The Poetry of Old Age

On the topic of aging, I most trust poets who are old. Some poets –like Frost and Yeats – wrote poetry throughout a long life. Some turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy published his first volume of poetry at age fifty-eight and apparently wrote nothing but poetry for the next thirty years. I think poetry lends itself to the old mind, both in the writing and the reading. Good spirits must be distilled.

There are various types of poetry about old age. There is serious poetry and silly poetry. There are elegies for what has been and odes to the joys of senescence. There are genres and tropes. There have been more than a few poems about glimpsing one’s own aging façade in the bathroom mirror – one thinks of Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass” or Robert Graves’ “The Face in the Mirror.” There are poems of return to places of one’s youth and reminiscences of lost loves. (Yeats is good at this.) Poignant poems capture the difficulties and loneliness of old age. There are no more affecting lines than the end of Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” Other poems are filled with the realization that life is going to go on without us, as in Housman’s “Tell Me Not Here.

Then there are the losses – which some poets see as a mixed blessing. There is the loss of memory. In “The Winter Palace,” Larkin writes that “Some people know more as they get older, /I give all that the cold shoulder.” There is the loss of those we love, as in  Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” And the prospect of our own death, which for some is fearsome (mostly for the younger ones – Dylan Thomas was only thirty-three when he wrote “Do Not Gentle”), for others is welcome (Stevie Smith’s magnificent “Black March” or Auden’s “A Lullaby”). For some the final event is imagined – we hear and see the deathbed scene in Dickinson’s “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died.”

As I read poetry or novels, I note the age of the poet/author at the time of composition. This is easier in older volumes wherein the date of birth of the author appear on the back of the title page in the Library of Congress information (why did they stop?), but there is always Wikipedia. I find it particularly interesting to read works of poets at about my own age. The human experience is not entirely singular; there are correspondences. And differences.

I read poetry about old age to learn about myself. Poets can put into language what I often cannot. If I cannot speak it, if I cannot even think it coherently, I cannot truly comprehend it. E.M. Forster asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Flannery O’Connor said, ““I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I read poetry about old age to give me words for what I am feeling. To give me courage. And sometimes for comfort.

I have attached a list in progress of some poems about aging that are worth looking at. In addition, as I have noted before, there is a wonderful collection by Harold Bloom entitled: Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. There is also The Art of Growing Older by Wayne Boothe which gathers poems and other literature about aging into categories. Part of my daily reading for years has been in the Poem A Day books – there are three volumes. The original volume was compiled as a project for The Natural Death Centre in Great Britain, and many of the poems address old age, loss, and death. Many of them also express and bring joy. I will add to my list of old age poems as more come to mind or are discovered; I encourage readers to send me their own favorites. In this business of being on the downside of life’s parabola, we all need comfort, companionship, and a marked-up map.

So what is my favorite poem about aging? I am tempted to cite Frost’s two-liner, written in his eighties:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

But no. My choice (at least for today) is from A. E. Housman’s volume Last Poems. Housman published only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime – one at age thirty-seven (A Shropshire Lad) and Last Poems at age sixty-three. I own a first U.S. edition of the latter, and it is a treasured possession. On page 60 is the following poem:

XXXV
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here’s the fair,
But where’s the lost young man?

– To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be.

Rules of One’s Own

I keep a journal and highly recommend the practice. (See my post on journaling in old age.) But, if you ask me why I keep a journal I cannot give you as good an answer as Marion Milner supplied. Marion Milner had a very specific purpose in keeping a journal for seven years: to “find out what kind of experience made me [her] happy.” You see, Marion was becoming aware that her “life was not as I [she] would like it and it might be in my [her] power to make it different.” And her first step was attempting to note every day what kind of things made her happy. You see, like many of us, Marion could not easily articulate what made her happy and was therefore unable to securely answer questions about what her aims in life should be.

The book that Marion Milner (initially under the name of Joanna Field) eventually wrote about this project is entitled A Life of One’s Own. It is a book that I heartily recommend with one caveat – one must persevere through the first couple of chapters. But then… it is a delight. It is not a book that gives you any answers – it is, however, a book that might help you find your own answers. And do not look for this book to pop up on the bestseller list; it was written in 1934. You will probably not even find it in the library, but that does not matter – you will want to own it. Luckily, it is still in print.

