The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.2 (Spring 2017)




The Coelacanth
John R. Harris

Thought to have died out with the last dinosaurs about sixty million years ago, the coelacanth made a stunning comeback when one was dredged out of the deep channel off Madagascar in 1938.  Of course, this poem is not primarily about a fish.  In fact, when it was written a third of a century ago, the author had little sense that he would be around in 2017.  Evidently, he was already feeling on the verge of extinction in those days of boom and delirium.

Formerly, survival was a maxim;

Nothing else resembled a philosophy.

Predator and prey were caught in unascending coils—

Neither had the leisure for reflection.

Hatred, rage, and pain were written everywhere in red.

Now we have the look of something better.


Why, then, has the coelacanth persisted?

Cumbered with the armor of a fairy tale,

Stroking through the eons unaware of its decline—

Ignorant, implausible museum piece—

How has one survived the long millennia intact?

Now it has the look of aberration.


Not that our restraint has been perfected.

Savage retrogressions have discredited

Much of our enlightenment; however, we accept

Process and development as gradual,

Guilt as unproductive—but refusal to adjust

Surely is the essence of our evils.


Why, then, does this coelacanth defy us?

Who is he to merit special privilege?

Strutting out pretensions to some absolute ideal,

All of his behavior-modes are negative.

Burdening our progress with complacency and pride—

His is but an ethic of disruption.


Not that we abominate tradition.

Many of our ancestors heroically

Undermined oppression, and deserve to be recalled.

Holidays immortalize their efforts.

Each historic sacrifice, however, introduced

Positive solutions to abuses.


What, then, is the coelacanth’s objection?

When has he suggested an alternative?

Nothing seems to suit him, of innumerable ways

Painfully evolved to serve his comfort.

Everyone is tired of his antagonistic look

Fossilized in antiquated scruples.


Critical of peace because he wanders,

Critical of change because he stays the same,

Critical of doctrine and apostasy alike—

Critic whose dissent we take for granted.

Critic whose resistance is a universal bore—

Critic of the world and of its critics.


Surely we must discipline the coelacanth.

Surely he must moderate his arrogance.

Now we need each other in the search for what is good—

He could be more normal with some effort.

Only exhibitionists are always all alone.

He must pay the price of his belligerence.


Surely you agree with my assessment.

You have never failed to answer sensibly.

What, then—is society obliged to step aside

Just because your conscience is offended?

Are we so immoral—or are you a little vain?

Things will be more clear when you cooperate.


Dr. John Harris (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, U. of Texas at Austin) is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.