Last year I had a significant birthday celebration in Dorsey’s Oyster Bar on Broadway, New York, with people I love. Reaching three score years and ten has been no mean feat, but I’m really glad to be here, now, with most of my teeth and a roof over my head.
People are more precious to me now and there’s a sort of desperate intense joy that overtakes me at times, which I hadn’t fully recognised before. Time passing, Beloved, Donald Davie’s moving poem about love, loss and the acceptance of mortality, explores this ground more thoroughly:
Time passing, and the memories of love
Coming back to me, carissima, no more mockingly
Than ever before; time passing, unslackening,
Unhastening, steadily; and no more
Bitterly, beloved, the memories of love
Coming into the shore.
Poets have not shied away from their own mortality in the past, though present day poets are less inclined to dwell on old age and decline. When I was nobbut a lass I wrote a poem about old age, and although I left a biscuit-tin full of poems behind in the attic of a rented flat in Wandsworth when we were evicted, somehow I kept hold of that one. It serves as a reminder of something.
I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, wrote T.S. Eliot in the voice of J Alfred Prufrock, realising that the tantalising mermaids he could hear singing would not be calling to him in the future. Yet Eliot was only twenty-two… Do we detect resignation in his voice? There’s certainly an acceptance there, but I think it’s more than this. Rolled-up trouser bottoms on the beach might be inappropriate for a young man, like the sensible shoes your mother insisted on. Form or function? Practical comfort or fashionable impracticality? Eliot, always a neat and tidy man in his photographs, has looked into the future and decided: What the hell? If I’m going to be old one day I may as well be comfortable. Eliot is one of those poets, like Auden, who was born middle-aged.
There was a superb discussion on Radio 4 this morning about Prufrock – here’s the link.