1. Do Poets Improve with Age?

    Written by Rob Mackenzie at March 15, 2010 18:24

    In a discussion last year on the Magma blog, Sheenagh Pugh used the phrase, “as if any writer weren’t liable to get better with more experience of both life and handling words.”

    Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? And some writers do seem to get better with age. Each collection they produce is better than the one before or, at least, their later work is generally stronger than their early material. Some writers even become embarrassed over their early material. Norman MacCaig disowned his first two collections. I’m told that a contemporary Scottish poet bought all remaining copies of his debut book and pulped them himself.

    But other writers never quite recapture early promise later in life. No doubt there isn’t a single reason why this happens, but a combination of factors. The same is true in other fields e.g. the rock band which never recaptures the magic of a blistering first album.

    An article in the Wall Street Journal, Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity, examines the evidence for scientists peaking in creativity at an early age. Psychologist and researcher, Dean Simonton, remarks:

    Physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it’s a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn’t done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry…

    …Mr. Simonton suggests that people working in fields such as biology, history, novel-writing and philosophy might not peak until their late 40s.

    Interestingly, these differences in peak age appear to be cultural universals, with poets peaking before novelists in every major literary tradition, according to his research.

    Why might this be? The reasons Simonton gives ask at least as many questions as they answer:

    Those fields with a logically consistent set of principles, such as physics and chess, tend to encourage youthful productivity, since it’s relatively easy to acquire the necessary expertise. (The No. 1 ranked chess player in the world today, Magnus Carlsen, is 19 years old.) Because the essential facts can be quickly learned, and it usually doesn’t take that long to write a lyric poem, the precocious student is free to begin innovating at an early age.

    In contrast, fields that are loosely defined and full of ambiguous concepts, such as biology and history, lead to later peak productive ages. After all, before a researcher can invent a useful new idea, he or she must first learn an intimidating assortment of details.

    However, ‘innovating’ isn’t the same as writing a good poem, is it? Perhaps Simonton has underestimated how much needs to be assimilated before a poet can write something half-decent, and just because something appears innovative is no guarantor of quality. Often, what a poet thinks is original and different turns out to have been done before millions of times by all those old fogeys from the past.

    What Do You Think?

    Do you feel that young poets are too often overlooked and should be published in book form earlier than is currently the norm?

    Or do you think that poets tend to improve with age?

    Either way, let’s have some examples!

28 Responses to “Do Poets Improve with Age?”

  1. Rosemary McLeish says:

    What about poets who don’t even start until they’re considered ‘older’? Is this about experience of writing or experience of life? There are many poets who like me didn’t start writing until over 40. This blog suggests that I shouldn’t have bothered. It’s certainly hard enough to get anything published, never mind being on to my ‘later collections’!

  2. Vivienne Blake says:

    As I didn’t start writing poetry until I was almost 70, I shall be glad not to peak too young. That said, some of my earlier work is better than my current output. Not that the fire has gone out, but that the more I learn, the more I see the faults.

