Who would have imagined ten short years ago when Robert Kastenbaum (2000) argued that people continued to be creative in their later years, that so many poets over 70 were busily composing and publishing their work? At that time he had to explain why it was possible for artists to continue their productivity. After all, many years of research demonstrated that lyric poets were highly unlikely to continue writing much past their 40s, the ‘golden years’ (Kastenbaum, 2000, p. 387), the supposed peak time of creativity and the decade when so many Romantic poets died.
Instead I learned from perusing the biographies published in Celebrating Poets Over 70 that poets in their 70s are the younger folk in the collection. At least 48 of the artists were in their 80s when they submitted their poems while 8 were in their 90s. One remarkable centenarian, Marion Fields Wyllie, had three poems accepted. She reported that she was “still writing in her 103rd year.” More poets would have been in their 80s and 90s than I could count, for some did not give their ages. It’s time for the wider world to recognize these productive individuals and give them the credit they deserve.
Until recently, however, few were aware of the number of writers’ groups featuring poets over 70. When the Humanities and Arts committee of the Gerontological Society of America started the Journal of Aging, Humanities, and the Arts in 2007, we began receiving submissions of some very compelling poems. But even Dana Bradley and I, the co-editors, had little idea that the poems we received represented a small percentage of the whole. It turns out that Canada and the United States have many older poets working alone or in supportive organizations that encourage their productivity.
When Marianne Vespry and Ellen Ryan put out a call for submissions to this volume, they were inundated with poems, many of them impressive. Aided by volunteer reviewers they spent three months sorting through the submissions, selecting ones that they felt demonstrated poetic voice and poetic vision, making hard choices among the poems each poet had submitted, and dividing them into appropriate chapter groups. The result is a splendid collection of poetry, written by serious artists. Many of them have published earlier work in books, magazines and newsletters. Thanks to Ryan and Vespry’s hard work, however, the poems will appear in an anthology which, we all hope, will bring them to the attention of additional readers.
Out of curiosity I checked where the poets were living. About 106 were from Canada, 93 from the United States, 1 from England, and 1 from Australia. Slightly more than half the poems were written by women, but considering the odds of men surviving as long as their female age mates, the men were remarkably productive. Approximately 21 mention having grandchildren. Most of the others discuss their careers and their publishing histories instead. Several have had distinguished careers as poets, but most have written for their own pleasure and that of their families and friends.
The editors divided the poems into 12 chapter groups: Childhood, Generations, History, Love, Encounters, Aging, Death, Nature, Reflections, Dementia, Memory, and Words. The best way to demonstrate the range of the poems is to select a few representative ones. There are too many groups to mention poems from each of them. Instead, I have concentrated on ones that amused or moved me. Some of the verses are very startling.
For example, one might expect that the section on Childhood would look back to the poet’s past, perhaps in an elegiac mood, or towards the future in the birth of grandchildren. Such poems appear, but some of the most moving are about children who died many years ago. To name one, in “Stillborn” Marie St George, a visual artist and poet, writes of the death of her fraternal twin in 1929, the year she was born. His failure even to be born alive still reverberates 80 years later. She imagines having tried to wake him “with a nudge, the way a cat will rouse / the slow one in her litter . . .” and describes the funeral and its aftermath with “father standing alone / holding a small white coffin” with “mother / spent and silent in her bed” (p. 2). Another poem of loss is “Catherine” by John Corvese, a teacher of law. In it he describes being haunted by the presence of a sister who died before he was born. She was “alone, / discarded and forgotten / and left me . . . her unborn brother forlorn with the evil spirits” (p. 3).
Poems in other sections display a mixture of humor and pain. In History, a poem by Sheila Blume, “J. C. (The First),” reports that Julius Caesar “lives today in movie, play and ballad, / Obstetrical procedures, and a salad.” (p. 16). In contrast, Bennett Gurian in “Holocaust” mourns the loss of a woman, possibly his mother. “I went left / She went right / I walked by the ovens . . . My skin was spared / My heart was charred.” (p. 18). In the section on Love, Elmer Billmam’s “Mary’s Smile” stands out. He describes a dining room in assisted living in which only the aides broke the silence. But then Mary caught sight of him at the door, “And suddenly her face lit up the room” (p. 26).
Another surprising one, “Pretending,” appears in the section on Death. Naomi Wakan describes a married couple beginning to contemplate their deaths. The wife remarks that, inevitably, one of them will die first. The husband replies that he “was / thinking just that as I read / of the death of Darwin’s daughter.” He wanted to give his wife a kiss but did not wish to disturb her. The poet concludes sadly: “we are just foolish / children pretending for a moment / that it will never happen.” (p. 57).
Dementia has some poignant examples of moments that might happen to us all. The speaker telephones a friend in Mara Levine’s “63rd Anniversary.” The friend’s husband suffers from dementia but the speaker reports hearing his “robust baritone” on their answering machine. He says, “I’m not here right now, / but hope to get back to you / soon as I return (p. 86).
Sadly the man’s mind, according to his wife, is “disappearing.” He will never return.
Finally Kilian McDonnell, a Benedictine monk, writes with humor of “My First Hearing Aid,” a topic that is bound to be of interest to those of us with hearing problems. “Must you mumble, garble / consonants, rush to the end / drop last syllables? / . . . .if only diphthongs were purer, / vowels and lives did not decay” (p. 101). The juxtaposition of “vowels” and “lives” caught me off guard when I read the poem.
As these fragments I have quoted suggest, readers of this volume will be able to spend many happy hours savoring this collection. There is enough variety in the poetry to keep readers who have different interests engaged and pleased. I can imagine that the late Gene Cohen who wrote so movingly about late life creativity would be delighted by these poems. Moreover, one can hope that this volume’s publication will encourage other elders to make their voices heard.
Kastenbaum, R. (2000). Creativity and the arts. In T. R. Cole, D. D. V. Tassel, Kastenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of the humanities and aging (pp. 381-401). Second Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Anne M. Wyatt-Brown is an Emeritus Associate Professor in the Program in Linguistics, University of Florida and elected fellow of the Gerontological Society of America. Her publications include: Barbara Pym: A Critical Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992; Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity (1993, a co-edited collection). She also edited the book series, Age Studies, for the University Press of Virginia (1993- 2001). She is founding co-editor of the Journal of Aging, Humanities, and the Arts, sponsored by the Gerontological Society of America.