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

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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.


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

  1. andre gerard Says:

    The following excerpt from a Guardian article on Leonard Cohen is relevant (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jan/19/leonard-cohen). Nature versus nurture is just as difficult to assess in the aging process as it is in the development of the young. Do you age well, with calmness and dignity, because you are lucky enough to be born with genes which lead you to do so, or do you age well because you work at understanding and acceptance? Cohen, here, seems to be coming down on the side of nature, although his monastery time clearly was in the service of nurture. Very possibly, our aging is shaped both by nurture and nature. Your excerpts from Milosz suggest that he might well have endorsed that view.

    Guardian excerpt:

    In 1993, resurgent and well-loved but in a dark frame of mind, Cohen disappeared from the public gaze. He spent the next six years in a monastery on Mount Baldy, California, studying with his old friend and Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, whom he calls Roshi and who is now a resilient 104 years old. “This old teacher never speaks about religion,” Cohen tells the Paris audience. “There’s no dogma, there’s no prayerful worship, there’s no address to a deity. It’s just a commitment to living in a community.”

    When he came down from the mountain his lifelong depression had finally lifted. “When I speak of depression,” he says carefully, “I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse. I’m happy to report that, by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.” He thinks it might just be down to old age. “I read somewhere that as you grow older certain brain cells die that are associated with anxiety so it doesn’t really matter how much you apply yourself to the disciplines. You’re going to start feeling a lot better or a lot worse depending on the condition of your neurons.”

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I think a lot of these notions come from watching too many Kung Fu reruns on TV.

    I’m not sure “aging well” is with “calmness and dignity” – as opposed to, say, aging with energy and intelligence and drive. (They don’t have to contradict, but generally an abundance of one precludes the other). I don’t think we have to “work” on acceptance; it’s the inevitable consequence of losing our illusions, if we don’t sink into bitterness and regret.

    We take the lot that is given to us to take, and try to take it without too much griping about it.

    Milosz was irascible, argumentative, and greedy. His last years were marked by black depressions – yet the were shot through with illuminations like the ones he expressed in “Awakened” and “At a Certain Age.”

  3. Quid plura? | “Though the interstate is choking under salt and dirty sand…” Says:

    […] The Book Haven sees senescence in Stevens, Eliot, and Miłosz. […]

  4. Oluwatobi Says:

    Once every couple years I think, maybe now is the time to try Wallace Stevens again. And I try again, with the same results. I’m not left cold, though. I experience a vehement, visceral revulsion when I try to read his verse. I’ve never been able to analyze it. Somehow for me he conjures up everything I hate about the late fifties and early sixties; there’s something precious, elaborate, involuted and selfish about the steering of his thought that fills me with horror. So many people admire him that I’m sure this response of mine reveals a weakness in my mind, not in his. Maybe in a couple years.

  5. tim joyce Says:

    I was lucky to have Helen Vendler as a teacher in a summer seminar on Keats and Whitman. What a wonderful person and a diamond mind that could cull up great bolts of poetry.

    A poet friend of mine told me that when Wallace Stevens was on the committee to elect candidates for the American Society of Arts and letter he took one look at a photo of Gwendlyn Brooks and said, “Who is that nigger?”/

    I believe he was send to remark “Money is poetry” .

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Pardon the late posting, Tim. Your post was in a spam folder.

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