  3. At 71, I’m waiting to enter the final demographic: 95 year old poet, STILL WRITING!

  4. Kevin Cadwallender says:

    Interesting questions. Whilst it is true in both instances that poets may improve with age and that ‘young’ poets are often overlooked for publication. It is perhaps truer to say that older established poets have already confirmed their status and should be supported by publication whereas Young poets are breaking into the ‘poetry publication world’.
    Often young poets become disillusioned and put their undoubted energies into other fields creative or otherwise.
    The ones that are picked up by the many poetry presses both great and small need to be nurtured carefully.
    Roddy Lumsden is a good example of a pro-active editor who publishes many new ‘young’ writers. Witness the Tall Lighthouse series selling out at STanza festival and you can see that young writers can also be popular.
    Not all poets improve with age and I think this might be due to what might be called ‘finite voice’. Sometimes like Philip Larkin a poet just has nothing left to say and so stops publishing. Sometimes anything that a poet churns out is published by virtue of their reputation. However I don’t think this is such a huge problem as their entire ouevre must be considered when viewing a poet. The sooner for me poets are discovered and able to build that body of work the better and if they only write a couple of books that are great and then fizzle out that doesn’t change the great books.
    There are many poets who don’t find their voice until much later but to watch a poet develop on the printed page is an honour and so satisfying. Perhaps poetry is young and old and poets shouldn’t worry about age. Adrian Mitchell always wrote like a young man with fire in his belly. Some young poets write as if they were older. Besides, experience is gained so early by the young these days and experience is not always a precursor of ‘good’or innovative poetry.
    There are too many loose concepts here that raise more questions. What is a ‘young poet? Under 30? Under 25? Under 40? opinions vary. What is innovative in poetry? What is good? Surely it is subjective. I would like to read more ‘new’ poets of whatever age and still enjoy the ‘older’ poets and why not?
    I like the idea that poetry is represented by so many voices and the earlier young poets are identified and published is vital for the lifeblood of poetry. However if they continue to write they won’t always be young and I believe the most fascinating thing about poetry is this continuity and its strength. So I could have just said ‘yes’ to both questions and saved myself writing this but hey! it’s done now.

  5. At 22, I’m young and I do agree that many young writers are talented enough to be published, even at their young age. Just because someone’s work improves at a later date does not mean their earlier (often as good) work should be discounted. In fact, the right kind of encouragement could afford talented young writers the time and resources in order to hone their skills. In this increasingly competitive time, with the internet providing more writers with the resources necessary to get in touch/get involved/spread the word, this would really help the writers are capable, but feel the pressure of this competitive wave.
    Perhaps, as was raised at Stanza 2009 at the dramatic ‘Young Poets’ debate, more publishers should publish pamphlets and reward these young writers with time and training. Faber’s New Poets take a step in the right direction, as does the Tall Lighthouse series, however, these have both finished accepting submissions and so someone needs to step up to the plate.

    That said, I think that everyone develops at different speeds, and that no one person should be overlooked solely because of being young, or because of being old. More opportunities for all

  6. A load of twaddle. It’s not the first thesis to try to constrain by definition what a poet is or does. A scientist could tell you the chemical makeup of air, could tell you what would be the biological ramifications of being without air, but could not describe the feeling of being lost-for-breath in love.

  7. If we don’t improve with age I might just as well go and eat worms! There is an interesting aspect to this however. My contemporaries in ‘poet-age’ are about thirty years younger than I am. Technically (give or take allowances for natural born talent) we’re on a sort of a par. But I think you are always going to be marked as a writer by what was happening in your late adolescence, when you first started putting together your map of the world. And a fifty year-old’s map is always going to look a bit less new and shiny that a twenty year-old’s.
    From the publishing point of view it wouldn’t hurt for publishers to be more adventurous in where they look for new work, but surely you publish for the reader’s benefit, not the poet’s? There are other wyas to encourage people to go on writing.

  8. Leigh Mackelvey says:

    I wrote poetry when I was a teen. I was “closet poet” and didn’t take it seriously. I wonder now if my poetry would have been better or not as inspired as it is now if I’d really worked to develop my talent at that young age. I only started writing seriously 4 years ago. I’m 63 now and am pursuing my MFA in Creative writing with my specialty in poetry. I can see how much I’ve progressed in four years and I’ve certainly not peaked yet! I think it doesn’t matter how old a poet is at all. I think it’s experience that hones the work.

  9. Drew D. says:

    Writing is subjective and not all writing is good writing. A person at the age of 70 may not have any poetic sense whatsoever. A 25 yr old may. Life experience and talent are the two most important things when it comes to writing poetry. Someone can live a lifetime before they are eighteen years old. Add talent and see what happens. I do not believe the younger generation should be overlooked. Yet I do believe there are tons of really bad poets of all ages out there that shouldn’t be writing or publishing in the dense poetry market of today.

  10. David Floyd says:

    Well, there’s lots of good young poets around and lots of them are being published. Youth isn’t a barrier to being published by independent presses.

    It possibly is a barrier to being publised by the commercial presses that publish poetry – not because the editors specifically discriminate against young poets but because there’s so few opportunities for new people to get on to commercial lists.

