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.

Becoming and De-becoming

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been hobbled with a broken foot. I was carrying on quite well (perhaps too well) until I went to what I thought would be my last appointment with the orthopedist – looking forward to leaving the office with my cumbersome boot under my arm and destined for the trash bin. Instead, I was told that my foot hadn’t healed; we would have to give it at least another month and see what was happening. I did not take it well.

It is true that I have osteoporosis. I take calcium, eat a ton of yogurt, and exercise regularly, but my genes and my age have caught up with me. My body is breaking down and taking longer to repair itself. Eventually, of course, it will be beyond repair (some might say that it has already gotten to that point). In the course of my daily meditation, I repeat the five recollections (Upajjhatthana Sutta), the second of which is “I have a body which is subject to aging and decay; I am not beyond aging and decay.” I have been repeating these words for years, but somehow I don’t seem to want to believe them. None of us does. And yet, none of us is beyond aging and decay.

I have referenced Hermann Hesse’s Hymn to Old Age before, and I recommend it heartily. There was a critical article about Hesse in a recent New Yorker – even the title was negative: “Herman Hesse’s Arrested Development.” Hesse did try to catch the soul of the young, and this review emphasizes such works as Demian and Siddhartha, but neglects The Glass Bead Game – or, more accurately, points to it only in that it includes young men living celibate lives in perpetual school. Unfair, I think. Hesse wrote prose and poetry into his old age; The Glass Bead Game (particularly cited when Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize) was published when he was in his sixties and has much to say about being old and being young. The compendium of his words in and about old age which I reference above is a treasure.

In any case, Hesse has this to say about the process of “de-becoming” – a term I have come to appreciate:

For the task, desire and duty of youth is to become, and the task of the old man is to surrender himself or, as German mystics used to call it, ‘to de-become.’ One must first be a full person, a real personality, and one must have undergone the sufferings of this individualization before one can make the sacrifice of his personality.

And this, again, reminds me of Buddhism, where “becoming” is not always a good thing, while Nibbana or “extinction” of desire is indeed to be wished for. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a great Buddhist scholar and translator puts it like this:

In the end he must choose between the way that leads back into the world, to the round of becoming, and the way that leads out of the world, to Nibbana. And though this last course is extremely difficult and demanding, the voice of the Buddha speaks words of assurance confirming that it can be done, that it lies within man’s power to overcome all barriers and to triumph even over death itself.

Like it or not, as we age we are “de-becoming” what we used to be – body and mind. It is a sacrifice that we make whether we do so willingly or not. But perhaps the measure of a Hesse’s “full person” is that one can surrender willingly, even joyfully. I have not gotten there yet, but the forces of nature are working on me.

This week’s piece of fiction (“May 12, 2036”) is an exercise based on Jorge Borges’ short story “August 25, 1983,” wherein the great Argentinian writer imagines meeting himself in the future on his own deathbed. (He died in 1986, so was off by three years.) It is an intriguing story and a good model. Read my story if you like, but please do read the Borges. And try the exercise yourself.

The Sacred Book

Books are wonderful. I learned at a very young age that there is nothing better than a good book.   Books were the things, besides the body, that seemed to transcend every transition in life. I married, had children changed husbands, launched kids, moved houses – but there were always the books. A mystified coworker (who could not believe I spent precious vacation time going somewhere to talk about books) once gave me a sweatshirt that said: “So many books, so little time.” Yes, indeed.

I thought you could learn anything from a book. My father may have been the culprit on this. He built his first house  out of a book entitled Your Dream Home: How to Build it for Less than $3,500 – very popular with GI’s who came home after World War II. My father read the book and he built a house. He had some help and the house had its problems, but the book told him what he needed to know, and – more than that – it convinced him it was possible. In later years, he used books to teach himself to sail, play chess, and to build a fireplace with rocks that he picked up on the beach. I have a clear memory of all of us standing around the massive hearth, where misshapen rocks were held together with a little more concrete than you might see in more professional masonry, and holding our breaths as we waited to see whether it would draw smoke. And it did. Again, not perfectly, but well enough for the man who was so proud of it. You could learn anything out of books.

Over the years I used books for a variety of reasons. I wore out my Dr. Spock while raising children and I am on my second red Betty Crocker cookbook.  I learned to knit and crochet with books; I taught myself enough French to pass the second-language translation test for a graduate degree I used books to plan trips, bake bread, grow roses, sew curtains, buy cars, set up a retirement account, research almost anything I was interested in.