Milner gets inspiration from Montaigne and Robinson Crusoe. Montaigne had tried a similar exercise, similarly looking for rules that applied to himself and not necessarily to all mankind. Defoe’s Crusoe lands on a deserted island and has to figure out how to live. And so do we all. The title presumably alludes to Woolf’s A Room of Her One’s Own, which was published just a few years before Milner wrote her book.

Milner finds some surprises. She is much taken with evidence that her happiness seems to not to depend so much on events as it does on the attitude with which she approaches things. She finds that “there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind.” Internal gesture of the mind. One thinks of Montaigne’s comment that “what matters is not what we see but how we see it.” And Milner considers how to use this discovery; more important, she takes us along on her journey to implement this knowledge. And on the way, she gives us as good a manual on mindfulness (without exactly using the current trendy terminology) as I have read to date.

Of course, Milner soon realized that finding happiness involves exploring the roadblocks to happiness. Fear, she found, kept her running in circles. It was her “taskmaster from hell,” and she expends much effort trying to pinpoint what she is afraid of. Death, of course, but more:

Then I began to see it as a fear that my personal identity would be swallowed up and then, gradually, I began to feel that it was this fear which had made me purpose-driven. I felt I had been continually distracted with a life and death issue, I had the desire to always to be getting things done to prove to myself that I existed as a person at all. So it was only very rarely that I had felt safe enough to give up striving, particularly as the enemy was really within my own gates.

Montaigne – long before Churchill – said that his greatest fear was fear. Do you know what you are afraid of?

Your way may not be Marion Milner’s way; she does not expect it to be. But Milner – who later became a renowned psychoanalyst and a distinguished scholar – gives us some advice, a methodology, and great encouragement. When A Life of One’s Own was published, it was well received. Stephen Spender entitled his positive review “The Road to Happiness;” W.H. Auden said that it was “as exciting as a detective story.” And it is. Particularly if, like Jeannette Winterson, you feel that the question “How shall I live” is the most “fierce” and fundamental problem there is. Again, there are no generic answers. Thank goodness.

The story this week is “My Neighbor Opposite,” which portrays another way of realizing what our heart’s desire is. While Milner’s methodology is preferable, there are probably many paths.

Vollendungsroman

Old age is not a topic that people are clamoring to talk about. Even old (or almost old) people. I know. For years, I was on the Board of the Summer Great Books Institute (highly recommended) which takes place at Colby College every summer, and for years I tried pushing a reading list (six works in six days on a common topic) about old age. No one was interested, even though the average age of our attendees was creeping well beyond sixty. The subject was thought to be too depressing. Too morbid. Finally, in 2013 my colleagues agreed to a week in the literature of aging just to shut me up. The list for that year included the following  works: Simone de Beauvoir’s Coming of Age (La Vieillesse) (discussed over two days), Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, Cather’s The Professor’s House, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

In the end it was a great week. People were far from uniform about their ways of thinking about aging. For example, there was the “Do no go gently” crowd and then there was the calm acceptance contingent; there was the “young as you feel” group and the ones who thought they felt far better old than they ever had young. And so on. The discussion was great. And – as in many Great Books discussions which adhere to the original guidelines – we were able to communicate on topics that are hard to approach when not triangulated around a text.

Later when asked by the college where I worked to put together a brief seminar for our elder program, I proposed short readings about… aging. The coordinator of the program didn’t think that people would be interested. They wanted to do something “fun.” Graphic novels about teenage angst perhaps? I stuck to my guns and had a lively session that was repeated several times with different groups of elders. A sample syllabus is here; it included shorter works about the old, by the old, and about aging. Poems are great for this kind of discussion and perhaps I will include a list of poems about aging in my next post.

For the past century or so, one of the most popular genres has been the “coming-of-age” novel – from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye to Black Swan Green (boy versions). For girls, we had Jane Eyre, Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know about you, but I read these books as a young person not just because I could identify with the protagonist, but because I was looking for a road map – a guide for the perplexed young woman, so to speak. Not that it kept me from making the same mistakes (and more), but I was headed to territory I wanted to understand. Isn’t the same true of old age?

