Poetry Lessons from the Advanced in Age

Writers confront the end

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Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements, I seem to remember, conjured the shape of an imperfect H. Ezra Pound claimed in Literary Essays that the lyric age (like the mathematical age) is seventeen to twenty-three, with the possibility of a second efflorescence, another flaring, at the other end of life. H. The down payment, then the expectation of straitened circumstances, and finally the balance of the account, if any. Perhaps oddly, I was always more comforted by—more interested in—the spectrally dangled second leg of the H, the further end of the rainbow.

I’m not sure the qualities of writing in age can be tabulated or synthesized. One wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about it, and of course one has always liked and even loved interesting and striking work composed at any stage, at any phase, and even work of which one doesn’t know offhand the age. (It was Joseph Brodsky who had the idea that the writer’s age—the age of the writer at the time of writing—should be prominently displayed somewhere on the work.) Even in my own lyric age, which is about when I read Pound’s essay, I don’t think I made a special cult of the youthful masters (Keats, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Brecht), while I always had a discrete and, on the face of it, unlikely interest in the work of the old, or very old. Even in advance, I knew not to give much for middle age. That was the crossbar of the H, the bone away from the knuckle ends, the thirties, forties, fifties . . . “those trashy years,” I thought, in Ian Hamilton’s phrase. My image was of writers, though principally poets, going into an eclipse and with luck emerging. (There is another piece to be written on the dazzling late novels of Penelope Fitzgerald or Jane Gardam.) Poets, then. From a tangle of some or all of hindrance, overproduction, repetition, mannerism, or life. And then into what? With luck, something brisk, grand, plain.

To begin with, I found it in Pound and Stevens. I loved such moments in the late Cantos (Canto CXV, from Drafts and Fragments, published in 1968, when Pound was eighty-three):

Mozart, Linnaeus, Sulmona,
When one’s friends hate each other
how can there be peace in the world?
Their asperities diverted me in my green time.
A blown husk that is finished
  but the light sings eternal
a pale flare over marshes
where the salt hay whispers to tide’s change
Time, space,
neither life nor death is the answer.
And of man seeking good,
doing evil.
In meiner Heimat
where the dead walked
and the living were made of cardboard.

Or the late Stevens (“Lebensweisheitspielerei” from “The Rock” of 1954, when the poet was seventy-five):

Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.

Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.

Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

Pound plays with knowledge, with (albeit elsewhere more than here) recollection (the marsh-scene is perhaps Pisa?), with a quick-change shuffle of vision, evocation, and rumination. We have the blown husk and the light, the asperities, the juggling with the eschatological categories of time, space, life, death, good, evil, peace. It is agreeable that he is not finished (“made of cardboard”) with asperities either, against the land of his birth, for which he slips into Heine’s German. (Heine, too, an exile and author of exquisite late and last poems, from his “mattress-tomb” in Paris.) Stevens is slower, more costive. His poem is squeezed along in synonyms. This gives it its feeling of unanimity, of consonance. It goes along, making a low wail. Almost all of it could be imagined as coming out of a single Roget’s entry, say for “reduction” or “decline” or “terminal”: “weaker,” “falls,” “unaccomplished,” “dwindled,” “indigence,” “pallor,” “threads,” “little,” “few,” “poverty,” “autumnal,” “few,” “stale,” “annihilation.” Wherever there are big words, or positive words, they are countermanded: the sunlight is “weaker”; the “proud and the strong / have departed”; the stars are pale and hanging by threads; there is “grandeur,” but it is “stale” and is the property of “annihilation,” which is like a multiplying of something by nothing. As Pound continues to be exercised by asperity, so Stevens remains consumed by style (the last phrase of the poem reminds me of “Christ . . . this is a dingy way to die,” the Consul’s last words in Under the Volcano).

