Friday, September 11, 2009

`The Habitual Tact of Age'

Several times a day at school I cross paths with a woman 20 years my senior who does the job I do with better grace and efficiency. She’s been at it longer and is pleased to share what she knows. Her lessons are devoted to words and tones not technical knowhow or theory, which isn’t of much use with these kids. She’s a reader and English is her third language, acquired in the last 20 years. This week she’s working on a psychology textbook and Our Mutual Friend, my favorite Dickens, but she’s not taking classes and says, a little deflectingly, that she reads because she doesn’t like to waste time watching television. She reminds me of the poet Edgar Bowers, who wrote this in 1999, the year he turned 75, in a letter to 30-year-old poet Joshua Mehigan:

“Last term I was in a class on David Hume that was not at all Jesuit but wonderfully taught by a young man from Harvard and U Mass, a class that was very exciting to me, for, among other things, I thought to perceive in Hume’s despair of reason many of the sources of the world of rhetoric and purposeless iconoclasm that seems general, and the accompanying evaluation of emotion over intelligence (intelligence by now reduced to a very feeble state, not the nous of Aristotle) there being no public truth to appeal to. Amusingly enough, when I was in Rome later in the spring, I thought to find quite Humean the propagandistic practices of the Augustan empire and its imitation by the early Jesuits. You see to what undisciplined speculation being an amateur philosopher can lead.”

Read the rest of Mehigan’s remembrance of Bowers here. Nothing reassures like an old person – a “senior,” that patronizing pigeonhole – hungry for the life of the mind. We all know people who stopped learning in high school or earlier, but then we can reassure ourselves with Geoffrey Hill writing his best verse in his eighth decade; William Maxwell, age 91, rereading War and Peace in the final months of his life; I.F. Stone learning Greek in his seventies. The old woman I know at school is modeled along these lines – lucid, cool, unresigned to entropy.

In his first book, The Optimist (2004), Mehigan dedicates “Introduction to Poetry” to Bowers. It describes a brief, late-blooming friendship pleasing to both “the young man and the great and dying man.” Even the oak boughs are “bowed with the habitual tact of age.” Here’s a heartbreaking passage, but please read the entire poem:

“Young man delivers his imperfect part
to old man, who must also hear the sound
of his own shoes on a back road at dusk,
the involuntary interest in the new
cells in his blood carrying his mind past dusk.”

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