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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 11, 2007

"A blizzard of bloodstained paper" amid "raging fires."

This image comes not from some poet's overwrought fantasy but from a news story about the recent suicide-bombing at "a popular book market" in Baghdad.

Blood and fire, in phrases quieter than these, appear in the sixth poem of "Meditations in Time of Civil War," by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). The poem contrasts its blood and fire with the idea of domestic shelter, embodied by a bird's nest (the stare, related to "starling"), by a bee's hive, by "a house burned" -- and by the poet's own study window:

THE STARE'S NEST BY MY WINDOW

The bees build in the crevices

Of loosening masonry, and there

The mother birds bring grubs and flies.

My wall is loosening; honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty; somewhere

A man is killed, or a house burned,

Yet no clear fact to be discerned:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;

Some fourteen days of civil war;

Last night they trundled down the road

That dead young soldier in his blood:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart's grown brutal from the fare;

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love; O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Yeats's poignant phrase "my wall is loosening" refers not only to the fragility of all the shelters we construct; a figurative or psychological wall seems to be loosening as well, possibly a demarcation of certainty or a protection from the violent realities of Ireland's civil war in 1922-23. Yeats refrains from saying for which side the "dead young soldier in his blood" fought in that war. The poem does not say if the soldier was Protestant or Catholic, as is also true of "A man is killed, or a house burned." The minimal information, the understatement, expresses the terrible "uncertainty" of the historical moment.

The lines of this poem that are often quoted, and that recall the murderous bombing of a book market, are the first two lines of Yeats's final stanza. They bear repeating:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart's grown brutal from the fare.

Contrary to the notion of the poet as a dealer in fantasies, while politicians must deal with reality, this poem deplores the brutal fantasies of rhetoric. It speaks sadly from the world of books, regarding the world of sectarian rhetoric and of actual blood and fire.

Robert Pinsky was poet laureate of the United States

from 1997 through 2000.

(W.B. Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War" can be found in "The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats," edited by Richard J. Finneran. Collier. Copyright 1989 by Anne Yeats.)

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