There’s one thing for certain.
You can’t be an emerging writer at 60.
The math is just wrong.
And a continuing allegiance to the worship of all things young will not allow any alternative number crunching.
Not much has changed in the literary world since the new stars of Modernism made their debut in the early 1900s. It was to be America’s century, the setting would be the New World – along with the new words and a new push of boundaries that stylistically would rule.
Interesting, though, readers at that time didn’t seem to mind their greybeards’ chronological age, as long as the voice was fresh and new. (“Make it new!” demanded Ezra.)
So Old Man Yeats, leftover from the Irish Twilight, could resurrect himself as a Modernist, and push his craggy Irish handsomeness – at 60+ — out there, and ask, “Why should not old men be mad?!”
So certain was Yeats that “that [was] no country for old men,” he went “Sailing to Byzantium,” the land of never-changing artistic perfection. And although in turn jealous and wistful about no longer being one of those “young in one another’s arms,” W.B. assumes his position, “set upon a golden bough to sing . . . of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
Having sung, still sings, will sing?
The consolations of experience earned. An old man, his brave new words, a new voice.
Yet something has changed now, just a little over a hundred years later.
In her 2014 keynote address at the AWP Annual Conference in Seattle, author Annie Proulx – of Shipping News fame – rightfully complains how “[i]t is a pity that all manner of encouragements, stipends, residencies, and awards are directed at ‘young writers,’ when older people bring richer observations of life and problem-solving to the writing desk.”
And that is no lie.
Recently, a significantly positioned publication/publisher advertised its annual competition for the best new manuscripts featuring “emerging women’s voices.” Diabolically, I sent my entry with a query wondering whether they were seeking the work of “emerging women” who had just recently left girlhood and puberty behind, or were they interested in representations of “emerging voices” belonging to women of any age, who – for one reason or another – chose NOW to grant themselves the “grand permission” – to write and call themselves writers?
Needless to say, my MSS was not chosen to win, place or show. Never heard anything, in fact.
My own fault. Mea culpa.
Proulx is right, and she couldn’t have chosen a better stage to announce her come-to-Jesus challenge regarding the virus of ageism in American letters.
By the early 2000s, the generation of American poets born in the Roaring Twenties was beginning to reach the finish line. They knew it, and their work rarely steered far from the “arcade of/Death.” Octogenarian Hayden Carruth jests soulfully about all those old “geezers shuffling” along – himself admittedly one of them – in time to the “slow march and the muffled drum” (“See You Tomorrow”).
Surely time was ever-present in his mind. Of course. Even in an America that embraced with fondness their own “Doctor Jazz” (Brooks Haxton’s memorial epithet for Carruth), there was no getting around it. Always reminded of the diminishing hours, Carruth reminds those who were soon to be left behind, “Can you imagine how much I wish I were/There? No, you cannot, my dears. Especially not/In the little time we have left to us” (“Poem Maybe”).
Robert Creeley completed his prose swan song on the subject of aging just a year before his death in 2005, in a tribute to “Whitman in Age.” It couldn’t have been difficult for Creeley to identify himself with the Good Grey Poet – as all American poets do eventually, seeking their lineage somewhere in our 19th century literary childhood.
Ending the essay by evoking Whitman’s elegiac “Good-Bye My Fancy” (1891), Creeley reminds us what “the poet Edward Dorn made clear – the last thing a man says will be a word.”
Time’s clumsy, crocheted shawl weighs hard, always has. But in this virtual generation – these virtual years? – the elders seem to shuffle their slippers along a bit more hastily. After all, no one wants to outlast their last useful at-bat in the American Poetry All-Star Competition.
And today’s readers – in collusion with the makers and breakers of fame and name – seem all too eager to help them along.
Grandfatherly figures like Donald Hall and Gerald Stern continue to hand on and hang in. Their work continues to carry significance, and they deservedly win the important lifetime achievement awards, and are consistently invited to attend the annual conferences where we gather. Like a benediction, their presence assures us that we have ancestors, and that the Olympians still circulate among us, bestowing legitimacy on our efforts, even as we deconstruct theirs.
The practiced hand of writers like David Ferry continues to amaze with its erudition and elegance; yet he also exhibits that preoccupation with what once was, referencing in equal measure western literary history, as well as his own personal recollection of things past. It’s not surprising that his most recent collection is titled Bewilderment: proof how this greatest generation is inclined to lower their voices, telling their tales around the campfire for other pensioners.
