Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Whiz Kids at Eighty (I)*

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Whiz Kids at Eighty (I)*

Article excerpt


My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. By Robert Bly. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Pp. 97. $14.95.

White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006. By Donald Hall. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. 431. $30.

We stand at the threshold of a Golden Age of octogenarian poetry. Even if we make allowances for changing life spans, such poetry was extremely scarce before the twentieth century. Few of the great poets who survived to old age produced enduring work in the latter part of their lives. Hugo and Goethe are the most prominent nineteenth-century exceptions, while Wordsworth remains the classic example of poetic dotage. Thomas Hardy may be the first instance in English of a poet writing at the peak of his powers in his ninth decade. Yeats and Stevens also belong to the elite group of long-lived poets whose very late poems are among their best. But the twentieth century is littered with poets who could not sustain their gifts into their last years-Frost, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Auden, to name just a few. All that seems to be changing now, to judge from the remarkable productivity of our senior bards. Poets as different as Richard Wilbur, Hayden Carruth, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have continued to publish well into their eighties, and we're fortunate to have at least one poet among us still writing magnificently in her nineties, the incomparable Ruth Stone. Recently two fine poets, Carl Rakosi and Stanley Kunitz, even passed their hundredth birthdays, though sadly neither produced any poems during their second century. Then there's what we might call the Grandma Moses syndrome: within the last fifteen years three women, Virginia Hamilton Adair, Anne Porter, and the painter Dorothea Tanning, all published exceptional first books after the age of eighty.

But now the floodgates are about to open wide, as the extraordinarily rich generation of American poets born between 1925 and 1930 reaches the eighty-year milestone. Many significant members of this group are already dead, of course, some earlySylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frank O'Hara, James Wright-and some more recently-James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, A. R. Amnions, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Donald Justice, Kenneth Koch. But many major figures continue to thrive, including Maxine Kumin, W. D. Snodgrass, Gerald Stern, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Maya Angelou, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich, and Gary Snyder. If eighty is in fact the new sixty, as we're often told, then there's no reason to expect any of these poets suddenly to begin writing poems of extreme senescence. Unlike Eliot, who seemed eager to assume the perspective of old age long before he had actually arrived at it, most of the poets of this generation resist playing the role of Gerontion or Tiresias, preferring a more open, provisional stance to one of achieved wisdom. Ashbery provides what might serve as a motto for his whole generation in his famous poem "Soonest Mended": "probably thinking not to grow up / Is the brightest kind of maturity for us." Still, the next two decades are likely to see an unprecedented rush of poetry devoted to the trials and epiphanies of aging, as many poets enter their eighties and nineties with all their faculties intact.

Within this distinguished cohort, the four poets under review have achieved particular prominence. John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, and Adrienne Rich may seem like an oddly matched quartet, yet while their styles and commitments differ in fundamental ways, all four of them enjoy the closest thing to stardom that our culture affords its poets. They also share another distinction: all four attended Harvard University in the late forties. The roll of major poets who passed through Cambridge is much longer, of course, and includes such luminaries as Emerson, Robinson, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Aiken, cummings, Kunitz, Olson, Lowell, and Nemerov. …

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