VOX POETICA • BY MERRILL LEFFLER
The New Year once more: we have rounded the board, passed Go, and are off again with fresh resolutions and resolves, new determination, exciting prospects. “The triumph of hope over experience,” wrote Samuel Johnson, though in another context – second marriages, it turns out. It’s the new year but I am thinking of the Old. Not the old year but the Old, the Aged, those among us who may not view the future so aboundingly – after all the years ahead are much briefer than those behind.
For the young, the old are largely invisible. As Donald Hall (b. 1928) writes in “Affirmation: “To grow old is to lose everything. / Aging, everybody knows it. / Even when we are young, / we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads / when a grandfather dies.”
In my late 20s, I published “Running the Boardwalk,” a poem in which I was literally and figuratively running from those aged bodies that “like strangers outside / of themselves” sat on the boardwalk in Long Beach, New York:
With such speed that the gull
sweeping above is the arm of the wind
carrying your body in flight past the old
Jews bundled against that glare, their suits
pressed, waiting, as if death
were a gentleman coming to escort them.
So why think of the Old now, at the head of the new year? The intersections of at least three events that I am aware of (there may be others): I visited two friends, both in their 90s; and at the same time, I happened to pick up Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker. Written in 1941, her subject is creativity — the thesis might be roughly summed up in this: “The characteristic common to God and man is the ability to make things.” I’ll add an aside about the verbs “create” and “make,” which I’ve come to distinguish: in Genesis I:1, we read “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” One biblical commentary has it that only God “creates” (the Hebrew “barah”), while men/women “make” (the Hebrew “asah”). Meanwhile, in Greek, the poet is a “maker.”
One friend is Reed Whittemore who now lives in a nursing home in Kensington, besieged by dementia. Once Poet Laureate of the U.S, laureate of Maryland, teacher-professor at Carleton College and the University of Maryland for more than 40 years, former literary editor of The New Republic, biographer, essayist, founder and editor of literary journals, his once sparkling wit rarely gives off glints. It’s not that he’s unaware – “my mind won’t work,” he says repeatedly, as if in apology.
Reed was the quintessential “Word Man,” the title of a poem that concluded his unique third-person memoir, Against the Grain: The Literary Life a Poet.” (Disclosure. I published this book in 2007) Even a few years ago, he could go to his typewriter if only to write about not being able to write (and end with one of those “glints”).
so it is a boring late afternoon and i have written half a page of nonsense (including this sentence) what now? of course the tv is on and boring. i could hurt myself with a kitchen knife but that would hurt – so i’ll stop. but what can I do if i dont write? – writing has been my profession for 58, 68, 88 yrs and hasn’t left me with much time for anything else. how about drawing? no. drawing wont do because it’s so ordinary and i don’t want to be ordinary. but how about special drawing. . . there, that’s something (but how much) and after writing and drawing, what is there. there is not writing and not writing [is] an excellent thought – but here i am writing the thought down even as i complain about such an activity. groan.
He could still go to his typewriter; in the midst of his seeming aimlessness because there were messages that he needed to get out. It was the drive to make. Sadly, his typewriter is now silent.
The same week, I went to see my long longtime friend Herman Taube. Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1918, Herman was called up to the army in 1939, imprisoned shortly thereafter in Siberia during the years of the Soviet-German pact in WWII, released after the pact’s dissolution, spending several years as a medic tending typhus patients in Uzbekistan, until ordered to Saratov in Russia – he was still in the Second Polish Army. His medical unit was sent to Kursk, where his ambulance was blown up and he barely survived. Though his body has been besieged and assaulted over these years, his mind is acute – in this, he has been one of the fortunate. Poet, storyteller, teacher, essayist, columnist, Herman is also a “word man” –even his daily emails are in metered lines. “Poetic notes,” he calls them. (Another disclosure. I published Herman’s Looking Back, Going Forward)
His poems range widely – episodes of his life before and during WWII, the Holocaust, pains of aging, fear, the joys of children and grandchildren, sorrows of the losses he has seen and endured, and still does. While he can celebrate a bird landing on the balcony of his apartment or be comedic as in “Cholesterol”:
I have become an expert on diastolic hypertension,
elevated blood Cholesterol and the risk factor.
The adverse effect of obesity on the elderly,
and the required therapy: limit the intake of
food, alcohol, stop smoking, omit depression.
Failure to obey the rules can cost you your life.
I’m in distress just thinking of Cholesterol.
His poems are also despairing and sorrowful about the damages that time does to the body – here is the opening of “Rain Is Roughly My Enemy,” which he sent just days ago:
It was not my decision, nor did I
choose the time to be plagued by pain
every time rain comes. It started
after they removed the veins from my
legs. When I went through heart
surgery twice, I lost circulation in my feet.
The sorrows of old age have long been a theme of poetry, especially by poets who in their younger years wrote with vivacity and rapture. This fragment by Sappho (7th century Greece) whose themes were the passions and love, of both sexes – Alcaeus, a contemporary, wrote of “violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho” – was only discovered in 2004 from an Egyptian burial site:
Pursue the purple-robed Muses, you girls so young
and the melodious lyre so dear to song:
But me – my skin which once was soft is withered now
by age, my hair which once was black has now turned white
my heart is weighed down, my knees will not support me
that once were nimble in the dance like little fawns.
How often I lament these things. But what to do?
No being that is human can escape old age.
For people used to think that Dawn with rosy arms
and loving murmurs took Tithonus fine and young
to reach the edges of the earth; yet still gray age
in time did seize him, though his consort cannot die.
And Anacreon, born at the time of Sappho’s death lamented what he had come to: “Oft am I by the women told, / “Poor Anacreon! thou growest old; / Look; how thy hairs are falling all; / Poor Anacreon, how they fall.”
I could put together a small anthology of poems I know, among them, 19th century poet Matthew Arnold’s “Growing Old”: “What is it to grow old,” he asks in the first line – among the several stanzas that follow, it is this line that is so common: “‘Tis not to see the world /As from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes, / And heart profoundly stirred”; D.H. Lawrence’s “It ought to be lovely to be old”; Charles Reznikoff’s “Hail and Farewell”: Stanley Kunitz’s “Touch Me”: A.R. Ammons’s “In View of This Fact”: “The people of my time are passing away: my / wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year old who / died suddenly.”
But all these and so many other poems on the “years ahead [that] seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind” (Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”) is that they are poems – they are not undifferentiated screams: the poets are engaged in what Dorothy Sayers called and what I strongly believe to be an essential human need: the need to make, the “activity of creation.”
As Yeats wrote famously, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and loud sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.” Finally all these poems are human songs and it is their making that gives a sense of meaning, of being truly alive.
Yeats is echoed by a poet closer to us: William Carlos Williams. In her recent Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, Rita Dove refers to Williams as one of the pillars of modern poetry. Williams had been wracked by cerebral strokes and yet, difficult as it was for him to speak, and unable to do more than tap out letter by letter on his typewriter, he did just that, making poems that became the Pulitzer-winning Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. Let him have the last word, for now:
It is myself,
not the poor beast lying there
yelping with pain
that bring me to myself with a start –
as at the explosion
of a bomb, a bomb that has laid
all the world waste.
I can do nothing
but sing about it
and so I am assuaged
from my pain.