    Some poets improve with age, others don’t.

  11. It’s less an issue of age and our constructions of what’s to be expected from people at certain times in their life and more about the ebb and flow of those creative surges many experience. Some people have one great fruitful period, some have several. I don’t think one can really know when one has had one’s quota of artistic peaks, you have to keep going for that very reason. But sometimes facility and competence come at the price of accident and discovery. You keep your work fresh by taking risks. Speaking as an editor, when I publish I do it for several reasons: firstly because I believe it will succeed as a book (that people will want to buy it, know the writer, and will spend money on it); that I can profit from it (as I earn my living from publishing); that I personally think it makes a valuable contribution to literature; and that I’ll enjoy working with the writer in developing their career — a lot depends on the latter: I don’t want to spend my days and money working with someone I find boorish. Sometimes, I can’t afford to support a writer beyond a book or two; the readership doesn’t emerge, despite all the time and money we sink into these things (author and sales and marketing team). Most books fail, after all. But one thing for sure, age should not prejudice your choices: the biggest issue is publicity and readership. If I sit down with the central buyer in Waterstone’s and he says “Who is this again?” it’s a pretty fair bet the book won’t succeed. Reputation is a very big sales driver. If there’s a prejudice over age, its in the machinery of reputation building, where the media does have its fantasies over the young. But the world is busily getting older.

  12. Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 and Emma, his first wife, died in 1912. So, by my amateur arithmetic, he must have been at least 72 when he wrote the unforgettable rush of poems about her:

    So coldly, so straightly
    Such arrows of rain.

    (Rain on a Grave)

    I think, from memory, there are some very good poems written later. Edward Thomas’ reviews reveal how much he valued Hardy’s later poetry.

  13. Roddy Lumsden says:

    I posed a similar question in Poetry News a few years ago when I was involved in helping to revamp it. I recall that nearly all of the poets asked seemed to answer the question ‘do poets wane?’ with ‘exceptions to the rule’ (and there are a lot), by which I assumed that most agreed but didn’t want to say.

    Perhaps it is less about age than number of books? Some poets build and / or maintain the quality of their work over a number of books. Quite a lot seem to be repeating themselves or even spent after a few or more. Some who are ‘repeating themselves’ though do so in a pleasing way, as with MacCaig’s last six or so books.

    As for whether young poets are being overlooked, well, I know a lot of older poets resent what they see as attention on younger poets. But this tends to be ‘unpublished or non-prize-winning’ older poets commenting on ‘published or prize-winning’ younger poets. I think the age thing there isn’t the issue.

    Many older poets allege that publishers want ‘pretty young things’. All the stats suggest though that we lean much more toward a gerontocracy. The average age of a poet with a first collection in this country is well into the 30s, but this is swayed by small press publication of new younger writers. I realise many young poets take until their 30s to have a strong collection ready, but let’s look at some well-known contemporary poets first full collection age back in the 80s and 90s – Armitage (25), Jamie (23), Copus (26), Symmons-Roberts (29), Maxwell (27), Paterson (29), Duffy (29), Alvi (24), Herbert (29), Hofmann (26), Sampson (29), O’Callaghan (24), Kay (29), Oswald (29), Sweeney (29). Yes, quite a few were older, but my point is that at that time, plenty of poets were first publishing in their 20s, and gaining confidence on the back of that.

    The current number of British poets under 30 with books out from the four commercial presses is one (Frances Leviston, soon to be joined by Adam O’Riordan at Chatto). The number at the six or so big independents is scarcely higher (Kennard, Brigley, Bird – any others?). But the real surprise is that if you raise the bar to 40, the numbers don’t really get that much higher. I suggest that the 10 biggest poetry publishers in the UK don’t have any more than 25 or so British poets below 40 on their books, between them – and that’s out of an estimated 350 poets. I’d say the percentage 15 years ago would have been three or four times as high.

