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Aging Gracelessly

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In the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch laments a lost love -- the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Kirsch recalls his early infatuation: "It was not until I read 'The Waste Land' as a teenager that I began to think I might want to be a poet myself." Eliot's poetry was a challenge to the young writer, and consequently a spur to his early intellectual development. But as Kirsch matured, he realized that Eliot's vision was not only different from his, but unattractive: "Eliot's world came to strike me as too hermetic, too self-invented, and too limiting in its rejections." Today, Kirsch sees Eliot's poetry as the product of a young poet, appropriate above all for an audience of young readers: "I loved Eliot so much as an adolescent because he is, in some ways, an essentially adolescent writer;" Kirsch now considers "Prufrock" to be "the most perfect expression of adolescent anguish ever written," and the "Waste Land" "a kind of young person's performance." Kirsch still honors the greatness of Eliot, but he has now outgrown it: "There may be different kinds of greatness, suited to different phases of our growth."

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T.S. Eliot in 1920. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

A battalion of academic psychologists have declared that lyric poets peak young, and they are wrong. Some poets peak young; others peak late. The difference is not happenstance, but systematic: conceptual poets peak early, experimental poets peak late. Their creative peaks are different because their artistic goals are different, and the methods by which they seek them are different.

Conceptual innovations are often sudden and dramatic leaps into novelty, made by brash and daring young practitioners who are not constrained by long years of adherence to disciplinary conventions, nor burdened by deeply entrenched habits of thought. These leaps may appear elegant and brilliant in their simplicity to the like-minded, but to others they may appear superficial and simplistic. The poet Louise Glück once described her own early infatuation with Eliot: "I read this poetry for the first time as an adolescent. And understood it immediately, by which I mean I felt a connection to it. I heard the tone." But as an older poet, she could see that what had appealed to her as an adolescent was the adolescent quality of Eliot's work: "If there is a criticism to make, it may come out of that: not that the work is 'academic,' whatever that means, but that in the intensity and unchangingness of its emotion it is adolescent." An artist who is born middle-aged may in fact be a poet who never matures. Joyce Carol Oates made just this point about another great conceptual innovator: "[Sylvia] Plath's meticulously documented example suggests how precocity is not maturity, and may in fact impede maturity."

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Sylvia Plath in 1959. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Nor is this criticism unique to poets; it has equally been made of important conceptual practitioners of other arts. So for example when the novelist Henry James reviewed an exhibition of paintings by the precocious John Singer Sargent when the latter was just 37 years old, James observed that Sargent's recent work did not demonstrate development: "As he saw and rendered ten years ago, so he sees and renders today; and I may add that there is no present symptom of his passing into another manner." James was disturbed by Sargent's precocity, for "it offers the slightly uncanny spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn." James feared that Sargent would never achieve "the highest result...I mean the quality in the light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, enlarges and humanizes the technical problem." In yet another art, and more bluntly, in an obituary of Ernest Hemingway, the novelist Alberto Moravia declared that throughout his life Hemingway had remained in an "infantile and precocious state of arrested development." Noting that Hemingway's important work was done when Hemingway was in his twenties, Moravia concluded that "he was incapable of developing or adding anything of value to his early, naïve nihilism." In more moderate terms the scholar Philip Young agreed, reflecting that nowhere in Hemingway "can you find the mature, brooding intelligence, the sense of the past, the grown-up relationships of adult people, and many of the other things we normally ask of a first-rate novelist."

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Ernest Hemingway in 1918. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

T.S. Eliot himself recognized that there may be an inverse relationship between early brilliance and ultimate achievement, in a speech he delivered in his own sixth decade:

We can also observe, upon a little conversance, that the plays of Christopher Marlowe exhibit a greater maturity of mind and of style, than the plays which Shakespeare wrote at the same age: it is interesting to speculate whether, if Marlowe had lived as long as Shakespeare, his development would have continued at the same pace. I doubt it: for we observe that those which mature very early do not always develop very far.

Eliot also recognized that the maturity of Shakespeare could best be appreciated by the mature reader: "No reader of Shakespeare...can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind."

Even the conceptual Eliot could recognize the maturation of the experimental Shakespeare, but Eliot nonetheless remained baffled by the ability of Shakespeare, or Yeats, to develop artistically as they grew older: "That a poet should develop at all, that he should find something new to say, and say it equally well, in middle age, has always something miraculous about it." Eliot's failure of comprehension is not surprising, for maturity is an experimental value, not readily understood by a conceptual artist. True artistic maturity does not arrive suddenly or conspicuously, but gradually and unobtrusively. So for example the critic Stephen Greenblatt observed that

Hamlet makes clear that Shakespeare had been quietly, steadily developing a special technical skill...The achievement was, in any case, gradual: not a sudden, definitive discovery or a grandiose invention, but the subtle refinement of a particular set of representational techniques.

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Robert Frost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For insight into the value of maturity in poetry, we can turn to the reflections of a great experimental poet, Robert Frost, in his own seventh decade:

Young people have insight. They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like the stars coming out in the early evening. They have flashes of light. It is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy.