When we grow old we can sometimes take comfort in literature, in the lyrical treatment of our dotage. Unless of course we choose to read the poetry of William Butler Yeats who seemed determined to lay bare the worst of it all, complaining that his latter-day inspiration came from the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
An Irish poet, Yeats would have been 68 when he published “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” describing the fanciful imagery of his youthful writing, and in the final stanza, mourning his barren resources for the poetry of his advanced years.
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and broken cans,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
He seems resigned to the fact that all his “ladders” (his ideals, his dreams) now start in the foul (or base) emotions of an old heart which he compares to a rag and bone shop (for second-hands). In other words, at his age, he must write from the debris of his aged life – not from the hopeful dreaming of a young man.
It seems that Yeats was an odd little man, obsessed with age even in his twenties but he never quite reached peace with the idea of being old, so he hardly serves today as an inspiration for all of us north of 70.
Frankly, I could not get out of bed each morning if I harbored the thoughts common to Yeats. On the other hand, I am hard pressed to find another poem that is truly uplifting about aging.
There is the silly one by Jenny Joseph about growing old and wearing purple and eating three sausages at a go – but after considerable research, I only found one poem that displayed the energy that inspires me.
South African poet David Wright wrote verse about retirement that starts: “Avoid storms. And retirement parties.” He added the typical counsel we give the old — to be careful, stay safe. And then he thought better of his original advice, and added:
Back to storms. . .
dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down – the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder.
Finally, as though he were casting off all restraints . . . .
Feel the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save.
Drink rain like cold beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.