheless, it sums up my salute to Greece's vitality. Modern Greece is not Byzantium, where the goldsmiths labor to "keep a drowsy emperor awake."
                In fact it's full of life.

Old Men

After watching bearded, pony-tailed, pot-bellied motorcyclists
dart into mid-morning Athens traffic,

I think of Yeats' verdict on Ireland,
"This is no country for old men."

They should come to Greece.

(Here's a link:

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