Poetry on Aging
Aging is the sort of inevitable, non-negotiable topic that fascinates poets. Birth, school, work, death, in the immortal lyrics of The Godfathers.
Some of us fight aging. Some of us embrace it. Whichever approach is yours, though, aging beats its only known alternative. In the immortal words of someone.
People in my family die young. Maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to be old. Or maybe it’s because I’d hoped to be old and wise, to stop making the same foolish mistakes over and over again. This year, I’ll be 64, and the bad news is I’m still making foolish mistakes. The good news is I have a better understanding of why I make them.
Another positive of aging is that it’s made me lazier, meaning that I now have no energy at all to boss other people around about how to spend their days. This gives me more time to write.
Here’s the prompt: Write a list of what you no longer say or do now that you are older than you were last week, or last year, or ten years ago, or twenty years ago. Include as many sensory details or images as possible. For example, one thing I no longer say is “If I were you, I would do _____.” I’ve learned that no one wants that kind of advice. And I’m not you, am I?
Once you have your list, you can play around with it, or even imagine where it belongs, or what you’ve written it on, or if you can imagine saying or doing those things again.
One of my favorite poems that examines aging is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, even though I harbor great resentment against Eliot for his efforts to turn poetry into an elitist art form.
W.B. Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old” is about aging, but it’s also a love poem, sort of. “Warning” by British poet Jenny Joseph starts with the famous, exuberant line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”
The poem below began when I was longing for the end of a workday so I could get into bed and wrap my aching bones in a heating pad. It was originally published in Poet Lore, and it’s not particularly exuberant.
When It Descends
Winter, tell me how my body
makes changes without me. You know.
Your beautyberry is gone again, eaten by cardinals.
The nights grow longer and call me to their altars:
bedsheets I stroke like a lover’s skin,
bedside table piled with books, breeding
beside a cup of ginger tea.
I pray for sleep, and when it descends,
my two husbands trade places in my dreams,
as if they’re only stand-ins
for limitation, when I know they were more.
Tell me how my body changes without me,
and I’ll tell you how I learned
to speak a loving thought out loud.
If only I’d stopped right there.