Michael Gottlieb / Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet / 29


Is there anything we should feel entitled to feel good about?

Perhaps the fact that we’re still here? We may be lame or halt or irrelevant or – irrelevant and ridiculous, but the fact remains that we’re still here. We still show up. Or, we should.

And while there may be some – who are not all that much younger than us – who surely wish we’d give up and, once and for all, stop stepping on their scene; that is, stop sucking the air out of the room in our insufferable boomer-ist way. Nevertheless, the very fact that we can still make an appearance, that must count for something. One would think.

For a few years there was a certain novelty factor which exercised a degree of sway over us: the time had come – as it comes to us all, should we be so lucky – that whenever we showed up at a reading or an event, a conference, a book party, we were always the oldest there. It was odd, it was at first disconcerting; surely there must be some mistake. Someone must be out of town, or ill, or, eventually it came suggest itself, had – with a certain crashing rudeness – decided to go ahead and drop dead sans any sense of decent fair warning.

At first it just did not make sense that we should be the oldest there. Now, it is the custom and the practice. You look around the room, scanning the faces – and the heads, before the lights dim; and the heads themselves, even more than the faces – tell you all you need to know.

How few are there here with gray hair? How many fewer whose hair, if there’s any left, has gone white? Now, no one expects to see anyone at a reading who is our own age, much less anyone older. And if one of one’s friends should appear, what a holiday is that? Make way! Clear some seats! There’s more than one of us in the house; more than one of us still getting it together to get around.

As young poets, filing meekly into our seats at St. Marks, for how many years, year upon year, did we catch sight of Edwin Denby, that intimate of the immortals, frail and snowy brow’d, a beautiful and wondrously generous man who’d been friends with, stood by, supported and advocated for so many of the greats? There he’d be, sitting by himself, impossibly old.

The sprinkle of white hair.

Looking on, quietly off to the side; showing up for the younger poets. How much older was he then than we are now?

Not much. Not so much. Not much older than us. Perhaps not older than us at all.

So… we still show up, at least now and then. And if we deem it right and proper that we should commandeer the first row, who is there who would begrudge us that? I mean, we could be home, warm and comfortable – or, at least, warm – but instead we’re out and about. And maybe that should count something.

And for the benefit of all those who are ten, twenty, thirty, forty years younger than us…

Might it be that by merely showing up we are performing some sort of social good? Or, on the other hand, might we not be just annoying further those whose most pressing wish is that we should simply shuffle off the stage as soon as possible, having hogged the limelight for so many more years than ever we have should? Nonetheless, are we not demonstrating that it is possible to have a life, to ‘conduct’ a life, to come out through the other end, whole? …that it is not necessary to burn up in the upper atmosphere? …that you can indeed make a safe landing or, if not, at least parachute to earth, and live to tell the tale?

Show up, and listen and pay attention too… You might learn something. Might that be the most important lesson, or the last lesson, we have to impart to those who come after us? Greater than, perhaps, any of the arguments we tried to posit in our poems, or tried to point to by the way we wrote our poems or wrote about our poems, or each other’s poems?



Thanks to the following writers who read this essay in earlier versions or discussed with me the questions it tries to address, and were generous enough with their time to share their insight. This work is the better for their comments: Steve Benson, Brandon Brown, Alan Davies, Katie Degentesh, Evelyn Reilly, Rob Fitterman, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Allan Jalon, Sharon Mesmer, Tim Peterson, Michael Scharf, James Sherry

Michael Gottlieb is the author of fifteen books of poetry including The Likes Of Us, Lost And Found and Gorgeous Plunge. A native New Yorker and first-generation Language poet, he co-edited the seminal Language magazine "Roof." Commenting about his book, Memoir And Essay, published a year ago by Faux Press/Other Publications, Elizabeth Fodaski wrote in American Book Review, "What 'A Movable Feast' did for Paris, this book does for New York City." This past September, a staged production of his 9/11 elegy, ‘The Dust,’ directed by Fiona Templeton, was performed at the Poetry Project at St. Marks in NYC to commemorate the 10th anniversary of those attacks.
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Blogger Tom Beckett said...

Thanks for this, Michael.

2:29 AM  

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