Tuesday, October 26, 2010

`Having Long Ago Known These Games'

In Poetry Month, surrounded by the likes of Stevens, Greville, Winters, Zbigniew Herbert and Keats, I’m fated to share the date of my birth – Oct. 26, 1952 -- with Andrew Motion. Not a bad sort, drab and harmless, the author of – sorry, I can’t remember. Of course, I’m no poet and compared to some of my other birthmates – Trotsky, Hillary Clinton, Pat Sajak – Motion is excellent company. Another birthday is always cause for gratitude if not celebration, and it certainly beats the alternative.

Last summer I read Emerson’s Society and Solitude, a collection of lectures-turned-essays published in 1870, the year he turned sixty-seven. Chapter XII is titled “Old Age.” In it, Emerson quotes a lengthy passage from an “old note-book” he kept at age twenty-two. It describes a visit he and his brother made to John Adams soon after the former president’s son, John Quincy Adams, was elected president. He quotes Adams on the significance of attaining age fifty-eight:

“When Mr. J. Q. Adams's age was mentioned, he said, `He is now fifty-eight, or will be in July ;’ and remarked that `all the Presidents were of the same age: General Washington was about fifty-eight, and I was about fifty-eight, and Mr. Jefferson, and Mr. Madison, and Mr. Monroe.’”

Some of President Adams’ calculations are a little off but how reassuring is the drift of his argument. It’s probably worth pointing out that the median age at which our presidents took office is fifty-four years and eleven months. The Constitution, fortunately, mandates a minimum age of thirty-five for presidential eligibility. I finally appreciated this wisdom two months before my thirty-fifth birthday, when I became a father for the first time. Aging and its demands are not for children.

Part of the pleasure of getting older is finding fewer battles to fight. One has less energy and uses it more economically, a default reality sometimes mistaken for wisdom. Emerson writes in the same essay:

“What to the youth is only a guess or a hope, is in the veteran a digested statute. He beholds the feats of the juniors with complacency, but as one who having long ago known these games, has refined them into results and morals.”


Gaw said...

Part of the pleasure of getting older is finding fewer battles to fight. One has less energy and uses it more economically, a default reality sometimes mistaken for wisdom.

That is so wise as to suggest that lack of energy isn't a sufficient explanation for the wisdom of the older.

Gary Baldridge said...

Felicitations to the person who pens the best-written, most consistent literary weblog in the universe.

zmkc said...

I prefer reading your blog to anything by Motion. And listening to him is a very sophisticated torture. He shares his birthday with you, in my view.

William A. Sigler said...

I hope you have a great birthday, Patrick!

May your default reality always be mistaken for wisdom!

Dwight said...

Happy birthday and many happy returns.

I completely agree on finding fewer battles to fight (as well as the sometimes mistaken view...let 'em think well of you).

Ian Wolcott said...

Happy birthday, Mr Kurp.

Cynthia Haven said...

Absolutely right on the battles -- but the few that one chooses to fight can wholly absorb one.

Happy birthday! At least you share a birthday with a poet! Mine is July 25 -- I don't share it with anyone!

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday indeed. i think that the state of one's energy is as much to do with a considered usage thereof, as anything else - so economy, in this matter, is grace - not religious but merely the grace of minimal exertion, as in good tai chi or aikido or poetry (the later Wallace Stevens, for example). Of course an enormous amount of energy may be involved in what appears minimal, taut, purposed.

Frank Wilson said...

Have a wonderful birthday, my friend!

Jonathan said...

Happy Birthday Patrick!

Gratitude rather than celebration - absolutely. Wasn't it Frank Wilson who earlier this month (on the occasion of his own birthday) posted something about the privilege of growing older?

Regardless, all the best.

And Cynthia, take heart! Elias Canetti b. July 25, 1905.

Anonymous said...


Thanks once again for a great blog.


Jonathan said...


Of course, too late, I realize, that like Patrick, you were referring to both the day and year of your birth.

Sorry for the misunderstanding.