Poetics of Aging


People reach a certain age in life when they tend to reassess its meaning and importance. They may be reaching for a certain validity…struggling with the increasing loss of loved ones which pounds at the core of their being...feeling diminished by younger people who see them as a burden instead of an asset…wanting the end-stage of their life to matter more than it seems to, to themselves and those around them…needing love more than they used to and the constancy of those they most love and admire. Whatever the journey, poetry can sometimes help lift the spirit, offering a sort of music for the soul that can be reaffirming.

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Ruth Bugzester (1924-2010) was an artist of high accomplishment, a refined and gifted illustrator probably best known for her portraits.  Little is known publicly about Ms. Bugzester’s life, although she worked for years across from the Parc Vendome on Manhattan’s West 56th Street.  From her window, she captured a neighbor’s daily ritual of nurturing a tree outside the Parc Vendome apartments.  One day, she knocked on this neighbor’s door—as the story is told—and presented this illustration, here titled The Watering Can, as a gift to her muse– in appreciation for the inspiring sight that so often met her glance from the window. 

The Watering Can, Portia M. Clark, NYC, 1992

The poet speaks on the threshold of being. So says Gaston Bachelard in introducing Poetics of Space—a philosopher’s incredible journey into the value and power of poetic imagery in our lives. His journey is taken through a psychoanalytic look at the value and function of the space we inhabit, mentally and physically, from childhood into old age. He aims in part to rekindle the poetic imagery and dreams that fill our conscious and subconscious thought, and the space we "occupy."

“We want to see, and yet we are afraid to see. This is the perceptible threshold of all knowledge, the threshold upon which the interest wavers, falters, then returns….the great function of poetry, is to give us back the situations of our dreams.”


Excerpt from Morituri Salutamus

Age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.'


Excerpt from Mezzo Cammin

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.

[Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]



Thought Satellite

I think of poems as a series
of small harsh rebirths—
I keep passing myself in the halls
of a house where every room
has a second door,
so I never have to go out
the way I came in.

[Chase Twichell, from Horses Where the Answers
Should Have Been



The selection of poems and popular quotes offered below is a tribute to aging and old age. They are inspiring and beautiful, sometimes fierce and haunting, always celebratory.

From “Birches”

And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

[Robert Frost]


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.       
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
 Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

[Dylan Thomas


Stanzas from Rabbi Ben Ezra

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''

Youth ended, I shall try
My gain or loss thereby;
Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.

So, still within this life,
Though lifted o'er its strife,
Let me discern, compare, pronounce at last,
This rage was right i' the main,
That acquiescence vain:
The Future I may face now I have proved the Past."

Ay, note that Potter's wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,—
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
"Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!"

[Robert Browning (4 stanzas from an epic poem of 32 stanzas)]


Sonnet X, from Huntsman, What Quarry?

Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind ---
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.

[Edna St. Vincent Millay


Beautiful Old Age

It ought to be lovely to be old
to be full of the peace that comes of experience
and wrinkled ripe fulfillment.
The wrinkled smile of completeness that follows a life
lived undaunted and unsoured with accepted lies
they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins
in their old age.

Soothing, old people should be, like apples
when one is tired of love.
Fragrant like yellowing leaves, and dim with the soft
Stillness and satisfaction of autumn.

And a girl should say:
It must be wonderful to live and grow old.
Look at my mother, how rich and still she is! –

And a young man should think:  By Jove
my father has faced all weathers, but it’s been a life!



To the Reader: Twilight

Whenever I look
out at the snowy
mountains at this hour
and speak directly
into the ear of the sky,
it's you I'm thinking of.
You're like the spirits
the children invent
to inhabit the stuffed horse
and the doll.
I don't know who hears me.
I don't know who speaks
when the horse speaks.


How Zen Ruins Poets

Before I knew that mind
could never marry the words
it loved, in which it lost itself
in which it dressed itself,
in which it sang its most secret
tender and bitter hymns,
I also loved the thrill of thinking.
Since birth I’ve seen in the clear,
decisive muscles of its currents,
the places where the water seemed
to reconsider its course before continuing,
then the sudden onrush of falls.
I loved inside language, its many musics,
its rough, lichen-crusted stones,
its hemlocks bowed in snow.
Words were my altar and my school.
Wherever they took me, I went,
and they came to me, winged and bearing
the beautiful twigs and litter
of life’s meaning, the songs of truth.

Then a question arose in me:
What language does the mind
speak before thinking, before
thinking gives birth to words?
I tried to write without embellishment,
to tell no lies while keeping death in mind.
To write what was still unthought-about.
Stripped to their thinnest selves,
words turn transparent, to windows
through which I sometimes glimpse
what’s just beyond them.
There, a tiny flash—did you see it?
There it is again!


The Fifth Precept

Do not cloud the mind, says the Fifth Precept.
My mind has clouds of its own,
hypomanic storms, wild flights!
Let’s not be squeamish or coy;
it’s only biochemistry.
Hypomania’s a fuel; I run on it
(and psychopharmacology).

