Coming to Age

Growing Older with Poetry


Edited by Carolyn Hopley

Edited by Mary Ann Hoberman

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 14, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This exquisitely giftable anthology of poems about age and aging reveals the wisdom of trailblazing writers who found power and growth later in life.

At eighty-two, the novelist Penelope Lively wrote: “Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers.” Coming to Age is a collection of dispatches from the great poet-pioneers who have been fortunate enough to live into their later years.

Those later years can be many things: a time of harvesting, of gathering together the various strands of the past and weaving them into a rich fabric. They can also be a new beginning, an exploration of the unknown. We speak of “growing old.” And indeed, as we too often forget, aging is growing, growing into a new stage of life, one that can be a fulfillment of all that has come before.

To everything there is a season. Poetry speaks to them all. Just as we read newspapers for news of the world, we read poetry for news of ourselves. Poets, particularly those who have lived and written into old age, have much to tell us. Bringing together a range of voices both present and past, from Emily Dickinson and W. H. Auden to Louise Gluck and Li-Young Lee, Coming to Age reveals new truths, offers spiritual sustenance, and reminds us of what we already know but may have forgotten, illuminating the profound beauty and significance of commonplace moments that become more precious and radiant as we grow older.



Compiling this anthology was a joyous task. We read several thousand poems to arrive at the present collection. In winnowing them down to a final number, we had to omit dozens of equally good and relevant poems, both by the poets found here and by many others. We hope this book acts as a springboard for you, the reader, to search out other poems to complement the ones we have included.

Among the criteria we used in choosing poems was the matter of accessibility. Unfortunately many potential readers are put off by modern poetry’s reputation of being difficult to understand; and indeed some of it is. However, “difficult” does not mean “impossible.” Some poems offer up their meanings easily; others benefit from repeated readings. But none of the poems in this book are of the variety that limit themselves to an in-group coterie.

To this point we sometimes make brief comments on a poem’s form, references, and/or language. We also may note how a poem speaks to others in the collection. You will undoubtedly make further connections of your own. And while the twelve divisions of this book hold in a general way, many of the poems defied easy classification. A poem slotted under the passage of time is also about memories of childhood; one about the loss of a loved one describes in detail the natural world once shared.

We envision this book as either atop a pile on your bedside table or as the catalyst for group reading and discussion—or both. Reading poetry to oneself is one of life’s great pleasures. Reading it with others can be another. For more than ten years Mary Ann has led a monthly poetry-reading group in her home, with Carolyn as a charter member. During that time we have read aloud the works of most of the poets included here. It continues to surprise us how a collaborative reading can reveal new dimensions of a poem, especially when read and spoken simultaneously.

These poems run the gamut of style and substance, from traditional to free verse, from formal to colloquial language, from serious to silly. Some of them are concerned directly with age and aging, others touch on the subject tangentially. Their authors range from Nobel laureates to the recently published; a few lived more than a thousand years ago while others are alive today. While the majority of the poems were written in English, others are presented here in translation. But all of them answer our primary criteria: they speak to us directly and honestly, and they are pertinent in some way to coming to age.



These first poems place us squarely in the present moment, the here and now. We spend so much of our time mulling over the past—regrets, mistakes, nostalgia—or anticipating the future that the present often escapes our attention. But realizing that the present moment is the only one we have can sharpen our awareness of what it is to be alive. Since the poet is concerned with the particular—this time, this place—a poem by example might encourage us to look at the wonder of our own situation as the gift that it is. We might call it, as Ursula K. Le Guin does, the present as a present.


Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening

all that you want from this day. This interval you spent

reading or hearing this, keep it for life—

What can anyone give you greater than now,

starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

William Stafford


Poetry is not a code

to be broken

but a way of seeing

with the eyes shut,

of short-circuiting

the usual

connections until

lioness and

knee become

the same thing.

Though not a cure

it can console,

the way cool sheets


the dying flesh,

the way a glass of cold

water can be

a way station

on the unswerving

road to thirst.

Linda Pastan

This poem is placed early in the book to remind us at the outset of what a poem is and is not. It is not an enigmatic paraphrase of some secret meaning, designed to baffle and thwart the uninitiated reader. Rather, as the poet says, it is “a way of seeing… short-circuiting the usual connections.”

No two readers will read a poem identically. Nor will they necessarily take away exactly what the poet intended to convey. But if a poem touches a nerve or calls up a lost memory, if one of its images pleases or some of its sounds tickle the ear, consider these as doorways into the poem.


Now in the blessed days of more and less

when the news about time is that each day

there is less of it I know none of that

as I walk out through the early garden

only the day and I are here with no

before or after and the dew looks up

without a number or a present age

W. S. Merwin


Suddenly, after you die, those friends

who never agreed about anything

agree about your character.