We have long had the term Bildungsroman to denote a coming-of-age story. Interestingly, the German words translate as “education” (bildung) “novel” (roman). As I said, a road map, a positive experience. It wasn’t until 1992 that scholars coined the term Vollendungsroman to denote a work about the “winding down of life.” Vollendung means “completion” or “accomplishment.” It would seem that the old – unlike the young – aren’t getting an education; they are getting a certificate of completion. Ah, but at least the genre has a critical category, perhaps because it also has a potentially large market in aging baby boomers.

We talk to others about age, but often flippantly. “You’re only as old as you feel!” Well, yes, sometimes I feel young, but sometimes I feel ancient; I feel that death is leaving messages in my voice mail, sending me ominous texts, battering my bones and teeth. I want to read someone who has been through this, thought about it, imagined how it might be handled by someone. Then I read Gideon or Crossing to Safety or A Spool of Blue Thread or, of course, All Passion Spent.

Erik Erikson has been quoted as saying that “the task of the final stage of life is the psychic battle between integration and despair.” A recent article about novels on old age stated that “Watching authors fight the battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side, is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.” Somewhat true, but victorious is not the word I would use. The ending usually involves loss, decay, death and, hopefully, reconciliation and acceptance. Not victory.

We assume that coming-of-age novels have a happy ending, but they usually end on the plateau of young adulthood. Even with a wedding thrown in and the inference of a happy-ever-after, we know better. Marriages fall apart, careers implode, friends often disappear. And so it is with old age. Along with the wrinkles and the palsy, we need to accept the ending. For that reason, I am heartened to see that the Fall Great Books Institute which meets in the Poconos (also highly recommended) will talk about death this year. They are reading Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gogol’s Dead Souls, Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and some poetry selections, including Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

You might have noticed that I often write about old age in my fiction. This week, I offer you my story, “A Perfect Ending.” Not that there is any such thing as a perfect ending. But we can be perfectly sure that there will be an ending.

Lists: Reading About Old Age

Over the next few weeks, I am going to post some lists of books, articles, poems, and other works about old age that I have found helpful (and fascinating) in trying to comprehend old age. I am interested in understanding both the evolution of how we regard old age and the variety of individual stances regarding senescence. I compiled these lists (sometimes with assistance) for a variety of purposes: research for my dissertation on aspects of the literature of old age (which particularly explored changes engendered by the Western Enlightenment project), reading lists for Great Books and senior groups, reminders of works I would like to read or re-read. There are texts that I have discovered and loved which have old people as predominant characters, and works that were written by fairly old people. There is a mixture of genre in these lists: fiction and non-fiction, classics and science fiction, plays, poems, and essays. I even include some works of art and musical compositions – think of Beethoven’s late quartets!

There are, of course, some good anthologies of works about old age. There is, for example, Helen Nearing’s Light on Aging and Dying. If you are of my generation and remember fondly Helen and Scott Nearing’s book on Living the Good Life, you might also enjoy her book about Scott’s death, Loving and Leaving the Good Life. Wayne Booth compiled a wonderful anthology with commentary entitled The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging. Harold Bloom gathered his favorite “last poems” in 2010, in a rich volume entitled Till I End My Song. Bloom’s musings are almost as good as the poems. And there is the wonderful Helen Luke’s meditations on literature and late life in Old Age: Journey into Simplicity. But these compendiums are only a start.

I also seek out works by older authors. I have been very young, but I have never been very old (getting there fast). I want to know what those ahead of us have to tell. For example, I just finished (and would highly recommend) Amos Oz’s Judas, which he wrote in his mid-seventies and wherein one of the principal characters is also of that age. I will put together such a list of books by old authors about… living while old.

I have my favorites – most of which I have noted here before. There is Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, about the old gentlewoman (Lady Slane), whom I would like to be in my extreme old age. There are the poems of the old ages of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Thomas Hardy. There are the journal entries of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s old age. We need not go through it alone.

