Sunday, May 02, 2010

My Version of David Young’s Question

This is a topic that I’ve thought a lot about over the years, as David Young writes:

“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.”

He continues:

“. . . 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?)


At 5/03/2010 12:36 PM, Anonymous Seminar said...

I've come again to read your post. The little girl scares me. Will the grass eat her? I hope so. Are the old people hiding in the grass? Will they eat the little girl? I hope so. My friend was right about you. I will come again, maybe, to read another post.

At 5/03/2010 6:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The grass always eats the girl. It's what grass does. It needs us.

At 5/05/2010 6:41 AM, Anonymous John Louglin said...

Long-time reader, first time poster. Am intrigued by your use of your one ‘great idea’ idea, and would love to see you flesh this baby out. But particularly as it pertains to Jorie Graham and Charles Wright, and the new guard you name, Graham Foust (whose work I greatly admire) and Rachel Zucker (dunno). (In the spirit of disclosure, Jorie was my thesis advisor at Iowa.)

In your use of the phrase, could it mean gimmick? Or one-trick pony? Or genuine artistic breakthrough that gets dead horsed? In any case, isn’t it more a progression to a signature style achieved after years of hard apprenticeship to craft?

It’s true, these days I don’t go off running to a poem by either Graham or Wright, primarily because I am pretty certain there will be no surprises (think: the Simpson’s ‘Poochie’ episode, but I can lump a lot of other late career poets into this bin, Simic, et al.) Whereas Foust, and I presume, Zucker, are still ‘fresh’. When Lowell says, “one life, one writing!,” he touches on this. In essence, we’re all ‘doomed’ to sound like no one but us.

Shit, I’m getting old…

At 5/06/2010 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, hi, enjoyed the post but want to say or encourage you to look further. And the Stones, I think, are far too easy an old-age target, from the music category at least. Old poets getting better with age come to my mind pretty immediately, although it's not all exactly wine. I won't even start to name names. But one thing that came to mind when I read your post was the difficulty of assigning 'better' to certain canons, especially the very good. That poet who knocked everyone's socks off at twenty-five isn't likely to knock as many socks off at fifty, and will always be measured against earlier works, becoming a difficult personal standard-bearer for her or himself at best, not taking into account the tenor of the times in general, the complexities of 'audience', etc. We are living in the Age of Insignificance, far as I can tell, which probably makes me not unbiased in my thought that the age premise might have problems. That, and I'm getting old.

At 5/09/2010 7:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

John, you write:

“In your use of the phrase, could it mean gimmick? Or one-trick pony? Or genuine artistic breakthrough that gets dead horsed? In any case, isn’t it more a progression to a signature style achieved after years of hard apprenticeship to craft?”

I Reply:

No. I don’t think it’s gimmick. I mean, anything can be a gimmick, I suppose, but I’m thinking more the genuine breakthrough. Jorie Graham and Ch. Wright were very important to me from the mid 80s through the mid 90s. It’s quite a difficult position to be in. To achieve something in art, some new thing and then to not have a way to either investigate it further or to move on. But even that isn’t it, really. I mean Ashbery continues to be Ashbery as he has for decades, and I don’t get this feeling about his work.

It’s other than a signature style, as well, I think. Most poets get their signature style quite early. I think, for a poet like Graham, she continued to press on her early style until it exploded in profitable ways through End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, and Materialism, but then she seemed to stop pressing, and instead decided to be more “worldly” in content. It’s important that artists have that kind of ambition, and maybe that’s behind the kind of falling off so many artists have: the things one writes about have to change over time. Some people are better at dealing with that than others. For Yeats and Stevens, the late work that people comment so positively on, isn’t just about quality, that work also investigated a new content for them. For Graham, I think she’s willing her content too much. It doesn’t feel genuine. And for Wright, well, he’s always been end-haunted. Maybe if he could get a new content, or a fresh way into content? I think his last book was just such an attempt. It gives me hope.

At 5/09/2010 7:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, perhaps Paul McCartney would’ve been a better example than the Stones. One can say that the Stones haven’t really even tried, but you can’t say that about McCartney. He tries new things all the time, and new configurations, it’s just that he’s not able to actually do anything that’s very good. Another example, even more subtle, might be Bruce Springsteen, who has kept quite a bit of his popularity, while at the same time getting much more conventional and uninspired. But these examples are, perhaps, too easy, as the analogy doesn’t quite work, as there are very few, if any, examples of a rock star getting better over time, and, as you say, there are examples of poets getting better over time.

You write:

“We are living in the Age of Insignificance, far as I can tell, which probably makes me not unbiased in my thought that the age premise might have problems.”

I reply:

I disagree! I think that we are in such an age, but only as we see ourselves now, in general. I think, as I look around, that there are many pockets of significance and value. There’s absolutely wonderful art going on. In music, I think there is better music being made now than any time since 1972, and in poetry, I think this is a better time than anything we’ve seen since the 1920s, though in both instances, you’d not notice it by looking at the mass market. I’m such an optimist!

At 5/12/2010 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heartily agree, John, it's a remarkable time, a glass half full kind of time. The comment on the Age of Insignificance was pointing more toward the half-emptiness of the age, the period watered down by lack of reception, not by the players, who are for the most part, far as I can tell, better than ever. It's the audience in decline, and while I can see the fallacy in the old 'great audience' adage, it still concerns me. When a poet falls in the forest, does she make any sound?

By the way, I saw Springsteen at the several thousand seat Quest Center in Omaha last year, 'saw' being the operative word mostly, having a ticket way, way back from the stage, surrounded by people talking on cell phones.

Badlands ...


At 5/17/2010 10:57 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

it may be easier for mediocre poets like David Young to go on writing in old age—after all, their standards were never very high to begin with—

anyway, I had some thoughts about the subject this morning:


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