  14. I will be 65 next month. I started “writing” poetry when I was nine, first published at age 18, and while I have no books I have poems published in magazines over the years. For me poetry has always been a love, a necessity, and at one time, when young, a balance to being a violent player of American football, sort of Walt Whitman the nose tackle for some eight years. Last year upon retirement from a career based on teaching comparative culture and writing in a Japanese university, I returned to America and unboxed poets of some 30 years, including my Honor’s thesis, a book of poems finished in 1968, before I was seduced away by Levi-Strauss. Of that book, I saved one poem. Because by some miracle I do not understand, it was not the pap of adolescent yearning, or I suffer so, that most of the others was. So pulping early work in some cases may be rooted in gained maturity, often gained in rooms and among people once scorned. I felt a great release to turn these poems into smoke. Also, I have had a good hard look at what I have written since turning 40, an on going process but they seem to have more traction with the world and less concern with my ego.

    Wallace Stevens started late, did he not? And I feel Yeats did not diminish with age, nor has Sharon Olds. I think my teacher Fred Chappell has gotten better.
    People may argue or the likes of Auden or Jarrell. My points are two. 1 Who really knows and what are the rules of measurement? 2. Given that we all live longer, and our ego and drives live longer however morphed they may be with us, doesn’t this question have more relevance from the mid Victorians onwards.
    Who know if Keats might not have ended up writing tripe had he lived on and on
    as so many poets now do? Seems repulsive to think so, but if you embrace the idea that poetry declines with the age of the poet, it is not unreasonable to think so.

    Being able to describe the parts of the male and female bodies at certain ages does not tell you who they are. I suggest the same be said of any poem no matter the age of the poet. To keep working to get the music right, to get out of the mist between our ears something that is visible and wonderful to read and hear, is this not one of the better ways to not” go gentle into that good night.”

    Finally “improvement” has always been an onerous American disease, often found to run rampart as any known virus among real estate agents and ,some would argue, some government agencies.

  15. On would ask “what does Mr Simonton know about it?” but his airy assertion “Because the essential facts can be quickly learned, and it usually doesn’t take that long to write a lyric poem” tells us just how much.

    Experienced writers do need to be careful not to get in a rut of doing what they know they can – this happens a lot to mid-life novelists who become predictably competent. A good example of a poet who doesn’t do this is Philip Gross, who is forever experimenting, saying “what if we do this and see what happens”.

    But if you stay experimental, age brings only benefits, because, as Mallarme says, poems are not made of ideas, they are made of words. It doesn’t really matter how many great ideas you have, if you don’t have the skill with words to express them and that comes with a lot of practice. I would compare it with playing football. Young players may have more energy in their legs, but a Joe Baker in comparative middle age didn’t need the speed, because the way he read the field and the play told him where he’d need to be in a few minutes’ time. Old age and treachery always overcome youth and skill, as the Willie Nelson song puts it.

    I think there is a problem for mid-career writers, whatever their age, who don’t at once make a big splash, because if publishers are short-sighted they will want something new and exciting rather than waiting to see what develops. Again more for novelists, though I do hate the fad for having pics of poets on the back cover.

  16. I started writing poetry when I was about 29 and by the age of 35 was writing more or less as I’m writing now. I found it very difficult to get published in magazines early on and then had a decade or more were I got over 200 poems
    published each year. Now it’s down to about 100. Could it be that editors
    inproved over that long decade (or declined , however you look at it)?

    Geoff Stevens

  17. Sue R says:

    The star of the Aldebugh Poetry Festival in November 2009 was for me Philip Levine. At 81 he is writing equisite poetry :
    From his poem On Me:
    ‘Now it’s so clear,
    so obvious, he wonders why it took
    so long for him to get it and come of age.’
    His poems in the collection: News of the World could not have been written without a life time experience.

  18. James McAuliffe says:

    I went to self publishing early because it took so long just to be rejected. I sell live, but can sit for years on a shelf. Many of my made poet friends still do a few other things to get by, whether they are related to writing or not; published or self published. And I know I see more per book or cd than I would otherwise and maintain 100 % control. May be different in US or UK where there is a large enough market. So poetry should fly on merit not the age sex race species of poet.
    JPM

  19. Well, I’m in my early 30′s. I like to think of myself as being confortably in between both “old” and “young”, however I think this view would change substantially depending on who I am speaking to.

