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GP1Jun05: Secrets of Old Age

Memorial Day.  Once again, we have been watching Band of Brothers, a wonderful movie series about World II, about Easy Company, a brave paratroop unit in the 506th Paratroop Infantry Regiment, and about the several nuances of male kinship, taking us back to the last time the country was truly united behind a common cause, against a common enemy.  Arising from the wonderful work of the same name by the very popular historian Stephen Ambrose, it’s as good a way as any to commemorate Memorial Day, which found its origins in the effort—of both the North and the South—to put the divisions of the Civil War behind us.  Here we discover our universal commonality. 

That’s in the night.  By day, of course, we use the late morning light to honor the Jills and Johns, from Coast to Coast, who jovially go about the business of life, whatever their worries, aches, groans, or nettlesome, leftover war wounds.  So we break out some French champagne, cut through some crab and shrimp tamales, then hasten to the garden to tee up a game of croquet.  The best way to deal with life’s bruises and intimations of immortality is to live Melville’s phrase, “Life is a picnic en costume.”  That way Memorial Day is a monument to both the living and the dead, each having shown such endurance. 

Kunitz Has Got It Right.  For us, Stanley Kunitz, the poet who will cross over the century mark on July 29, has worked his way from the periphery right into the center of our field of vision.  For years we thought of him as one of those poets celebrated by the tribe of neoliteraries surrounding the New York Review of Books, an incestuous culture that doesn’t quite have anything to do with America, peopled by complexly neurotic sorts who winter in Manhattan and summer in the precincts of Wellfleet.  But as some of the critics have said, he has gotten better with age, having weathered in his lifetime a few wars, and moved his verse from clever intellectual turns to a more “confessional,” emotional tone.  Now, you will find in his poetry an injunction that says, “Life must go on, so, by all means, live.” 

Perhaps 50 years ago in New York we visited a relatively high-ranking woman executive in a Fortune 100 company and had occasion to ask her, “Cybil [our made up name for her] you have really gotten to the top of the heap here.  How did you do it?”  “Well, hell, I just outlasted the bastards.”  Women had to be awfully tough in her day to get to be number one. 

Stanley Kunitz, as well, has outlasted the bastards.  The professionally depressed and psychotic poets from McLean and Rockland we idolized at the end of the last century are in their graves, but he’s still here to tell the tale.  He asks for no sympathy in old age, because he knows it will do him no good.  “If I could cry, I'd cry, / but I'm too old to be / anybody’s child.”   

And he’s done it rather nicely.  His children look in on him.  He divides his time between Greenwich Village and Provincetown, aided by a 24-hour nurse and literary assistant  Genine Lentine, a poet in her own right, who obviously provides the right counterpoint.  (See www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/headline/entertainment/3191097.)  They’re out with a book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, invoking the 2,000 square foot terraced garden facing the Bay in Massachusetts and the inspiration the garden has provided to his verse.  Kunitz, we understand, was much taken with the poems of Robert Herrick, who also instructed us to make the most of this life with metaphors taken from the garden: 

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
   Old time is still a-flying;
And the same flower that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.  

Preparing for Old Age.  Not all of us will die in a Civil War, or World War I, or World War II, or Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq.  For better or worse, we are here for a while.  And should make the most of it, until the very end.   

As a young country that still likes to think young, we’re not very well prepared, even with Social Security, for old age that gets older and older.  The developed democracies are turning geriatric.  Our nursing homes for the aged are as sad or sadder than the wars we have endured: we have yet to see one that is not a hell-hole.  We had best get a little Kunitz in our national system and prepare to do our last decades as if they were the best years of our lives, not afterthoughts.  We’re now in a country that had best deal with old age. 

Many years ago we visited an older gentleman who had retired a bit early from an actuarial firm in New York, gotten a grant from the Ford Foundation, and traipsed off to Boston for four years at Harvard College—as an undergraduate.  He had never gotten a college education, and wanted to experience higher learning now that his kids had passed through fancy schools.  As he said, there’s nothing much we can do about the body when we get old, but it’s possible to recharge the mind and, with it, life itself.  Perhaps there will come a time where we outlaw retirement and simply have third and fourth and fifth careers. 

Poetry Villa.  We always pass over the editorials in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal rather quickly, since they are hackneyed, predictable, and boring.  Vituperations from the affluent Left and Right.  What a relief last Friday, May 27, to see an afternote there from the marvelous Times writer Francis X. Clines, “A Poet Who Writes of Staying Forever.”  In simple prose he talked of  the staying power of Kunitz and, as well, of Poets House in SoHo, which the poet co-founded and which we discuss in Poetry and Business.  That Kunitz has contributed so much to his professions—both teaching and poetry—suggests that one secret of long life is to do for others as much as you do for yourself. 

A Language for Old Age.  Perhaps poetry is the language of old age.  In the Beat Era, we thought it was the special tongue granted to hipsters full of angst.  But now we are learning that it may be the lingua of seniors who have seen it all and are tired of the prosaic words that assault us in our daily lives from hucksters of all stripes.  Prose has become a stream of invective from those at the extremes who want to turn their unhappy passions into laws for the rest of us.  Poetry may liberate us from all of that, become the language of those who have outgrown diatribe 

The Well Adjusted Poet.  A fine review of the poet Richard Wilbur called “The Well-Adjusted Poet (New York Times Book Review, May 29, 2005, p. 13), suggests that poetry may be the life-giving medium for those who will hang around a while.  “While his contemporaries donned leather jackets or publicly fell to pieces, Richard Wilbur maintained his reticence.  …  Wilbur is living, white, male and, from all appearances, neither despondent nor mad.  …  These poems form an argument, about how one goal of a well-lived life might be composure, rather than the mad flowering of a personal signature.”  His Collected Poems, 1943-2004, makes an excellent Memorial Day Gift for some friend.  Ironically, says Stephen Metcalf, the reviewer, it was near the heat of fire as an infantryman—Wilbur having touched down at Anzio, Cassino, and the Siegfried Line in World War II—where the poet seriously took up his poetry of composure.

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