As a writing topic, age is in. Age has always been in.
Sarah Catherine’s ‘a classical blog’ quotes Sappho on the topic. And Mimnermus. And Alcman. And Anacreon. The Chinese ancients had it nailed too – all over the place.
Last night I was reading the 2015 Emma Press’s Anthology of Age, edited and illustrated by two relatively young (age is a matter of perpective) people. It’s a lovely set of poems about age and aging – and many of them are heartening.
Even I myself am currently working on a new publication from Alan Hill, a sequence of short poems titled Gerontion. (You may be able to guess its central concern.)
We human beings brood about age a lot. It seems to trouble other animals less, but then other animals don’t look in mirrors.
On her later birthdays (88, 89, 90 and finally 91), I used to ask my mother how she felt about having achieved that particular age.
‘What age?’ she would say.
‘Well, 90 is pretty old, isn’t it? How does it feel to be so old?’
She would shake her head. ‘I feel just the same as I always have,’ she would always say, never one for a fuss. But latterly she looked in the mirror less – much less – which is perhaps why her cardigans were frequently done up wrong, or the patch of melted chocolate on her blouse failed to bother her.
Mum was ill with Alzheimer’s Disease, which confers both bother and blessing, and it was the reason why we were jointly compiling her memoirs. She felt extremely well most of the time. On one of the birthdays, I told her how old she was and she was astonished. ‘Am I really so old?’ she said.
‘You certainly are,’ said I.
‘Well, how old are you?’ she asked me.
‘How old do you think I am?’
I laughed, of course. ‘Mum, I am 60.’
She looked at me properly then, and with horror. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘That’s AWFUL! It was like being in a science fiction film, where the main characters are suddenly spirited into a future fifty years ahead, chatting happily, until catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror, and a horrible reality dawns.
But my mother soon forgot this and went back to being her young self with me cast as a somewhat younger friend. In fact, I thought she was feeling younger and younger in the later years. Quite often she was a child whose parents were just about to arrive.
I think most of us continue to feel much the same inside, throughout our adult years, until some aspect of physical decay strikes us. So poems about age and aging are really about some form of loss, loss being (to my mind) the central and abiding theme of poetry.
Young poets are supposed to write about love. Unsurprisingly, we fall in love with youth which (apart from Jane Eyre) is associated with health and beauty. We do not fall in love with age (the stereotype stoops from street crossing signs).
But even love poetry is really about loss.