Thursday, April 7, 2022

Richard Howard's At Sixty-Five (#poem)


At Sixty-Five

The tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny
it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shapes of time
change altogether! Days, weeks, months,
and especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her “method”: asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year—
“I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s
next year.” But after sixty-five, next year
is now. Hours? there are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time . . .
When was it you “last” saw Jimmy—last spring?
last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals—betrays—the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No
time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (. . . as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.
Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified—astonished—to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you—you are immortal after all.

-Richard Howard

Richard Howard (1929-2022) passed away last week, a favorite as a poet and an important translator from the French.

As a consequence there have been links: the NY Times obituary, an article, emphasizing his Jewishness in the Forward, a conversation at a Pen event between him and Susan Sontag. That last, from which I lifted the poem, also has an amusing anecdote involving Hermann Broch: it seems Broch, assisted in his emigration from Europe by Howard's adoptive mother, flirted with her, bringing on young Howard's jealousy. To no avail. (The romance didn't come off anyway.)

I also learned that Howard's husband insisted that one book leave their New York apartment every time a new one came in. The horror! There was generally large stack of books by the door to be schlepped down to the Strand and sold.

The poem uses a syllable-counting pattern. Ten syllables in each line, though it's not five accents, and so it's not blank verse.

For Howard, at sixty-five, next year wasn't yet now. He went on well past that. But 'you are immortal after all.'


  1. [The poem uses a syllable-counting pattern. Ten syllables in each line, though it's not five accents, and so it's not blank verse.]

    To my ear, at least, it comes out as simply prose, though I suppose it's old fashioned to make the ear the standard of poetic form.

    1. I find—a bit to my surprise— it does sound like poetry to me. But I think the success of his technique is more noticeable in his pieces with more complex lyrical structures.

      Inspired me a bit to do some syllable-counting elegiacs inspired by Propertius here:

    2. Love this Propertius, metrics aside, even love the anachronistic contemporization, which I'm guessing accords well with what seems to be this poet's spirit. It helps, too, that I've got a thing for redheads. I scarcely know Propertius, but I'm sure the second poem must have been the inspiration for Robert Lowell's poem The Ghost.

    3. Thanks.

      Redheads definitely can be cute--just watched The Breakfast Club on the plane back--Molly Ringwald! Though now I have that stupid Simple Minds song going through my head.

      Jessica (a natural blonde) has been giving me the skeptical eye over this whole series.

      The Lowell does definitely refer to the same Propertius as me. (My copy of the Lowell says After Sextus Propertius). He follows it more closely than I do--the will, help the maid, etc.--but he soft-pedals the sex--that pretty lame pun at the end, 'grinding bone on bone' is all he's got. But then Pound draws on this one a bit, too, and soft-pedals the sex even more.

      I was reading Propertius a few years ago & thought it could be contemporary, almost novelistic with a bunch of characters. I wrote the whole sequence in blank verse but it didn't go anywhere. I rewrote most of them in free verse, but they sounded prosy to me. I wrote a couple of them in accentual elegiacs, but they're hard in English, and mine sounded stilted. I've liked this--it's got the space to feel chatty, but formal enough (for me) to feel like verse.

  2. Molly Ringwald... light of my life, fire of my loins in the summer of 85, when we were fifteen together. I heard that song on the radio in March, on the 401 from Belleville to Toronto, and flew back from Canada at the beginning of April with it still welcomely
    obsessing me. The lyrics are pretty worthless, as in most pop, but there are elements of the music that continue to bring the song back to me. The band didn't write it, and didn't really want to record it, a lack of interest that led to the famous, accidentally classic la-la coda.

    1. This was the first time I actually saw the movie (though I still knew the song). I would have been 22 or something and was too snooty to see it at the time, though I've been to that high school for a meet. (Not in the library, I think.) Suburbanites! would have been my thought at the time.

      I also refused to see Blues Brothers because I was sure it was ersatz. I saw it a couple of years & totally enjoyed it.