My Version of David Young’s Question
“I don't know if there is really any such thing as the poetry of old age. Probably not. Some poets are lucky, like Stevens and Yeats, to continue being productive in their late years and even sometimes to improve on early or middle work. Others, like Wordsworth, just drone on, and we learn to ignore their late poems. That there is something unique or distinctive about a poem produced by a 75- or 80-year-old is one of those assertions that most likely won't bear close inspection. The imagination, after all, can produce aged wisdom while speaking through youth, and may display youthful vigor while inhabiting an oldster. It won't accept limits or categories.”
“. . . There are certainly some features of aging—diminishing sense perception, layer upon layer of memory, rueful awareness of mortality—that might be expected to show up more regularly in such work. And there may also be a kind of freedom—from possessions and commitments that tie us down, from relationships that have dissolved through time and loss, from sensual preoccupations and ego-driven behaviors—a freedom that gives the ‘elderly’ poet a new lease on creativity and poem-making. Remember Yeats' beggar-hermit who, ‘giddy with his hundredth year, / Sang unnoticed like a bird’? Both ‘sang’ and ‘unnoticed’ are key aspects of that insight, while ‘like a bird’ is something any and all of us aspire to, a naturalness of expression that links us to ‘great creating Nature.’”
David Young takes this to talk about a couple of new books by older poets in the newest issue of FIELD, and to make a positive comment about them, but the larger, generalized question remains, about the chances of a poet being productive into old age. Those who are and those who are not.
This is easier to see (or easier to talk about) in contemporary music with the great example of The Rolling Stones, right? What happened to them in the early 80s that they couldn’t recover from. There’s the easy—too easy—toss off that the rock bands from the 60s and 70s, once they stopped doing drugs, they lost their inspiration. But the examples from the arts (there are also many examples from science) seem to show that there is something about inspiration (or talent or whatever you want to call it) that, in most all of us, wanes with age. Why?
Is it that we only get the one idea? And once it’s done we don’t have a second idea? So that we have to go back to squares? And then we either repeat at diminished capacity what we’ve done before, or we go out in search of something new that we mostly never find . . . ? There’s something about this that feels true to me, especially in science, how one gets the discovery, the insight in to a problem, and then one’s insight is done.
Stevens is a great example, as he’s often talked about as one who kept his ability. His last poems are often excellent. But his poems of real genius (with few exceptions) are in Harmonium, his first book (even though it came out when was in his early 40s). He lost a lot of his playfulness and his ability to pair ideas with things after Harmonium, and replaced it with an, at times interesting and necessary, at times rather ponderous, investigation of imagination.
Most artists (writers, etc) that achieve something lasting, are artists, as one might say, “of the first half of life.” Maybe this is getting more and more interesting to me as I’m now 45, and am entering, or am about to enter (as much as I want to refuse) this second half of life. But as I’m looking at it, I can’t see any reason why the faculties dim. They don’t have to. And I think that the answer why this happens has a lot to do with what Young describes as “layer upon layer of memory.” Something about that makes me feel that one might begin to dwell not in the investigation of new things anymore (as there are no new things under the sun yada yada), and begins to feel the weight of having been there . . . the poems of old age (Stevens, Yeats in Young’s example) are about this, the old man asleep over the river R.
There are a lot of poets writing today (Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, etc.) who had their great idea when they were at or near middle age, and how now fallen off the radar of a lot of poetry readers, just as the attention has turned to a whole herd of young poets who have just had or are just entering their great idea (Graham Foust, Rachel Zucker, and on) . . . I suppose it’s a cycle. But one can always hope for that second go at it, that Yeats or Stevens go . . .
But then the second turn of the thought:
And what of Rae Armantrout, whom I would call a poet of steady building, who has as strong a voice now as she’s ever had? And what of Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop? Or, going back, George Oppen? Or, in a different way, Elizabeth Bishop?
Exceptions, probably, but it is in exceptions where hope lies. (Which also makes hope sound like a liar, doesn’t it?)