Staging Aging

Pound’s Canto is centrifugal, Stevens’s poem centripetal. Pound is about many things, Stevens seems to accrete around one atmosphere, one setting, one drama. Pound skips everywhere and nowhere; in Stevens, “afternoon” and “autumn” and “annihilation” are equated. Late in the day is late in the season is late in life; these are fractals, and part of the seeming unanimity or overwhelmingness of the poem, which shrinks time and shrinks life. He nowhere says so, but one could imagine it is about, or derives from, say, a gloomy afternoon in the hospital (as he writes in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” an eon earlier, but it shows his susceptibility to such things, “It was evening all afternoon”). Isn’t the atmosphere, the understanding, the tardy, reluctant fellow-feeling here that of a waiting room? What connects both poems, and perhaps other writing in age, is an accounting. Both have reached a sort of headland. There is little space to stand on, but a big view. And both leave us with wanness: Pound’s “pale flare,” Stevens’s “stellar pallor.” In both, there is a sort of cut-to-the-chase, the poet’s calculus being “of course you know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, I’m certainly not about to tell you.” There isn’t the fuss, or the convention of address or information or entertainment that inheres in younger poetry. You go straight into the “ubi sunt,” and perhaps a poem can have no more dignified purpose than to recreate what is gone. In Pound’s case, it is—as after a whole life of practice—the image, the whisper of the salt hay that has outlasted his life and will outlast anything human; in Stevens’s the “stale grandeur,” again, perhaps a take on the practice of a lifetime. Even the unapologetic persistence in both poets contains a subliminal element of remorse.

Not everything “old” is really old or real. I liked also—and still like—slightly stagey anticipations of age, say Lowell’s translation of Quevedo in “The Ruins of Time” in Near the Ocean of 1967, in the poet’s fiftieth year:

I went into my house. I saw how dust
and ravel had devoured its furnishing;
even my cane was withered and more bent,
even my sword was coffined up in rust—
there was no hilt left for the hand to try.
Everything ached, and told me I must die.

or his version of Villon in Imitations (1961), or the freer, and undeclared version by Ian Hamilton in his poem, “Complaint” originally in The Visit of 1970, when Hamilton was just thirty-two:

My boys run, leaving their mother as they
would a stone
That rolls on in the playground after the
bell has gone.
I gather dust and I could almost love the grave.
To have small beasts room in me would be
something.
But here, at eight again, I watch the
blossoms break
Beyond this gravel yard.
I know how to behave.

A centered speech, a little overripe—clanging, somewhat, in Lowell, and historicized; carefully picked out, low-key in Hamilton—is the attraction of this mode: what it must be like to stand on this promontory of years, looking out. Promontory or proscenium, maybe: it is a subset of course of the dramatic monologue. The Lowell is stunning in its unanimity and, in the revelation of the absolute failure of everything, almost a little comic. All of its metonymic clobber is the worse for wear, all its nouns are decayed, as though they were verbs and had been conjugated into a past form of themselves, the house, the furnishings, the cane, the sword, each Hauptwort (the German for “noun”—“chief-word” or “head-word”) become a verb, a Zeitwort or “time-word.” With its “gravel yard” and “small beasts,” the Hamilton is shabby and minor, its trumpet muted. A big part of the effect are the engineered misfirings. The “stone” that is not actually a gravestone, the “bell” that is not a passing-bell. The widowed speaker, facing a further desertion, declares tawdry open house on her own body: “To have small beasts room in me would be something.” The last line, terribly “British” and provincial—what will the neighbors think—while not at all noisy or dramatic, is nevertheless highly effective.

Ezra Pound claimed in Literary Essays that the lyric age (like the mathematical age) is seventeen to twenty-three, with the possibility of a second efflorescence, another flaring, at the other end of life.

I suppose the pleasure I took in these poems was the hearing and imagining of a speaker greatly different than myself, thirty-ish at the time, and in London: a couple of big-league American poets speaking pretty much in propria persona, and imitations of a Spanish grandee, a Scottish widow. I have always thought literature is like that, that effort, that trouble, that reward; and what it isn’t is the attending to as many voices as possible in the closest proximity to one’s own as regards to age, class, ethnicity, sexual preference, and the rest of it—as if one first needed showing or reminding who one was . . . At the very least, one might read something prophetic or proleptic, something that will lay out one’s impersonal future. Ontology, not identity. And take heart from, so to speak, those other others, who even as the lights dimmed, went on writing. Their example says: “Look, you might not think so, often enough I didn’t think so, but this is worth doing. As long as you’re reading it, anyway, it is.”

Oldtalk

Later, I took my interest in, or my fascination or obsession with, writing in age to German writing. I made selections from two German poets, Günter Eich (1907-1972) and Gottfried Benn (1886-1956). The books appeared in 2010 and 2013. Translation is an intermediate activity—sounds daft but I hope it isn’t—somewhere between reading and writing. If I ever write something in the “old” line myself, as I continue to hope, then this is practice and rehearsal.

I admired—and admire—the German way in which something between a blurt and a jotting can nevertheless, without explanation or apology, make a poem. Most English and American poets seem to me to need or want more costuming. Eich, who studied Chinese and was for a long time an Allied prisoner-of-war, had a delayed and abbreviated career. I described him as a great poet of temperament: “He is irascible, pessimistic, solitary, misanthropic, but these are all sources of joy, for him and for the reader.” I chose principally poems from late in his life. In his last book, published in the year he died, is a poem called “Später” (“Later”):

Disregard prudence
and count
freely
to 93 and beyond.