They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing

the same score:

you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.

No harmony. No counterpoint. Except

they’re not performers;

real tears are shed.

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise

you’d be overcome with revulsion.

But when that’s passed,

when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes

because, after a day like this,

shut in with orthodoxy,

the sun’s amazingly bright,

though it’s late afternoon, September—

when the exodus begins,

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

Your friends the living embrace one another,

gossip a little on the sidewalk

as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze

ruffles the women’s shawls—

this, this, is the meaning of

“a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

Louise Glück


It’s a gift, this cloudless November morning

warm enough for you to walk without a jacket

along your favorite path. The rhythmic shushing

of your feet through the fallen leaves should be

enough to quiet the mind, so it surprises you

when you catch yourself telling off the boss

for a decade of accumulated injustices,

all the things you’ve never said circling inside you.

It’s the rising wind that pulls you out of it,

and you look up to see a cloud of leaves

swirling in sunlight, flickering against the blue

and rising above the treetops, as if the whole day

were sighing, Let it go, let it go,

for this moment at least, let it all go.

Jeffrey Harrison


Seventy-nine, seventy-nine,

I say it over, and every time

it sounds peculiar. Is it a prime?

It’s a queer number, seventy-nine.

I will enter my eightieth year

tomorrow evening, somewhere near

six o’clock, around dinnertime,

my mother told me. That’s a queer

hour to be born, or to enter an eightieth year.

But all of it’s queer, being here.

Thinking how what I thought was mine

was only borrowed, and what was dear

has been forgotten, and every line

I’ve written will become a sign

for nothing at all, given time.

But that’s what I was given, time.

That’s my present, present time.

Ursula K. Le Guin


There is a moment before a shape

hardens, a color sets.

Before the fixative or heat of kiln.

The letter might still be taken

from the mailbox.

The hand held back by the elbow,

the word kept between the larynx pulse

and the amplifying drum-skin of the room’s air.

The thorax of an ant is not as narrow.

The green coat on old copper weighs more.

Yet something slips through it—

looks around,

sets out in the new direction, for other lands.

Not into exile, not into hope. Simply changed.

As a sandy track-rut changes when called a Silk Road:

it cannot be after turned back from.

Jane Hirshfield

What is a moment in time? Can it be measured? In a striking series of visual and aural comparisons, Hirshfield gradually compresses time to the narrowest possible dimension, thereby demonstrating how an apparently inconsequential decision may have momentous results. All in her journey to the awkward but inevitable last line.


Light splashed this morning

on the shell-pink anemones

swaying on their tall stems;

down blue-spiked veronica

light flowed in rivulets

over the humps of the honeybees;

this morning I saw light kiss

the silk of the roses

in their second flowering,

my late bloomers

flushed with their brandy.

A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,

so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,

so I am sitting in semi-dark

hunched over my desk

with nothing for a view

to tempt me

but a bloated compost heap

steamy old stinkpile,

under my window;

and I pick my notebook up

and I start to read aloud

the still-wet words I scribbled

on the blotted page:

“Light splashed…”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow

when a new life begins for me,

as it does each day,

as it does each day.

Stanley Kunitz



We experience the passage of time in many ways. It can both speed up and slow down, sometimes almost simultaneously. Minutes can feel like hours (a watched pot never boils) and vice versa (so-called “flow”). The summers of childhood are endless; those of old age vanish in a twinkling. But one thing is certain: the less time we have ahead of us, the more importance it assumes.

As we relinquish various activities and undergo inevitable losses, our thoughts about time change. Perhaps for the first time, life’s finitude becomes real. And many poets whose youthful work has been considered obscure start to write more openly and directly as they face the end of their lives. There is a new, more common ground between author and audience. But the mystery of time remains for all of us.

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

T. S. Eliot, from “Burnt Norton”


Pods of summer crowd around the door;

I take them in the autumn of my hands.

Last night I heard the first cold wind outside;

the wind blew soft, and yet I shiver twice:

Once for the thin walls, once for the sound of time.

William Stafford


Now light is less; noon skies are wide and deep;

The ravages of wind and rain are healed.

The haze of harvest drifts along the field

Until clear eyes put on the look of sleep.

The garden spider weaves a silken pear

To keep inclement weather from its young.

Straight from the oak, the gossamer is hung.

At dusk our slow breath thickens on the air.

Lost hues of birds the trees take as their own.

Long since, bronze wheat was gathered into sheaves.

The walker trudges ankle-deep in leaves;

The feather of the milkweed flutters down.

The shoots of spring have mellowed with the year.

Buds, long unsealed, obscure the narrow lane.

The blood slows trance-like in the altered vein;

Our vernal wisdom moves through ripe to sere.

