Can one get too old to write poetry?
It’s a question raised by former US poet laureate Donald Hall, now 86, who confesses in his new book, “Essays After Eighty,” that the poetic muse has left him. As the title suggests, “Essays After Eighty” is a book of prose. Hall’s last book of poems, “The Back Chamber,” appeared in 2011. He suggests in the title chapter of “Essays After Eighty” that readers shouldn’t expect any more new poems from him.
“As I grew older – collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five – poetry abandoned me,” Hall tells readers. “How could I complain after seventy years of dipthongs? The sound of poems is sensual, even sexual. The shadow mind pours out metaphors – at first poets may not understand what they say – that lead to emotional revelation. For a male poet, imagination and tongue-sweetness require a blast of hormones. When testosterone diminishes ....”
If Hall is right – that male poets need testosterone to keep their careers going – then is there a corollary here, that female poets can indulge their muses indefinitely? Virginia Hamilton Adair, who died in 2004, published her first book of poems, “Ants on the Melon,” in 1996, when she was 83; that critical success led to several other collections before her passing. Maybe Hall is onto something.
Whether there’s an age limit for poetry is hard to say. What the current literary season shows, at the very least, is that some poets are able to continue their craft well past the typical retirement age for more conventional professions.
Mary Oliver, now 79, is out with a stellar new collection, “Blue Horses,” that shows her at the top of her game. In one of the book’s poems, “What I Can Do,” Oliver confesses to feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of modern life – the muddling multiplicity of controls for the TV, the many settings for her washing machine, her cell phone.
But, she tells readers, “I can strike a match and make fire,” a metaphor of sorts for her continuing ability to make literary art.
Meanwhile former US poet laureate Ted Kooser, 75, has a beautiful new collection of his own, “Splitting an Order,” that could be one of his best. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the collection’s poems deal with the implications of old age – if not Kooser’s advanced maturity, then the aging of the people he chronicles. In the title poem, an elderly couple share a sandwich, a gesture of marital intimacy that acquires an almost sacramental quality.
Another poem in the collection, “110th Birthday,” pays tribute to Helen Stetter, a fellow resident of Kooser’s home state of Nebraska who lived to be 113. “Her hair is white and light as milkweed down, and her chin thrusts forward into the steady breezes out of next year, and the next and next,” Kooser writes.
It’s essentially a poem about continuity – Stetter’s, and perhaps Kooser’s, too.
Will he be writing poems at 113?
If his loyal readers are lucky, he will be.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”