At any rate
I have an engagement
for New Year’s Eve,
1999.
Higher up the mountain,
on a chaise longue, I’m pleased,
don’t encounter much
in the way of variety.

Eich, who didn’t enjoy especially good health, must have known he wasn’t seriously likely to live to the age of ninety-three and see in the millennium. “Later” is a droll argument about life as quantity and as quality, about the opposition between counting freely—whatever that is, and it sounds like a contradiction in terms—and the poet’s advance berth on the mountain (is it Parnassus?!), between calibration, brute measurement, and the hoped-for “variety.” It’s also a fine instance of the difference between bitter and sour, astringent and unpleasant. The inside of the tongue, the quarter of the taste wheel called bitter, seems to me to have more and more going for it.

At the very least, one might read something prophetic or proleptic, something that will lay out one’s impersonal future.

But for me the locus classicus of “oldtalk” remains Gottfried Benn. Both wars butted into his adult life, and the exercise of a profession: he was a venereologist and a skin doctor. After World War II, sixty, having buried his second wife, and not allowed by the Allies to publish (he had been, briefly, and horribly mistakenly, a Nazi in 1933 and 1934), he came up with the mode of the “Sprechgedicht,” a speech-poem, something that sounds improvised, natural, spontaneous. This plays into the idea of the poem in age. He also thought about age, and wrote about it in a lecture-essay called “Aging as a Problem for Artists,” which I of course translated. “In Hokusai (1760-1849),” Benn tells us, “I found the following”:

From the age of six, I was mad keen on drawing. By the time I was fifty, I had published a great many drawings, but everything I did before my seventy-third year is worthless. Approaching the age of seventy-three, I began to understand something of the true nature of animals, plants, fishes, and insects. By the time I am eighty, I shall have progressed further, with ninety I shall be able to see through to the secret nature of things, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything of mine, be it no more than a line or a dot, will be full of life.

This lovely passage, possibly humorous from Hokusai, certainly so in Benn’s citation of it, recalls something Rilke says about poetry in his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). Poems are not, he explains, “feelings—those one has early enough—they are experiences.” And from experience, he slips into memories, and launches into a page-long litany of them, and then he says (translator: Burton Pike):

But it is still not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them. . . . For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become blood in us, glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves, only then can it happen that in a very rare hour the first word of a line arises in their midst and strides out of them.

A line or a dot; a word or a line.

Sheen and Patina

This is very close to what I have in mind with my idea of old style. Economy, lack of presumptuousness (one isn’t dazzling with this or that experience, or memory), a kind of shorthand, something that slices at an angle through indifferent thicknesses of time and matter. And as I say, it is something I identify very much with Benn, who in his last years was still treating his “squalid patients” in his practice in Berlin; in his evenings he went to the bar on the corner, where he wrote letters, drank beers, and smoked Junos; once a year, he tried to get away for a week to the Tirol. This was what he wrote about: a dot, a word, a line, and all of it instinct with life. His late poems seem to come with a patina, a smell, a groan or murmur, things that are not supposed to survive the transition to written language:

Nocturne

From the saloon bar the rattle of dice on a
wooden tabletop,
beside you a couple at the anthropophagous
stage,
a chestnut bough on the piano adds a
natural touch,
all in all, my kind of place.

There, thought processes settle,
the nausea that exercised
your medulla oblongata all day
is allayed in a fog of alcohol—
at last soul fades and existence dims!

Treading water—
of course you might go down,
that’s a matter of time—
and time—before oceans?
They were there first,
before consciousness and conception,
no one went angling for sea-monsters,
no one suffered deeper than ten feet,
which if you think about it isn’t so very much.

Anything can happen in these short, discontinuous, imprevisible poems that seem to crumble before your eyes as you read them. First the place, a sardonic take on the décor, a half-envious squint at the snogging couple, but an almost rousing identification with all of it: “my kind of place.” In the second stanza, a settling occurs, the thoughts slow down and with them the heart rate. He drinks and floats. Having scoped out the surroundings, Benn is free to embark on an introspective jag. Then this too is broken off, as nature stages a comeback, in the guise of the sea-monsters. Life as it existed before time, before consciousness.

Michael Hofmann is a poet and translator from the German. His new book of poems is just out in paperback: One Lark, One Horse.

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