Archive for January 17th, 2012

“The final dwarf of you”: late-life poems of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Czesław Miłosz

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012
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Crowd-pleaser

It is bitter cold, dropping below freezing in northern California – but still, a standing-room-only crowd gathered tonight to hear Helen Vendler speak on “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet.”

To be honest, the draw for me was Helen, not Stevens.  She was one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope, and we spent some time together in Kraków last spring.  Stevens is not exactly foreign territory, but I’ve never been attracted enough to make deeper excursions into his poetic terrain.

Then Helen quoted from Stevens’s poem, “The Dwarf,” and I eagerly looked up these incantatory lines later when I got home:

Now it is September and the web is woven.
The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,
The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind …

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn …

"The web is woven and you have to wear it."

The subject of the poet’s approaching winter holds an increasing fascination for me … well, we are all growing older.  But growing older has been a great surprise – the psychological landscape and vantage points of late summer and autumn are not at all what I had been told or had been expecting.

Helen referred to Stevens’ sense of crustiness and limitation, the disillusionment of approaching old age – the horror and defeat of knowing that change is no longer possible.  But was it ever? Was it ever really?

I wonder, now, whether “progress” and “change” is imaginary even in youth – perhaps our sense of change is merely that we cannot yet detect which way the twig is bent.  Later, with 20-20 retrospection, the years have a certain inevitability to them – partly the illusion of rewriting the past to fit what we now know to be true, partly the result of our decisions.  “Choice” may be no more than whether we pull up the weeds or roses from our gardens, and which plants we water.  Even in old age we have the same choices: the decision, for example, of whether to abandon our vices before they abandon us.

So why do we go kicking and screaming as we are dragged through the first snow?  Obviously, age brings with it strange and bitter medicines of its own. T.S. Eliot put it astringently in “Little Gidding”:

"Then fools' approval stings..."

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
… the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

The final pill at the bottom of the bottle: a quiet self-acceptance – and with it, a welcome humility.  To return to poetry, isn’t it simply a matter of metaphors?  Why do we choose metaphors of old, unbending, twisted trees – isn’t age, at best, more a distillation, like attar?  The loss of distracting imagination and the fantasy of the infinitely wondrous “me,” the increasing laser-like focus on the one or two things one does well, whether it is writing poems or collecting seashells.  And the gratitude for the time to sustain such efforts – an option that was not given to the peers we buried.

Or, again, another metaphor:  why don’t we describe age in terms of botrytis, the rare “noble rot” of the vineyard, that yields the mellow depth and gentle surprise of late-harvest dessert wines?

"That's me."

Surely Czesław Miłosz knew what I am talking about – his late poems reflect the magic and wonderment of this new territory, and the self-surrender of humility –  a final sense of proportion and graceful humor about “the final dwarf.”

In his late poem, “At a Certain Age,” he admits “We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.”  After exploring several options, from pets to psychiatrists, he concludes:

Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

On the other hand, there’s also his late-life prose poem, “Awakened”:

In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. . . . As if a voice were repeating: “You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” . . . The happiness on this side was like an announcement of the other side. I realized that this was an undeserved gift and I could not grasp by what grace it was bestowed on me.