Maybe it’s the panting after a trip to the grocery store, the pain in my knee and various other body parts, or strapping a breathing gizmo to my face when I go to bed, but I feel more like the Old Man every day. Without being morose I feel my mortality slipping away day by day. Not that I plan to check out any time soon. At least a couple of doctors recently assured me that I will be around and annoying for the foreseeable future with just a few lifestyle adjustments—cutting out sugar and the kind of moderate exercise I can actually do.
But like a lot of geezers past whatever landmarks are meaningful to them, I have been thinking a lot lately about being an old man. I found some other poets who have been doing the same—white men all and only three out of five of them dead.C.G. Hanzlicek.
The first poem on the subject that caught my attention was To Be a Danger by C.G. Hanzlicek who was born in Minnesota to a Czech immigrant craftsman and a farmer’s daughter. He made it into the University of Minnesota where he became interested in poetry. Hanzlicek is the author of nine books of poetry: Living in It, Stars, winner of the 1977 Devins Award for Poetry; Calling the Dead; A Dozen for Leah; When There Are No Secrets; Mahler: Poems and Etchings; Against Dreaming; The Cave: Selected and New Poems; and, most recently, The Lives of Birds. In 2001, he retired from California State University, Fresno, where he taught for 35 years and was for most of those years the director of the Creative Writing Program.
To Be a Danger
Just once I’d like to be a danger
To something in this world,
Be hunted by cops
And forced into hiding in the mountains,
Since if they left me on the streets
I’d turn the country around,
Changing everyone’s mind with a word.
But I’ve lived so long a quiet life,
In a world I've made small,
That even my own mind changes slowly.
I’m a danger only to myself,
Like the daydreaming night watchman
Smoking his cigar
Near the dynamite shed.
Next up is American comic poet Ogden Nash known for his short, pithy verses and limericks. In this widely re-published verse, a certain melancholy lurks behind the mirth.
People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when…
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.
When the Great War broke out. Already in his late 30s he vacillated over whether to enlist. Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, despite being a mature married man who could have avoided enlisting. He was influenced in this decision by his friend the American Robert Frost, who had returned to the U.S. after taking walking trips with Thomas. Frost sent him an advance copy of The Road Not Taken. The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together. Most took the poem more seriously than Frost intended, and Thomas took it personally, and it Edward Thomas never actually got to be old. The Welsh-born poet was already an established literary figure provided the last straw in his decision to enlist. Thomas was promoted to corporal, and in November 1916 was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. He was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at Arras on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917.
Old Man, or Lad’s-love,—in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson-trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Speaking of Frost, we naturally assume that New Hampshire’s beloved poet would have something to meditate on. Frost was adept at capturing scene and mood while reveling in his craftsmanship with verse. Here he found pathos in an elderly man’s isolation and loneliness.
An Old Man’s Winter Night
All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
—Robert FrostThis Old Man.
Of course, the Old Man has chipped in too, relatively unembarrassed to hitch his wagon to his betters. Take this from last Fall.
Equinox Eve Morn
September 21, 2021
The first few leaves flutter down
from the old, slowly dying Boxelder
in the breaking grey light of dawn,
most of the thinning leaves not yet turned.
The vigorous five-trunk silver maple
whose crown enlaces it
has not even begun to turn
nor have any of the other trees
on our small lot.
A wind from the far-off Lake
breaks yesterday’s heat and humidity,
on cue the seasons are shifting.
Like that old junk tree
I can feel myself dropping my own leaves
tentatively but surely.
My time, too, is slipping away.