C. K. Williams, who is now 75, has been writing poetry since his twenties. Along the way, he has published eighteen books of poetry and has won almost every prize out there, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
I’ve read and admired many of his poems because of his willingness to take the plunge and stay with the long line. He holds an idea or an image and doesn’t let it go, wringing everything out of the language he pours upon the page. (You can hear this in the poem “Whacked,” which he reads in the video, “On Being Old,” linked to my last blog.)
I enjoyed watching Williams in the video, sitting there in his corduroy jacket behind the podium, reflecting “On Being Old.” I liked looking into his lined face and hearing his voice. Sure, we can read the essay (The American Poetry Review, July-August 2012), but how much better to see him before us, talking straight out about being old.
Most of us are in a state of denial about being old. One friend responded to my last post: “You’re not old.” Well, I’m certainly not young, so what do you call me? I’ll turn seventy this month. True, most of us don’t feel old. So what is it we feel? Let’s hear from those of us who stand at this end of life.
C. K. Williams speaks out from age 75.
He begins by making some funny comments about his sagging body when glimpsed in a mirror, naked, late at night, after a few glasses of wine. ‘’The body,” he says, “doesn’t seem to realize what an important person it is carrying around.” He tells us about trying to imagine his literary heroes, like Robert Frost in his 80’s, whose “face was like a sculpture,” in such a state.
We can’t avoid the subject of our bodies. We live in them after all. Now at almost 70, mine is beginning to show signs of wear. Yet it was able to take me to see the vistas of Machu Picchu, and for that, I am thankful. After the trip, it let me know that such climbing wasn’t as easy as it would have been in my thirties. Yet how pleasing that my body is giving me this extra time to do the things I was too busy for when we (body and spirit) both were much younger.
Williams covers many topics in his talk: taste and how it changes over one’s lifetime, critics, the depression that comes from not writing, the changes in his own poetry, his past and the “stupid things” he said and did, his obsession with a future that terrifies him, his thoughts on death (“It doesn’t hang around the way it did when I was in my twenties”), and the gratitude he feels for the beauty and miracles of the present. Finally he ends his talk by reading a poem entitled “Writers Writing Dying.” The final line: “Keep dying, keep writing it down.”
In The Art of Growing Old: Aging with Grace, Marie de Hennezel quotes Hermann Hesse in her chapter entitled “The Fecundity of Time.” “We who have white hair derive strength, patience, and joy from sources the young know nothing about,” says Hesse. “Watching, observing, and contemplating gradually become habits and exercises, and imperceptibly all our behavior begins to be influenced by this state of mind and the attitude to which it leads.” And I would add writing to those habits and exercises.
We are living—and dying—every day; we will keep writing it down, at every age.