Leaving aside Eliot who was elderly (or strove to be so regarded) before he was twenty five, they do have a problem. It breaks down into five problems:
- If they’re genuine, they write what they feel.
- If they’re worth anything as poets, they want to communicate, but,
- whether they like it or not, what they feel is increasingly concerned with illness, loss of certain sorts of energy and with mortality.
- If they still have any sense of reality, they know perfectly well that the readership for these concerns is very limited.
- They also know that most of the best stuff of poetry is bound up with the living, not with the dying.
There are, as always, exceptions and special cases. There are poets with long-term projects that will see them into their muttering wheelchairs. There are poets with techniques so copper-bottomed or fire-proof or what have you, that almost anything, regardless of age, can be housed in them. There are poets, such as Yeats, wonderfully engrossed in themes that mature like Lafite. There are, sadly, poets such as Graves who at seventy decided that, in order to write love poems, he must be forever twenty.
But most of us oldies who have ever written poems do not have these advantages or emergency exits as we head downhill, push the gear-lever into third and hope the brakes are good. Our choice is either to shut up (which has a lot to be said for it), or to consider very carefully what we still can write.
Amongst much engulfing silencing shit, we do have one or two things going our way. We can see clearly, and for the first time, what we no longer personally care about. We can, for instance, see the ruthless machinery of sex and propagation without being enmeshed in it. Likewise ambition, career and power. So, before nature disposes of us in this or that way, we do have clarity.
Clarity is precious. It means, for me anyway, that I know that I don’t know how to write another poem. I don’t even know whether I will feel strongly enough about anything to want to write a poem about it. I know that, if I do, then I’ll have a new problem about form and rhythm and all the old gang of can’t-dos and won’t-works. I’ll believe I can write it when I’ve written it.
What will it - if this is the right question - be about? Whatever section of my mind asked that question, will it please sod off? All I promise is that it will not be a heartfelt teenage complaint about the way things are, or excitement at falling in love with the girl I haven’t yet met, or a moan that I did meet her, but things didn’t work out.