Old Age and Creativity

Poetry Ireland News May/June 2012

It may be said that poetic careers follow a predictable path, beginning with a return to early experiences as poets recover familiar places, recreate incidents from their [Maurice Harmon] growing years, and write descriptive and lyrical poetry. Seamus Heaney recreated scenes and events from his rural background; he wrote about ploughing, digging, churning, thatching. At first a poet may be influenced by a predecessor whose style, language and subject matter appeal to him or to her. He learns his trade through imitation. Eventually a young poet discovers the subject that is important to him and may write a poem in which he feel confirmed as a poet. Seamus Heaney’s writing of ‘Bogland’ was that kind of experience. The poem flowed down the page and required little rewriting. It was in effect a declaration for himself and for others of the sufficiency of Irish history and culture as a source for poetry:

Our pioneers keep striking 
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless.

That answered Yeats’s assertion that the centre cannot hold.

The question is what happens when the poet reaches old age. Does he discover new subject matter and different techniques? There are no simple answers. Very often the subjects that preoccupied him in the past still interest him although he may approach them from a different angle and in a different tone. W B Yeats made growing old itself an issue. He did not like it, hated the loss of physical strength and the waning of sexual energy. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ he declared, ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing’ unless ‘Soul clap its hands and sing’, unless he can counter physical decline with imaginative intensity. He proceeds to make conflict central to his later work, dramatising and imagining the contrast between youth and age, past and present, stability and change. In the process his style changed from the ringing declarations of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ to the compressed power of ‘Leda and the Swan’ to ballad forms in Last Poems. He was that kind of poet, constantly remaking himself and becoming remarkably vigorous in old age. In these years he also extended his intellectual range, placing his sense of personal loss within the contexts of civilisations rising and falling. When Zeus attacked Leda the entire Graeco- Roman civilisation was born and destroyed in three compressed lines:

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 
And Agamemnon dead.

Incidentally that ability to connect his or her personal story with universal issues is essential in the ultimate evaluation of a poet’s stature.

Patrick Kavanagh on the other hand had a gapped career and wrote poems of uneven quality, proceeding from lyric evocation of an Edenic world in Iniskeen, to poems that voiced his unhappiness with life in Dublin, to the final relaxed celebration of the Canal Bank poems, ‘O unworn world enrapture me’. Austin Clarke surprised us. After a period of silence he reemerged in vigorous, satirical form in the poems of his late years, beginning with Ancient Lights (1955), which in itself lays claim to the freedom to be himself, ‘my fears / Were solved. I had absolved myself’.

It is, it seems to me, always a reason to celebrate when poets experience a final phase of fine achievement, not resting on their laurels but moving to new heights.Thomas Kinsella’s recent collections, Fat Master and Love Joy Peace, are a triumphant conclusion to a lifetime’s work that brought him through disappointment and pain to a more serene mode. His career also is linked to universal issues. ‘I pray You to remember me, as I return / homeward across a darkening Earth’. There is something immensely satisfying in such an outcome. The themes have persisted, the technique changed to accommodate successive phases of experience.

In my own experience I find that since the publication of When Love Is Not Enough: New and Selected Poems, I am writing a looser kind of poetry with a new emphasis on ageing and death. The old themes still turn up, but the approach is more direct:

She bore it all – the abuse, the stench, 
The foetid breath, the rejection of food especially prepared,
The unbearable closeness and saw that he was waked
And buried in the old way. He got a big funeral.

You might expect that poems of old age tend to be reflective. Yeats questioned what he had done, ‘Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?’ Surprisingly, the answers varied. The American critic Malcolm Brown said certainly not, but it seems likely that when The Countess Kathleen was performed in Dublin with the beautiful Maud Gonne in the title role some members of the audience were stirred to nationalistic action.

Austin Clarke wrote a long autobiographical poem in which he lamented his loss of strength:

When hope was active, I stood taller 
Than my own sons. Beloved strength 
Springs past me, three to one.

Patrick Kavanagh sat beside the canal and let his mind relax: ‘O commemorate me where there is water’.

What poets may write in old age is, happily, unpredictable.

Poet and Anglo-Irish literary scholar-critic Maurice Harmon’s collections include The Last Regatta (Salmon, 2001), The Doll with Two Backs (Salmon, 2004), The Mischevious Boy and other poems (Salmon, 2008), and When Love Is Not Enough: New & Selected Poems.

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