I have spent the last hour on what is, apparently, a hopeless mission: finding a good audio recording of “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats. (I’m sorry, but for my own peace of mind, I have to say it: Yeats rhymes with “skates,” not “seats,” folks. Say it right in your heads, please.)
Reading poetry aloud is an art, and not one that many can do well. (I guess that’s the definition of art? OH GOD I FEEL A HEIDEGGER QUOTE COMING ON…! No, wait. It passed.) But, when well executed, it’s…well, ineffable, I guess, because I failed to come up with a suitable adjective with which to end that sentence (and believe me, I tried). Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find spoken poetry at all, let alone good spoken poetry. But, all the same, I feel like I’m missing something. Is there some massively well-known spoken poetry database I don’t know about? A really famous audio anthology of poems? If not, COULD SOMEONE GET ON THIS PLEASE? I can’t over-emphasize the impact of a well-spoken poem. If you don’t like poetry, it’s because you haven’t yet heard the right poem read correctly.
Anyway, this is going to sound weird, but…the closest I’ve ever come to hearing a good reading of “The Second Coming” is from the television miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand (which, yes, I am watching; and which, yes, is why I’m rambling about spoken poetry in the first place). On the one hand, this is surprising, because The Stand is a mid-90s piece featuring Molly Ringwald, Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, a dramatic war between good and evil, and cheesy horror effects. (That is to say: it is AWESOMELY BAD.) On the other hand, it is NOT surprising, because the poem is spoken by Ed Harris, one of the greatest and most underrated actors out there (even though his next role is to play…sigh…John McCain). Unfortunately, though, he only speaks the last line (admittedly the best part, but still)…and, still more unfortunately, I can’t even find a clip of that.
SO: In defeat, I leave you to read it for yourself (slowly, please!), and to try to imagine what it’s like to hear that last line spoken in a way that sends chills down your spine.
The Second Coming
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?
(William Butler Yeats)
Oh, man. So good.
To conclude this ramble about spoken poetry, I leave you with something slightly embarrassing: a YouTube video of a Levi’s commercial. I apologize, but it features a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! Oh Pioneers!” that is so awesome (in the real sense of the word) it left me frozen and staring at my television with my mouth open.
Poetry, guys. Don’t knock it.