A Way if Putting It


Unfortunately, I’m given to the pronouncements of age
As I get older, but it isn’t complacency or the cocktail hour.
It’s simply the frustration of revising what I used to feel
And hope in order to accommodate the demands of the page

Of seventy-four, or to see myself anew through “ancient,
Glittering eyes” while being faithful to what I’ve been all along,
As it alters slightly in the changing light, while remaining
A version of what it always was, like an echo of the same song.

In the end what matters is the feeling of life as a whole
As reflected in the details of each day, which are difficult to see.
As truth becomes altered in the telling, so the individual life
Becomes an artifact of its history, no matter what its original goal

Might have been, or what it might be happy to settle for now.
And it’s not just the individual life, but the collective life of art
That’s subject to revision, however unimportant it’s become,
Involving at the same time both “a wholly new start,
And a different kind of failure,” which feel the same.
Sosostris, Eugenides, Sunday Morning from the Palisades
And Innisfree-what hides behind every “order of monuments”
Is an ordinary person with the usual anxieties and a name

That might be anyone’s. That’s what I still find so extraordinary
After all these years: that however transcendent the outcome,
What it articulates is there for everyone to see, and whatever else
You might aspire to, anything you ultimately become

Is what everyone becomes. But even though what you feel
Is of no importance sub specie aeternitatis, and isn’t even
Conceivable by anyone else, it’s the only thing that matters
For the short while it lasts, the only thing that’s real.


I suppose that most of this is true
In a sense that’s important to me alone,
But basically I’m an ordinary person
With a life that’s much like your own
Except for the details, whose significance
Resides in its insignificance—somebody
Factual and prone to please, good company,
A “smiling public man.” I have my own history
Too, involving California and Catholicism,
Whose demands were so severe that when my
Dear Baptist grandmother Nana died in Texas,
I knew she’d burn in hell forever for her sin.

It felt more human once religion fell away,
To be replaced by microscopes and chemistry,
Then by science fairs and track, mathematics
And physics and a final collapse into decadence,
As smoking, philosophy and poetry had their way.
I dwell so much on the years when I was young
Because they last forever, and they set the tone
For whatever happens later with increasing speed,

Like variations on the themes I’m skipping over:
Marriages, homes, careers, interests I lost interest in
And friends who still matter to me as they disappear,
Leaving nothing but the facts I’ve summarized.

I feel this ambivalence about the personal,
So let me try to make it clear. It’s real enough
As far as it goes, but in the end it’s just a disguise
Of a different kind, one that leaves out everything
Of importance that you can’t articulate, like the sense
Of what it feels like to be impermanent and alive.
Even though I say one thing and mean another,
Even though “everything I’m telling you may be a lie,”
The underlying poem is a part of the imagination,
Mine or someone else’s, and as it reveals itself
Without autobiography, it embodies the sense of a life
That’s no one’s, and of what it’s like for it to be your own.


Who cares whose voice it is, as long as it’s alive?
I’ve heard it now for sixty years, and yet I don’t know
What it says, or why it sometimes makes me cry.
It isn’t my story in particular, or anyone’s,
Though it captures the tone of what it’s like to think so
For a while, and the way life feels as it goes by.
It all adds up to something in the end, even if it was there
All along and I didn’t see it. It doesn’t change
Or outlast anything, or reveal anything that isn’t clear-
It just touches me this way, and makes me glad.

The deepest happiness is to see the ordinary world
For what it is, but to see itt without sadness
You look at it over and over through your own eyes
And the words of others, but always for the first time.
I sit here on my balcony looking at the same sky
I remember from high school and the poems I loved in college,
And it’s as though I’d never seen it before, and the feeling
“Of being absolutely safe” Wittgenstein described were my own.
It’s a poem captured from the air in a voice that’s undefined,
Which as it starts to deepen and increase feels like mine.

The simple soul that issues from the hand of God;
The necklace that’s a carving not a kiss; the bee-loud glade
That gathers from the air a live tradition… I don’t think
They were ever the little world I wanted them to be,
But it meant everything to me to think they were, and still does.
I’m writing this without embarrassment, because no matter
How inconsequential it’s become, and how beside the point it seems,
It still defines my life, and occupies it like a waking dream.
It isn’t the sudden shaft of sunlight or the gradual transformation
Of experience or the unkept promise of a different life-

It’s simply that I’m happy. I like the sense of being
Part of something larger than myself, of telling you about it
As I try to remember how it started, and wondering how much
Longer its presence in my heart is going to last. I’d like to say
Forever, but that’s an exercise in futility, and isn’t even what I want.
It’s sufficient that the past remain the past, this summer afternoon
Be simply what it is, and the future…? I’ve gone on enough:
Instead of reaching a conclusion, getting older is a study in tone
That leaves you where you are-still listening to yourself
A lifetime away from where you started, and not far from home.

John Koethe