In the time it takes to read a line of poetry
A friend of mine changed his life, reading a line of poetry.
He was at university, studying art. A Roman Bacchanalia shindig was a quaint get-together compared to his naked, loud, drunk, and writhing partying. He moved not too gradually from an occasional beer to an occasional thirteen to weed to amphetamines, and finally, to the pin-prick of heroin. He wore long sleeves to cover needle marks. Years later, he described the high of heroin as ‘having an orgasm from every pore of your body’. I kind of laugh and see why people do it. I’m forever thankful to my wife for refusing to allow the hospital to use OxyContin on me during my accident recovery.
As my friend slipped further into his heroin-induced pleasure house, he felt an unease, a nagging in his soul. He wouldn’t go home to see his parents, sure he was naked in front of them. Instead, he hung with new friends, people who didn’t judge him, people less concerned about his decisions. People who used heroin.
He changed in a day. In a class. With one read-through of a poem.
It was lit class, and the prof talked about Yeats. Who knows what he was yapping about or who was snapping their gum? All my friend remembers is that his life changed when he read the words An old man is a paltry thing. By the end of the line, A tattered coat, hanging on a stick, he saw the world and himself differently.
An old man is a paltry thing. A tattered coat hanging on a stick.
Sitting alone in class with twenty kids, he saw it. A vision. The path wasn’t clear – it rarely is – but the destination was certain. He was young and strong and charming and outgoing, and using heroin for fun. But, all at once, he saw himself as an old man. A paltry thing. A tattered coat draped over a broken stick in the back of the closet. No one remembers why it’s there or who it belongs to. He stopped his drugs, not immediately, but deliberately.
I’m time, he made new friends, and found laughter again, and charm. Good gawd, that man was charming. He finished school hale and whole, and farmed his parents’ land, wondering all the time if he was free. His father would die of cancer a few years later, and my friend finally learned, in an unexpected way, that he was a free man. Cleaning up after his dad had passed, he gathered medicines – pain pills, uppers, downers, opiates – and held them over the kitchen sink. Grabbing each bottle, he opened it and turned the small vial on its side until he heard the ping of a pill hit the sink. It sounded right, like he was done. He tilted the bottle a little more until another pill slid out, making the same noise. Scared or sure, I don’t know, but he upended the bottle into the sink, all the bottles, and turned on the water to wash everything down the drain into the sewer. He was free.
Sailing to Byzantium, WB Yeats
For your sobering joy, here is WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, from the Poetry Foundation:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
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,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
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