I am posting today the extensive bibliography for the dissertation I finished a number of years ago, which was entitled “Foreigners in Their Own Country”: The Struldbruggs and the Changing Language of Aging in Swift’s World. It is an interesting list because it spans the history of Western literature on aging, up to and including the era of Jonathan Swift. If you have not read (or do not remember) the Struldbrugg section of Gulliver’s Travels, please go back and find it! (It’s in Book 3.) If you read Gulliver when you were young, you probably will react a little differently now to this episode about the extremely old. On this list I would especially recommend the works from the Greek and Roman world and the late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance. Of particular note would be Cicero’s “On Old Age,” Langland’s Piers Plowman, Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale,” and Gower’s Confessio Amantis. For a look at some of the earliest books on living a long life, one could take a peek at Cornaro’s Art of Living Long or Cheynes, Essay of Health and Long Life. Luigi Cornaro died at the age of 100 in the sixteenth century; Cheyne was a physician in the early eighteenth century with an eager audience for advice on longevity.

I have also posted the abstract from my dissertation so you can see the territory I was exploring. When I researched and wrote it, I became convinced that the Enlightenment and western faith in science changed the way we look at the cycles of life; I have not significantly altered my opinion. (More on that later.) And I closely reviewed much material at that time. And yet, as I grow older, there is still much that surprises me about senescence, both individually and culturally. These lists are just a way to put material out there for others exploring this new (old) territory. Next time, I will post some lists for book groups (for seniors and potential seniors) and talk about my experience in that regard.

Short Benediction for W. S. Merwin

The poet W. S. Merwin died yesterday at the age of ninety-one.   My favorite Merwin lines come from his poem “Air” :

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

Think about it.  The desert we come from and the desert we are headed for.  Meanwhile, sing.

Poets are influenced by other poets, and when I read “Air” (written in 1963), I hear an earlier poem (1895) by Stephen Crane:

I walked in a desert.
And I cried,
“Ah, God, take me from this place!”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”
I cried, “Well, But —
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon.”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”

This, by the way, was from Crane book of poetry The Black Riders,  which the poet said he liked far more than his very successful novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

But this is a homage to Merwin, who actually wrote a poem called “For the Anniversary of My Death“:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

If you were to write a poem or a letter to commemorate the anniversary of your death, what would you say?  Here is another example from Frost’s “A Lesson for Today“:

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

And then there is this from Stevenson’s “Requiem“:

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Go back and read Merwin and then think about the anniversary of your own death, the epitaph for your stone, a summary of your life.  But please read Merwin, who gave us words to help us sing between the deserts.

 

My Grandfather’s Clock

I had the song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” tick-tocking in my head this morning. A metrical earworm. The ditty tells the remarkable tale of a mechanical device (which actually needs regular winding!) that lasts ninety years – it was “bought on the day” the man was born and only stopped when he died. Do you know it? It was a favorite in New England first grades and with barbershop quartets. (Johnny Cash even recorded it.) Apparently there are many verses, but here is the verse and chorus that I remember:

My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor
It was taller by half than the old man himself
But it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn on the day that he was born
It was always his treasure and pride
But it stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died

This song is said to have given the name of “grandfather” to such clocks. Not sure that is true – I’m beginning to think you can find any fact you want on the internet (as well as its contradiction). But it seems to have been written by Henry Clay Work – an American who heard a similar story when he visited an English pub in North Yorkshire.

Anyway, the timepiece went on “like clockwork,” only being asked to be wound every night (the old version of recharging), and kept perfect time for the duration of the old man’s life. What do we oldsters possess which has served us all or most of our whole lives? Surely nothing mechanical, I would guess. How many radios, cars, televisions, alarm clocks, have we gone through? Technology may be laboring to extend the life of humans, but machinery/equipment is expendable. And more and more so. If its obsolescence isn’t built into its very design, it is soon deemed outmoded by “better” technology that we surely much have to keep up with. And don’t try to get parts for a thirty-year old oven. (The EU, as well as some states, is actually considering legislation to make appliances last longer and be easier to repair.)

And then there is the Marie Kondo craze, spreading the credo to ditch most of our “stuff” and keep only those things we love, the things that spark joy. The result has been a bonanza for thrift shops and Salvation Army stores as people unload their accumulations – and how long before it is replaced? Do we also take the advice to love and take better care of what we have already? And not to abandon it for the newest version or fad?

