More on C. K. Williams: “On Being Old”

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.)

Courtesy of Jesse Nemerofsky
C. K. Williams: His collection “Repair” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for poetry

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.


The List

Arlene MacDonald
Guest Author

I made a list of things to do tomorrow
before I went to bed,

so all those tasks I need to do
wouldn’t leave my head.

I woke to brilliant sun,
happy that the day had just begun.

I reached onto my nightstand
to fetch my glasses,

to read my list of things to do
before the morning passes.

I searched and searched, but to my despair
my trusty glasses did not reappear.

Try as I might,
I couldn’t restore my sight.

Without my eyes
to lead me to my list,

the things I need to do
no longer exist.

Does this mean I have license to play;
do whatever I want and enjoy the day?

What a great turn of events,
I realize with glee.

Losing the list must mean
I’m free, I’m free, I’m free!


About Arlene MacDonald:  “I am a retired Computer Aided Drafting teacher. Oddly enough, I taught at Johnson County Community College, where guest author Martha Varzaly is currently teaching Composition. We don’t know each other, but it certainly illustrates how small the world is. I am a novice in the writing department, but I have always loved words and the feelings they evoke. I was inspired to try my hand at the craft  by my dear friend who is the author of this blog. She is a teacher who is quick to praise and to encourage all of her students on Sanibel Island, and  I’m lucky enough to have her as my personal muse.”

Nolan Zavoral: Poet

Today I’d like to sing the praises of Nolan Zavoral. Every Monday, when I’m home in Minneapolis, I attend our Monday Morning Poetry Group with Deborah Keenan. Nolan, who has been a member of Deborah’s group for ten years,  brings a new poem for us each week. I’m always intrigued by his unique view of life after 50. His poems are quirky and insightful and always full of fresh images.  When he read this poem last week, I knew I wanted tp feature Nolan and his poem on our website.

Nolan’s background is journalism, thirty years’ worth, mostly on the staffs of metro dailies, in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and at USA Today. “I quit to write what I wanted: fiction and poetry,” he says. He was a founding member of the Laurel Poetry Collective. Besides being published by the collective, he has published poems in many anthologies and poetry publications.

“With Deborah Keenan’s help,” he says, ” I’m putting together a new poetry manuscript.”

Here is his poem:



These are not age spots on the backs of my hands.

They are freckles.


I go to bed later and later, as if I’m afraid

To release another day.


My stylist takes less and less time for my trims.

She must be getting a lot faster.


Twenty years younger than I, she lost her husband

And brother within a month. I over-tip, like it’s a comfort.


There’s nothing wrong with my memory, although

I still can’t remember the name of The Band’s drummer.


There’s one other name I keep forgetting, but

I can’t remember what it is.


Occasionally, when my prosthetic right hip and pace-

Maker and denture aren’t troubling me, I feel almost 50.


If life throws you a curve, just make contact, is

My motto.


I have no idea what that means.



–Nolan Zavoral