Of course, it’s Ferry’s spotlight on the Exeunt that matters most to today’s tribe of virtuals, fixated more on who tweets what to whom, as they eye the continuing memorials published monthly in Poetry magazine, maybe wondering “Who’s that?,” but not wondering enough to Google their names.
C.K. Williams also invokes the elegiac in his work, recasting the century-old interrogative of The Waste Land’s oracular narrator: “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” This is the question Williams addresses in a recent collection, Writers Writing Dying.
In some ways, a summary and a coda to the symphony of elders, who fugue-like pipe their sorrow, frustration — and in rare cases, acceptance — the pieces contained here eulogize, as they question how to avoid going gentle into that good night.
In so doing, Williams addresses how tarnished and rusted those key notes have become, cues customarily used to designate the portrait of the artist as a young man: sexuality, ambition, the morphing sense of one’s self.
In his sometimes tragic, sometimes comic efforts to reconcile the handsome hero of 20 with the sometimes impotent protagonist at 76, Williams confesses, “My grandson wants a Ferrari. I bought one for him. Why not?” (“Exhaust”). It is hard, and sometimes impossible to surrender those young desires, when they are what – in fact – have defined us.
Williams refuses to go gentle, though; he encourages us to “Think, write, write, think: just keep running faster and you won’t even notice you’re dead” (“Writers Writing Dying”). How likely is it that Williams would receive an “emerging writer” grant today? Not with that subject, that attitude! Lucky for him – and for us – he has already transcended the traumas of emerging, and now he enjoys being “Whacked!”: “Every morning of my life I sit at my desk getting whacked by some great poet or other… and lately a whole tribe of others — / oi! younger than me. Whack!”
Linda Pastan, celebrated and self-proclaimed Queen of a Rainy Country (2006), redacts Baudelaire’s claim to be “le roi” of this same landscape. (Although young in years, Baudelaire was born French and old.) Undoubtedly herself a woman of a certain age, Pastan identifies with “those Trojan women, learning their fates;/The single sharpness of the guillotine,” heavy heartedly accepting her own destiny – this late in life – of “[a]nother morning/with its quaint obligations,” being now so “powerless and grown old.”
Her recent collection, Traveling Light (2011), weighs down – although so gracefully – with the burden of years. Pastan wonders “How did I get so old,/I wonder,/contemplating/ my 67th birthday./ Dyslexia smiles; / I’m 76 in fact” (“Counting Backwards”).
Try as she might, she can’t ignore the realities of aging: “I am neither the crinkled face / in the mirror nor the one / in the photograph, young / and frowning.” It seems that her true self is someone beyond the fact of her years: “Age has nothing to do with me” (“Any Woman”).
I wonder, would Pastan’s manuscript be given the opportunity to be published as an “emerging woman’s voice” today? Probably not. Probably not “emerging” enough for today’s competitive scene.
Pastan admits she is “only leaving you / for a handful of days,” that she embraces the genius of the need for “Traveling Light.” Lucky for her, her voice already offers a respected and embraceable message – so “the door to the future / ha[s] not started to shut” (“Insomnia”).
On page 66 in The New Yorker (June 23, 2014), John Ashbery gives us his Baedeker’s take on “The Pie District,” a surreal geography demanding – without apology – the slickest skill sets of its omnipresent tourists. Ashbery – still “custodian of sang-froid” after all these years – has no trouble (that is, no more than usual: he says “I stammered!”) calling out to “Mrs. Walter H. Browne” (whoever SHE is), “Lizzie! Lizzie Browne!” hoping to be heard above the din of the quotidian city.
Nevertheless the voice is not always heard, or even hearable. Meaning doesn’t always cohere. As Ashbery reminds us, “It’s been three years now,/That’s just it – we don’t know!”
Three years? Closer to sixty-three, assuming he started writing in his twenties.
But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter either that Ashbery is dragging his 87-year-old self around the iconography of American poetry – he is still willing and able to “do it the hard way.”
So? No emerging at 60? What about closer to 90? Ashbery’s ok with it, and I suppose I must be, as well.
So, we take our words – and our chances – “and go out and visit.”