Years and years ago—it would have to have been in 1958-59, a year that my wife and I and our two young children were living in Rome—I wrote a little satirical poem about famous old poets and what’s to become of them.  It was occasioned by a couple of things.  First, there was the arrival at the library of the American Academy in Rome, where I was working, of an anthology of contemporary poetry, one in which, to my foolish and youthful dismay, I was not mentioned or included.  That same day and place, I saw two bronze portraits done by one of the sculptors at the Academy, one of John Ciardi, the other of Archibald MacLeish.  Both of these men were featured in the new anthology.  I have no copy of my poem, only a loose memory of the last few lines (such as they were):

What finally becomes

of all these people,

people I mean

like John Ciardi

and Archibald MacLeish?

They get old.

They have their portraits

cast in bronze.

As best as I can recollect, it was never published anywhere.  Which is just as well.  It was disowned and discarded by myself, or perhaps some insistent editor or other, as being too “mean spirited” to see the light of day.  Since then, for better and for worse, I have written a good many things that could justly be so classified.  I never met MacLeish (1892-1982).  Ciardi (1916-86) and I were to become good friends later on.  And, anyway, in today’s context of the new and unimproved illiteracy, a time described by a fellow poet (in part reacting to the dismal facts of illegal immigration and outsourcing) as “the age of broken English,” all of our old literary joys and woes seem to be more than slightly irrelevant.

Even so, we are not quite done with this story.  Lest I should misread and misinterpret the lessons out of my own past, something happened during this writing (springtime 2007) that took me by surprise.  One day, I heard from the widow of the sculptor Allen Harris that she was passing through Charlottesville and wanted, if possible, to stop by and drop off something for me.  (I am, appropriately, housebound these days with a rich variety of geriatric ailments.)  I had no idea what she might be bringing.  A gifted and accomplished sculptor, Allen had been my friend in Rome, and I have written about him elsewhere.  Jean, his widow, arrived and handed me a heavy box.  She explained that it contained a work by Allen, one which she had found while clearing out his old barn/studio.  Unpacked, it turned out to be a bronze cast, a portrait of myself as I was in 1958.  Other than a wincing laugh at the irony of it all—live long enough, and you’ll discover that irony is the last infirmity of fading minds—I have no smart comment to make.  Take it for what it’s worth, no more and no less.

Meanwhile, friends and enemies in the shrinking literary world, poets and critics alike, seem to be dedicated to trying to create a “legacy,” trying to determine whose names and works will be remembered and who shall be sent off with a one-way ticket to oblivion.  We read the obituary pages, usually in vain, looking eagerly for the names of our rivals and always wondering how it is that the death of A earned respectful attention in the New York Times while B gets a brief nod and a misspelling of his name in the local newspaper.

A fictional character of mine, John Towne by name, seriously considered setting up shop as an obituary agent, aiming to aid his paying clients to receive the accolades and laurels of celebrity, if only posthumously.  Some prominent literati whom I know of (not to mention the usual suspects, like politicians and pundits) have taken at face value the late Brother Dave Gardner’s argument in favor of atomic warfare—that we would all go at the same time and “maintain our present status.”  Meantime, we all grow older, living beyond our time and means, and suffering many of the same aches and pains and symptoms.  I will spare you their recapitulation here and now, instead recommending an article in the New Yorker (April 30, 2007): “The Way We Age Now,” by Atul Gawande.  It will acquaint you with the nasty and often scary details of degeneration.

On average, our poets, like others, are living longer; but, for a variety of reasons, not many of them are writing much in their old age.  There are, of course, some notable exceptions.  I think fondly and gratefully of John Hall Wheelock, my first editor, who wrote some of his finest poems in his 90’s; of Stanley Kunitz, who was still writing (now and then) at a hundred years; of Richard Wilbur, now in his late 80’s, still favoring us with his shapely and admirable poems.  To be sure, the superb exception of Sophocles, all those years ago, remains monumental.  And looking forward, there may well be a good many more from the ranks of the next and coming generations.  Most poetry about getting and being old, some of it excellent and accurately empathetic, has been written by poets who had not yet arrived at the bleak destination of old age.  T.S. Eliot, and especially in “Little Gidding,” seems again and again to speak for us, the elders, as well as to us: “Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age . . . ”  And you might want to take a look, with full allowance for its eccentricities, at The Oxford Book of Aging (1994), at least as a starting place.  There, one finds examples of our classical originals—Aesop, Aristotle, Greek lyric poets, Hippocrates, Ovid, Plato, Seneca.  And there I came upon a pertinent excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray where bodily decrepitude makes no claims of wisdom and is the declared enemy of the “new Hedonism” of which Dorian Gray is to be “its visible symbol.”  What is the perception of the aging process as witnessed by Wilde, or, more accurately, his narrator?  He writes:

The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish.  Our limbs fail, our senses rot.  We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to.  Youth!  Youth!  There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth.

It is not, as Yeats splendidly noted, a country of and for old men.  Without doubt, Wilde had an agenda, one that we find all too familiar in our panic-stricken and rigidly secular age.  We allow ourselves the myth (fiction) of nonbelieving even as all our plans and agendas and legacies are shattered to pieces by the simple and triumphant fact of death.

Which leads me to my final portrait, a group portrait, a photograph of members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, taken a few years ago and framed and hanging on the wall near the desk where I am writing this piece.  A cheerful, smiling photograph—the photographer must have told us all to “Say cheese!”  Not all of the members were present, but, among those who briefly posed for the photographer, a number have died since then, and those who are alive are surely older.  Here are the names of the dead: Cleanth Brooks, James Dickey, Shelby Foote, Andrew Lytle, Mary Lee Settle, Lewis P. Simpson, Walter Sullivan, Eudora Welty, and C. Vann Woodward.  I see their smiling faces, and my own among them, every day.  Sooner or later, it was bound to happen; I would have to make some sense out of that picture in the only way I can and know how—by making a poem, a small one, about it:


Group Portrait


Here I am again,

smiling broadly,

one face only

among a row

of famous faces,

the faces of

my elders and betters,

now lost and gone

to glory or surely

going that way soon.


What on earth

are we all

smiling about?


I put on my glasses

and turn on the lamp

to see myself

spring back to life

among the grinning dead.

Must we pose there forever

together in faceless dark?

Or will we, too, rise again

in the sudden gift of light