    I think the ways that getting older has helped my writing are…

    1. I have more expereinces through travel, jobs and also the mundanity of life, therefore more to write about.
    2. I have more responsibility and therefore less time. Which while sounding like a disadvantage actully means I am more focused about how I spend that spare time and what I want to get out of it.
    3. I am more willing to admit my mistakes and therefore learn from them. (Not saying young people can’t do this, I was just the type of young person who didn’t)
    4. I drink a hell of a lot less.

    Wether the poetry I write as a result is actully any good is not for me to say…

  20. Kona Macphee says:

    The article goes so far as to say:

    “While physics, math and poetry have always been dominated by their most inexperienced practitioners, other disciplines seem to benefit from middle age.”

    Perhaps Simonton has some evidence to back up this claim for poetry, but certainly, in the UK in the present era, Roddy’s stats would speak against it.

    The Gladwell 10,000 hours model has a lot going for it, as a mostly-necessary if not sufficient condition; I’m a great believer in having the humility – and putting in all the hard work – to master your craft.

    If you look at child prodigies – the kind that take A-levels at the age of 6 etc – they almost always excel in mathematics, a discipline that requires little or no emotional maturity. (Music is another such area – and one in which ability, interestingly enough, is correlated with ability in mathematics – but child-prodigy musicians tend to play with great technical accuracy but more limited emotional expressiveness, in my opinion…) You rarely find a child prodigy in English or History, for example, because typically there’s a certain amount of life experience and emotional awareness required to do well in those subjects.

    I can’t help but believe that if the poet continues to grow and develop emotionally and spiritually *as a person* (which is not, of course, guaranteed), then the depth of their work – the depth of experiences, emotions and wisdom it draws on – is likely to increase with age, in a way that more than compensates for the falling-off of any youthful fireworks of technique. I hope so, anyway. (Of course I do, being one of the not-below-40…)

  21. Max Hawker says:

    This is the kind of question I’d like to have heard Keats answer shortly before his death.

    As a 22 year-old poet, I like to think that younger artists have a lot to offer. I write specifically about the experiences of living in South London in the 21st century, and I am able to invest a lot of energy and clear observation into my endeavours that come from the freshness of experience. So I think (and yes I’m biased!), younger poets should be given the chance more to breathe and gain the opportunity to see their work in print.

    I believe a poet’s technical ability improves with the acquisition of knowledge, and the harnassing of fresh experience; age is not necessarily a measure of ability. But my answer to the question is: often, yes, age does seem to confer improvement on a poet, but it should not be the compass of ability.

  22. [...] asked “Do Poets improve with age?” which some interpreted as a question about chronological age versus chronological youth. And [...]

  23. Small fact correction to Roddy’s post: Moniza Alvi wasn’t 24 when her first book came out. I believe she’s about the same age as me, and I was 38 at the time (I’m now 55, though I’ve always looked older than my age). I was being considered by her editor fairly seriously – enough to get comments back on individual poems – until I met her at Moniza’s launch, when she immediately said “Oh, I thought you were younger”. Moniza had already told me that she was told “Don’t say you’re head of English at a girl’s school, it sounds too old”.

  24. Amy says:

    I will be 65 next month. I started “writing” poetry when I was nine, first published at age 18, and while I have no books I have poems published in magazines over the years. For me poetry has always been a love, a necessity, and at one time, when young, a balance to being a violent player of American football, sort of Walt Whitman the nose tackle for some eight years. Last year upon retirement from a career based on teaching comparative culture and writing in a Japanese university, I returned to America and unboxed poets of some 30 years, including my Honor’s thesis, a book of poems finished in 1968, before I was seduced away by Levi-Strauss. Of that book, I saved one poem. Because by some miracle I do not understand, it was not the pap of adolescent yearning, or I suffer so, that most of the others was. So pulping early work in some cases may be rooted in gained maturity, often gained in rooms and among people once scorned. I felt a great release to turn these poems into smoke. Also, I have had a good hard look at what I have written since turning 40, an on going process but they seem to have more traction with the world and less concern with my ego.