Thunderstorms elate me; my mind
draws a charge from the sky,
but there’s no letdown, just
heightened attention gradually subsiding.
Sometimes ideas run through my head so that
I cannot sleep.  I’m inclined to rush from one activity
to another without pausing for enough rest.
I am sometimes more talkative than usual
or feel a pressure to keep talking.
Sooner or later I wear myself out.*

I asked a teacher how a cloud should sit.
He said, Sit among clouds.
Zazen, what ridiculous and arduous work,
following the homeless dog home!
Sometimes I sit instead on the banks
of the Forensic River, television, and watch
them unzip the shroud of the exhumed child.
Sometimes I study the monkey-antics of mind,
or wonder what opium would be like.
I feel like Voyager, the spacecraft sent out
by Jimmy Carter with an intergalactic greeting
from Earth, and a map of how to find me. 

 *Poet’s note: Bipolar II characteristics (in italic) have been lifted
from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM-IV-TR, American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

[Chase Twichell]


“Hope” is the thing with feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That keeps so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

[Emily Dickinson]



lighter as we go

Lighter As We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging is about living life fully and the joys and challenges of aging. It is a deeply researched book, written in a conversational manner. It hopes to inspire understanding, appreciation, and intergenerational dialogue. The two medical pros who wrote it are kind and gentle in their approach, show extraordinary sensitivity to women, and share their own wisdom and life experiences with generosity and trust.

Mindy Greenstein is a 55-year-old clinical psychologist, psycho-oncologist, and consultant in geriatric psychiatry at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (herself a cancer survivor). Jimmie Holland holds the Wayne E. Chapman Chair in Psychiatric Oncology at Sloan Kettering, founded the geriatric psychiatry group at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and is Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.  Dr. Holland founded the field of psycho-oncology and helped develop this field around the world. At age 85, she still practices psychiatry at Sloan Kettering. 

Reinforcing and informing the work of Greenstein and Holland are dozens of individuals, members of a Vintage Book Club with whom the authors interact, a large array of interviewees and case studies, and even family members. Poetry and philosophy have an important role in Lighter As We Go: Cicero’s wisdom from 2000 years ago (he is also featured at the top of this page) and that of A.A. Milne, Maurice Sendak, Art Buchwald, William May, and Judith Vorst among many others.

Near the beginning of Lighter As We Go is this treasure from a chapter on the virtue of transcendence:

The Transcendent Nature of Love
[A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh] 

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh?” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand.

"I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Towards the end of the book, Cicero is quoted (as he often is in Lighter as We Go): “Old age is not as bad as you think it will be, death is not something to fear so much, and, above all, do not let either of them get in the way of living.”

Some of the facts of Lighter as We Go are surprising–for example the discussion about the extensive U-Bend research that has been done over the years. This research examines the well-being of people at different ages. Contrary to popular belief, the greatest sense of well-being across a lifetime is among young people and the elderly, two parts of the age spectrum that “travel most lightly.”

The title, Lighter As We Go, is based on an understanding that we see things in greater perspective as we grow older, that we learn to “travel lighter” as we go.  Among other things, we have greater wisdom and awareness, deeper knowledge of the world, fuller appreciation of love and the importance of caring, and an easier self confidence that makes us feel more secure within ourselves.

Readers of the Purple Scooter Poetry website, and of this Poetics of Aging page in particular, will like Lighter As We Go (available from Amazon.com) – it tells us of the knowledge and wisdom we ourselves have, of habits we can nurture to live well in older age (or at any age), is sometimes sobering but always uplifting and positive. It is an affirmation of life, a celebration of life, poetic in a unique way. It will often make you smile! You may find yourself underlining passages throughout the book because they will resonate so much with your own experience.

See www.theartoflivinglighter.com for more information about U-Bend research and about authors Mindy Greenstein and Jimmie Holland.



Notable Quotes

Have a heart that never hardens,
and a temper that never tires,
and a touch that never hurts.

—Charles Dickins

Beautiful young people are accidents of nature,
but beautiful old people are works of art."

—Eleanor Roosevelt

Aging is not lost youth but a new stage
of opportunity and strength.

—Betty Friedan

Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age,
but they die young.     
—Ben Franklin

Nothing is inherently and invincibly young except spirit. And spirit can enter a human being perhaps better in the quiet of old age and dwell there more undisturbed than in the turmoil of adventure.
—George Santayana




The Poetics of Aging, a September 2013 blog posting by Gail Spangenberg, editor of the Purple Scooter Poetry website: www.purplescooterpoetry.org/blog .

“What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, Health Section, April 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/health/21well.html?_r=0

The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-being, by Sherwin Nuland, 2008. Available in paperback and other formats from Amazon.com:  “Reflecting the wisdom of a long lifetime, The Art of Aging is a work of luminous insight, unflinching candor, and profound compassion.”  It depicts aging almost as an art form in itself.

“Age is No Obstacle to Love, or Adventure,” Fashion & Style, New York Times, September 2013 --  http://cas.umkc.edu/casww/sa/Relationships.htm

“In Old Age, Friends Can Keep You Young, Really,” Anita Hamilton, June 2009, Time Health & Family -- http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1906579,00.html

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