Poetry on Aging

“Old grandmother with gray hair and a wrinkled face closing her eyes in black and white.” by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Aging is the sort of inevitable, non-negotiable topic that fascinates poets. Birth, school, work, death, in the immortal lyrics of The Godfathers.

Some of us fight aging. Some of us embrace it. Whichever approach is yours, though, aging beats the alternative. In the immortal words of someone.

People in my family die young. Maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to be old. Or maybe it’s because I’d hoped to be old and wise, to stop making the same foolish mistakes over and over again.

That hasn’t happened yet, but aging has made me lazier, meaning that I now have no energy at all to boss other people around about how to spend their days. It’s all I can do to manage my own days.

One of my favorite poems that examines aging is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, even though I harbor great resentment against Eliot for his efforts to turn poetry into an elitist art form.

W.B. Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old” is about aging, but it’s also a love poem, sort of. “Warning” by British poet Jenny Joseph starts with the famous, exuberant line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”

The poem below, originally published in Poet Lore, is not particularly exuberant.

When It Descends

Winter, tell me how my body
makes changes without me. You know.
Your beautyberry is gone again, eaten by cardinals.

The nights grow longer and call me to their altars:
bedsheets I stroke like a lover’s skin,
bedside table piled with books, breeding

beside a cup of ginger tea.
I pray for sleep, and when it descends,
my two husbands trade places in my dreams,

as if they’re only stand-ins
for limitation, when I know they were more.
Tell me how my body changes without me,

and I’ll tell you how I learned
to speak a loving thought out loud.
If only I’d stopped right there.