Of course, the obvious extrapolation from all of this textual success was that the same vehicles that taught me information and crafts, that delivered me safely where I wanted to go and told me if my child had the chicken pox, could also teach me how to live a happy, peaceful life, could free me from irrational fears (hypochondria, catastrophic thinking) and rational fears (death and global warming), could help me adjust to old age. So, I read great books, self-help books, spiritual memoirs, important works in psychology and philosophy and popular works of psychobabble. I ran through subjects and authors. Still I could not read myself into faith or peace or self-acceptance. But I kept trying. If the original story were true, it was just a matter of reading the right book, wasn’t it? And I had always thought there could not be enough books, but perhaps we should remember what the Preacher says (in Ecclesiastes, one of my favorite books of the Bible): “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

So my faith in books had some holes in it. It is clear, while I have learned much on a “technical” level, there is something that books have not been able to give me. I have wandered and thirsted through Borges’ labyrinthine libraries and gathered all of the likely candidates. And still there were no answers to many important questions. (See this week’s story, “By the Book,” for a tale of bibliomancy, the belief that books can indeed answer specific questions.)

I ran across this passage from the ever-pessimistic Schopenhauer not long ago (and it is worth thinking about pessimistic vs. optimistic attitudes toward life and where they land us, but that is for another time):

much reading robs the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring under a continuous weight. If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment.

This practice accounts for the fact that learning makes most men more stupid and foolish than they are by nature, and prevents their writings from being a success; they remain, as Pope has said. “Forever reading, never to be read.”

“The safest plan is the pick up a book….” Books are no different from other experiences in many ways, but perhaps inferior in being at second hand. And if – like other experiences – we do not take time to process our reading, make it part of us, love, criticize, accept or reject what we read, books are, at last, simply amusements and diversions.   I will always love books, but I no longer believe they will save me. And I particularly cannot believe that the next one will be the jackpot – because there will always be a next one (ask the Preacher).

So, here might be the new story. There is a time in life to lean back and try to bring the reading and experience into synch – to enter into a Lady Slane (All Passion Spent) period of reflection. This may be one of the things old age is for. A moratorium on input and time for processing. I have not read every good book, but perhaps I have realized that I will never get to the end of good books. And if I keep trying to get to the end of them, I might never get to the bottom of them.

Dante’s Parabola

 

In this pleasing contrite wood-life which god allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not.

– Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days with a new baby, a lovely new baby. This special infant evoked lucid memories: adults making fools of themselves, the smells of spit-up and sweet baby skin, the rule of chaos in everything including time, and the utter vulnerability in which our species is born. But this time I noticed something else too. The little baby boy was staring very intently at one thing after another. Trying to make sense of the world.

Wordsworth claims that babies come into the world “trailing clouds of glory” and that former babies forget as the shabby realities of the world override the wonders of heaven. Be that as it may, surely babies are trying to make sense of what must seem like a confusing world. And we big folks work to convince them it’s a noble effort and that there is any sense to it all. We teach them labels for things (“Mama”) and, when they respond, we think they’ve really learned something. Maybe. In any case, babies often look intent and perplexed. This one certainly did.

In some cases it seemed the baby had figured things out – or been born knowing them. Our grandson certainly was able to communicate hunger or discomfort of any kind. And we watched him testing how much control he had over his own body – although whether he differentiated his body from his mother’s was unclear. Mostly our baby had a curious and puzzled look on his little face – and that got me thinking again about Dante’s parabola of human life.

If life is a parabola (related to the Greek word parabolē, which also gave us parable), it might be an interesting exercise to ponder the mathematical definition of a parabola, which is: “a curve where any point is an equal distance from a fixed point (interestingly call the focus) and a fixed line (called the directrix).” You can see a good diagram of this here.

In such a model, our lives would travel through time along what we would normally call the x-axis, which in this case is called the directrix – from birth to the left through death to the right. And we might note here that directrix is the archaic feminine form of the director. The directrix is the feminine axis of time. The three Fates were also women: Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, the allotter, and Atropos, the unturnable.

So, if time (the directrix) is the horizontal axis, what is the vertical axis?   If Dante is right, it is the measure of perfection. And he says that it crests in the thirty-fourth year. Maybe true, at least in Dante’s day. Or might it be that with better sanitation and medical help, the peak might have migrated a little to the right? Does it matter? The point is that life’s trajectory goes up – and then goes down. But whatever we call it – growth, development, maturity – it goes through the same levels (think y-axis) going down as it went through going up.