People my age who are beginning to think about down-sizing or moving to an old age holding station (let’s call it what it is) all have one complaint – they have too much stuff. And, often, the stuff they prize – grandma’s china, Aunt Ruth’s silver, the gigantic wardrobe that’s been in the family for years – no one in the family wants. Who would polish silver these days when it could be melted down to buy a new iPhone?

What does this mean about how we view our environments? Does cultural disposability as it relates to our objects somehow also seep into the way we treat the world around us – our environment, other people? Just a question to ponder. The grandfather clock was dependable and long-lived because it was well and durably made, but it was also reliable because its owner remembered to wind it every night. And to oil and polish it occasionally. To pay attention to it. And deeply appreciate it.

Anyway, writing this post has finally gotten the song out of my head. If you want to read a piece of my fiction about one woman’s attachment to her chiming clock (and other things), try “Playing by Ear.”

Ripeness and Readiness

In an essay on “Late Style in Beethoven,” the philosopher Theodor Adorno starts out with this comparison of old age and fruit:

The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation… and they show more traces of history than growth.

Putting aside the specific discussion of “late” creativity (a subject I will come back to in a future blog, surely citing Adorno’s essay, Edward Said’s On Late Style, and the fascinating Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David Galenson), I am more interested in the simile presented, comparing age to ripe fruit. It is a trope often used; Cicero repeatedly compares old age to ripeness (maturitas). But, in true old age, our fruit is beyond its peak (as much as we would like to think otherwise). It is often dry, withered. It might even start to ferment.

Shakespeare considered the issue of ripeness and indirectly compared it with readiness. In Hamlet (surely the story of the tragedy of youth) and King Lear (a tragedy of old age), in precisely the same point near the end of the play (Act V ii in both cases), we are faced with the conclusion that either readiness is all or ripeness is all. First (in 1603 or thereabouts) we hear the young Dane:

HAMLET: We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

Readiness connotes preparation, and a proactive stance toward a situation. Hamlet may dawdle, but he finally is ready to do something. He has agency over the readiness.

In Lear (five or six years later), it is not the title character that proclaims that ripeness is all, but Edgar, talking to his blinded and despairing father Gloucester:

GLOUCESTER:  No farther, sir; a man may rot even here.

EDGAR:  What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming thither;
Ripeness is all: come on.

GLOUCESTER:  And that’s true too.

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming thither. This is interesting, because (like many of us I would guess) my young “going hence” was even more angst-ridden than my late life “coming thither.” In the scene above, Gloucester wants to go no farther: A man may rot even here. Surely we will grow old wherever we are and, yet, his son encourages him to keep going. And the paradox is that Gloucester, poor blind, disillusioned Gloucester, recognizes that both things are true. And that’s true too. We must age and yet we must go on. It is of note here that when Nahum Tate bowdlerized the Bard to produce an upbeat version of Lear in 1681, it was Tate’s happier version that ran almost steadily until 1838. And in Tate’s unauthorized edit, the line about ripeness just disappears. Apparently, we are more willing to accept the demands of readiness than the inevitabilities of ripeness.

Yves Bonnefoy writes that ripeness and readiness are “the two irreducible attitudes. One the quintessence of the world’s order, the unity of which one seems to breathe; the other, the reverse of that order….” Ripeness connotes a passive passage of time; readiness signals a capacity for action. And, as Gloucester says, both are true. However, the readiness of old age has to be in the context of ripeness, even over-ripeness or decay. There were only five or six years between the writing of Hamlet and the appearance of Lear. Both are tragedies. Both examine a portion of the arc of life – one going up and one coming down. And both have something to teach us, perhaps, about balancing action with acceptance.

For many years, I attended a Great Books week in the summer; we read six works in advance and discussed them with the same group over six days. It was terrific and I would heartily recommend it. At one point I tried writing a novel about the experience – but after a few hundred pages, I did not think it was worth completing. I did, however, complete a chapter in which the group discussed King Lear; I attach a draft here. If you haven’t read the original lately, you might want to revisit the story of an old person who thought he had it figured out.