    Wallace Stevens started late, did he not? And I feel Yeats did not diminish with age, nor has Sharon Olds. I think my teacher Fred Chappell has gotten better.
    People may argue or the likes of Auden or Jarrell. My points are two. 1 Who really knows and what are the rules of measurement? 2. Given that we all live longer, and our ego and drives live longer however morphed they may be with us, doesn’t this question have more relevance from the mid Victorians onwards.
    Who know if Keats might not have ended up writing tripe had he lived on and on
    as so many poets now do? Seems repulsive to think so, but if you embrace the idea that poetry declines with the age of the poet, it is not unreasonable to think so.

    Being able to describe the parts of the male and female bodies at certain ages does not tell you who they are. I suggest the same be said of any poem no matter the age of the poet. To keep working to get the music right, to get out of the mist between our ears something that is visible and wonderful to read and hear, is this not one of the better ways to not” go gentle into that good night.”

    Finally “improvement” has always been an onerous American disease, often found to run rampart as any known virus among real estate agents and ,some would argue, some government agencies.

  25. George says:

    The star of the Aldebugh Poetry Festival in November 2009 was for me Philip Levine. At 81 he is writing equisite poetry :
    From his poem On Me:
    ‘Now it’s so clear,
    so obvious, he wonders why it took
    so long for him to get it and come of age.’
    His poems in the collection: News of the World could not have been written without a life time experience.

  26. I started to write when very young and didn’t write coherently was compared to Keats but never made what Keats did at such short time living. I realise now at 50 that life is learning how to write and prune and digest what life threw. I understand that people want to write for commercial reasons for that was me back than. But poetry and art is about reflecting about digesting about the music in the distants that encaptures you when writing you become possessed like a demon is after you and the soul is ruptured and you are with the flow as they say. Poetry is not about being calm it is action and inaction at the same time and people can’t make a living out of it no matter how they try. It is about knowing your place about Shakespeare about knowing the value that poetry you can do. To learn this takes patience it is like fishing you go fishing in the hope and maybe you are lucky? Who knows as a young writer I was published but couldn’t for ill health dogged me and of course I had family to look after but now free as anything with all the time but no time. I am in a state of flux and time might be running out for creativity is never still and I find it very great joy to be able to say these things because before I was dumb struck dumb by something sinister which is unrepeatable but now done and dusted. What remains are books and writing and of course trying to beat that elusive line that keeps on going in my head “Go gently into good night” I thought that Shakespeare had written it well done pity he died before he could enjoy the benefits. But what gets me about being an older poet is that one is learning all the time as if one is seeing afresh something new something so new about yourself and experience is not what you thought. What you write is changing it is before your eyes making you into something else. It is not all black and white which Freud had thought I don’t think that it is just one thought just one take it is a compendium of thoughts. It is so exciting being a poet it is like being in love only some love better and some love not at all some are faithless and some don’t care. Some married for money for poetry is like being married you are at the honeymoon stage and you are settled into the he won’t be faithless and then he is. For poetry is very fickle if you don’t respect the way the poems don’t come for you are dreaming all the time you are in between dreaming and waking and emotions are the flux that produce poems. When you cease feeling you can’t write poems.

  27. I agree with the school of thought that believe poetry gets better with age though I do not think it is entirely true but in my opinion it is 70% a reality based on the fact that experience plays a major role in creativity and the older we get the more experience we have stored.

    This is a real insightful debate and I have learn quite a lot from comments of numerous wise ladies and gentlemen that gave their opinion.

  28. Yea as time passes poets would get the knack of what their readers expect from them and how to write effectively to convey the poems meaning to the reader.

Leave a Reply

  • Views expressed on this blog are those of the individual authors -- Magma seeks to present a range of views, not a single Magma view.
  • Receive the Magma Blog for FREE

    Receive the Magma Newsletter for FREE

    * indicates required
  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Magma on Facebook

    Facebook logo

  • Follow Magma on Twitter