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!