I’ve been thinking about the matter of age as regards writers and other creative types. Partly, that’s a response to, well, getting older. Some of it is about seeking out younger writers to follow, something a student of contemporary literature must always do. But a big part of it is watching the generation I admired as an up-and-comer in the academy grow old and, too steadily, leave us. For now, though, let’s just focus on the growing old part. It’s really interesting.
This is, I believe, the first time in history that so many writers have continued to be productive so deep into life. Three things prompted this musing. The first was learning recently that one of my favorites, English poet Geoffrey Hill, died earlier this summer at age 84. Never heard of him? Not surprising. He was the least known major poet one can imagine, especially stateside, where his horde of fans probably numbered in double digits, possibly low double digits. Another was hearing Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s great gifts to the world, interviewed this afternoon about her new graphic novel. What a thing to produce as a first effort at age 77. The third item was picking up the latest volume of poems by W. S. Merwin, The Moon before Morning, published in 2015, when he was a mere 88. His first volume appeared in 1952. That means he published books of poetry while Harry Truman and Barack Obama were in office, along with every president in between. Who knows, he may grace another administration. This is something to celebrate.
So is the continued productivity of so many great artists into their late seventies and eighties. It’s partly improved health care, partly fewer really bad life choices (less smoking and heavy drinking, no absinthe), but whatever the cause, we have a lot of celebrating to do: poets Gary Snyder (86), John Ashberry (89), Galway Kinnell (87 when he died in 2014), novelists Toni Morrison (85), Atwood (although she’s just a kid), and Doris Lessing (94 when she died in 2013), and directors Woody Allen (81) and Clint Eastwood (85). I know I have missed quite a few, but you get the idea. I remember in grad school a professor telling us that William Butler Yeats was one of the very few great poets of old age; it was true, but he only lived to not quite 74. Good for a century ago but hardly notable these days.