Here’s another way to look at it: the distance from the focus is always changing, but there is always one point going up and one coming down where the distance is the same. A correspondence with an identical point on the y-axis. Birth with death, for instance. And certainly poets have been known to compare the process, the labor of being born with the labor of dying. Could there be other correspondences – menopause and adolescence, for example? Marriage with widowhood or divorce? Steady debilitation in old age with the steady development of children? Can we make comparisons? Can we take lessons from the first time we crossed these vertical markers and use them when we are on the same level on our way down? And what is that still point in the middle, the focus, from which all is measured?

One might think of the Buddha’s enlightenment. After trying to gain nirvana (or at least lasting peace and happiness) through severe ascetic practice – starving himself until he would touch his spine by putting his hand on his stomach – he suddenly remembered a moment from his childhood. As a young child, Siddhartha went to a ploughing festival with his father and was left to sit in “the cool shade of a rose-apple tree” – alone and safe and soon in a kind of self-induced rapture. It was not a rapture born of deprivation; it was a function of deep contentment. And in his adulthood he remembered and re-learned this lesson from his youth. He went back to learn something which taught him how to go forward. The rose-apple tree turned into the bodhi tree. An even better example might be Proust and the memory of the taste of a cookie he dipped in tea when a child. This memory at age fifty-one triggered the Remembrance of Things Past, a review of his life and a masterpiece. A taste and a memory. Parallel moments. Baudelaire said genius was “nothing more than childhood recovered at will.”   Think about that.

And think about the newest baby in our family trying to make sense of the world and more than a little perplexed by it all. And about the oldest member of our family who is also perplexed and getting more so every day. At the same horizontal point on the parabola perhaps, but headed in different directions.

I have attached a story, “Like Heaven,” about a woman at two points on her own parabola. I wrote this tale long ago when I was first thinking about the parabola parable. I am currently working on a novel where I pair diary entries over the course of a lifetime to explore whether the same issues come up as we rise along the arc of life and as we venture down the other side. It isn’t scientific and I’m not even sure the metaphor even holds, but, as I said, it is worth thinking about.

Possessing That Which Was Mine

A few weeks ago there was an op-ed piece in the Sunday Times by Ann Patchett entitled “My Year of No Shopping.”  It was one of those wonderful instances where the title told you exactly what the article was about, and Ms. Patchett did actually spend a year without purchasing anything but necessities (and books, but this aside might be redundant) and without perusing catalogs, tramping through malls, or (and this might be the chief benefit) surfing the internet. Now, Ms. Patchett is only fifty-four years old, young to be thinking about trimming her sails (see Emerson poem here), but wise enough to know that there must be a time to step back. Ann Patchett finds many of the things that she thinks she “needs” somewhere in the house – for example, she unearths enough lip balm and face cream to last the duration. But she finds other things, too – such as a renewed appreciation for what she already has – and a ton of time to think about and do other things.

As we age in this era of technology, information, and consumerism, there is a constant pressure to keep up – not to be the old lady who not only has no idea about all the things her iPhone can do, but has one that is five generations old. I thought about this quite a bit a while back, in a way that overlaps with the methodology and reasoning of Ms. Patchett. And I did what I often do when I am mulling something over – I wrote a story. “Nothing New,” is attached here. I have not practiced what my protagonist resolves at the end of the story, but I have become more conscious and reflective about what new things I take into my life. And if you continue to read my blog about life and aging, you will realize I believe more in reflection than I do in action and more in retrospective contemplation than I do in further mental accumulation. More on this later.

This may evoke Philip Larkin’s sentiments in “Winter Palace”: “Most people know more as they get older; / I give all that the cold shoulder.” My motivations are slightly different than Mr. Larkin’s, however. Mine are more akin to those of Borges’ prisoner “The God’s Script,” who has no access to the new and is thrown back on what he already knows:

Impelled by the fatality of having something to do, of populating time in some way, I tried, in my darkness, to recall all I knew…. Gradually, in this way, I subdued the passing years; gradually, in this way, I came into possession of that which was already mine.

And, unlike Ann Patchett, I might also limit books. In another one of Borges’ stories, a wise man from the future tells a man from the past that “it is not the reading that matters, but the re-reading.” As we age, we cannot possibly keep up with the best seller lists, recommendations, treasures in the remainder pile. As Ecclesiastes reminds us: “Of making many books there is no end.” But there is an end to life and there is a time for review and reflection – and, perhaps, for a limit to the new.