Theodore Roethke

Here the poet takes one of the most commonplace of comparisons—that between the year’s aging and our own—and, by his virtuosic choice of language and cadence, fashions an exquisite lyric poem. Read it aloud, slowly, savoring both sense and sound.


I have been fooled before, and just because

This summer seems so long, it might not be

My last. Winter could come again, and pause

The sky liked a taped tactical descent

Of pocket paratroopers. Things to see

Could happen yet, and life prove not quite spent

But still abundant, still the main event.

The trick, I’m learning, is to stay in doubt,

Season to season, of what time might bring,

And patiently await how things turn out.

Eventually time tells you everything.

If it takes time to do so, no surprise

In that. You fold your arms, you scan the skies,

And tell yourself that life has made you wise,

If only by the way it ebbs away.

But still it takes an age, and after all,

Though nearly gone, life didn’t end today,

And you might be here when the first leaves fall

Or even when the snow begins again,

If life that cast you, when this all began,

As a small boy, still needs a dying man.

Clive James


Late Summer. Sunshine. The eucalyptus tree.

       It is a fortune beyond any deserving

to be still here, with no more than everyday worries,

       placidly arranging lines of poetry.

I consider a stick of cinnamon

       bound in raffia, finches

in the grass, and a stubby bush

       which this year mothered a lemon.

These days I speak less of death

       than the mysteries of survival. I am

no longer lonely, not yet frail, and

       after surgery, recognize each breath

as a miracle. My generation may not be

       nimble but, forgive us,

we’d like to hold on, stubbornly

       content—even while ageing.

Elaine Feinstein

While giving thanks for the miracle of daily life, the speaker is also offering a sardonic challenge to some current attitudes toward the old.


There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen: people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

William Stafford


This is what life does. It lets you walk up to

the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman

down beside you at the counter who says, Last night

the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,

is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the

pond, where whole generations of biological

processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds

speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,

they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old

enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?

There is movement beneath the water, but it

may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the

years you ran around, the years you developed

a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,

owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are

genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have

become. And then life lets you go home to think

about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one

who never had any conditions, the one who waited

you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that

you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,

so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you

were born at a good time. Because you were able

to listen when people spoke to you. Because you

stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your

late night dessert. (Pie for the dog as well.) And

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,

while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,

with smiles on their starry faces as they head

out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Eleanor Lerman


Yes, she said, I want to live a lot more years

and see what happens, but

I want new fruits—a century of apples, oranges

and bananas is enough.

And I want new rooms. I want balustrades,

inglenooks, casement windows, and chintz!

Yes, I want chintz! Whatever happened to chintz,

with the sunlight or lamplight carving mother,

grandmother, aunt, out of its shadows?

And I want something to happen here, quickly—

the inexplicable death of a wealthy tycoon, six

likely suspects—midnight melodrama, love and

betrayal—a diamond robbery, fugitive in disguise—

a great-grandson eloping with a dancer from New Orleans.


Yes, she said, I want to live a lot more years,

but not so slowly.

Elizabeth Alexander


It’s rather sad we can only meet people

whose dates overlap with ours, a real shame that

you and Thoreau (we know that he read you)

never shook hands. He was, we hear, a rabid

Anti-Clerical and quick-tempered, you the

quietest of curates, yet I think he might well have

found in you the Ideal Friend he wrote of

with such gusto, but never ran into.

Stationaries, both of you, but keen walkers,

chaste by nature and, it would seem, immune to

the beck of worldly power, kin spirits,

who found all creatures amusive, even

the tortoise in spite of its joyless stupors,

aspected the vagrant moods of the Weather,

from the modest conduct of fogs to

the coarse belch of thunder of the rainbow’s

federal arch, what fun you’d have had surveying

two rival landscapes and their migrants, noting

the pitches owls hoot on, comparing

the echo-response of dactyls and spondees.

Selfishly, I, too, would have plumbed to know you:

I could have learned so much. I’m apt to fancy

myself as a lover of Nature,

but have no right to, really. How many

birds and plants can I spot? At most two dozen.

You might, though, have found such an ignoramus

a pesky bore. Time spared you that: I

have, though, thank God, the right to re-read you.

W. H. Auden


To gaze at the river made of time and water

And recall that time itself is another river,

To know we cease to be, just like the river,

And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep

That dreams it does not sleep and that death,

Which our flesh dreads, is that very death

Of every night, which we call sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol

Of mankind’s days and of his years,

To transform the outrage of the years

Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset

A sad gold, of such is Poetry

Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry

Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face

Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;

Art must be like that mirror

That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,

Wept with love to descry his Ithaca

Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca

Of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like an endless river

That passes and remains, a mirror for one same

Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same

And another, like an endless river.

Jorge Luis Borges


On Sale
Apr 14, 2020
Page Count
272 pages