Since college and beyond, I’ve been obsessed with the human condition. I poured over every book—every piece of poetry for answers—some kind of existential meaning. Much later in life, when I ran a practice at a large consulting firm, I often started kick-off meetings with a stanza from some poem that resonated with me. I was never sure how these poems would be received, but a few times, when I skipped the poetry introduction, consultants would tease me and say, “Hey, where’s the poem? C’mon we need a poem!”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about those poems—maybe because there is so much talk about age in the press these days—politicians, actors, and musicians having their final swan songs. Certain poems move us and encourage us to build a richer life—a life that appreciates the power of images, tone, and nuance.
Here are just a few stanzas from some of my favorite poems.
I love the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost. I’ve been thinking about it lately with all the immigration issues, merger and acquisition dilemmas, etc. The first line of this poem is, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Frost’s neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost later wonders, “Why do they make good neighbors? …Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know, what I was walling in or walling out, And to whom, I was like to give offense.” This poem is well worth reading many times over a lifetime. It causes us to pause–to ask ourselves if we are a good friend and neighbor. Are we guilty of building unnecessary walls—both physically and mentally?
Another, Frost favorite of mine, is I’m Done with Apple Picking Now. Many of us, towards the end of our careers, realized we were no longer on that “high potential” list. Instead, we had become valuable resources and mentors for upcoming rising stars. There is a bittersweet irony in knowing that you are being put out to pasture. In I’m Done with Apple Picking Now, Frost says, “For I have had too much of apple picking; I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired; There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, cherish in hand and not let fall.” It’s about balancing all those balls in the air and ensuring that those “apples” are ripe and beautiful—a rewarding but exhausting challenge.
Another perennial favorite poem of mine is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. The poem is about putting on a façade. Eliot says, “There will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create; And time for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me; And time yet for a hundred indecisions and a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea.” How much time have we wasted in preparing different personas–perhaps worrying a bit too much about impressions that we make?
A poem I often quoted from was Eliot’s Four Quartets. One of my favorite stanzas is: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” It’s about coming full circle and finally understanding something that had previously eluded us—that surreal “aha” moment.
William Butler Yeats was a “go to” for pithy quotes. In Among School Children, Yeats imagines what a woman he has loved for a long time was like as a small child. “I look upon one child or the other there and wonder if she stood so at that age—for even daughters of the swan can share something of every paddler’s heritage—and had that color upon cheek or hair, and there upon my heart is driven wild; She stands before me as a living child, Her present image floats into the mind.“ It is a delight when you meet a youthful person and something about them resembles someone from your past whom you adored.
And then, of course, there is Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle into that Good night “old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do you go out “not with a bang but with a whimper?” Or do you play it strong until the bitter end?
These poems about the human condition, about growing older—fighting the inevitable or succumbing to a new way of living—are wonderful to read as we grow older. There are no easy answers. Clearly one size does not fit all. But rich poetry offers the contemplation of, as Robert Frost would say, taking the road less traveled which can make all the difference. Here’s to choosing that right road.
Maria Grant was principal-in-charge of a federal human capital practice at an international consulting firm. While on the Eastern Shore, she focuses on writing, reading, gardening, piano, and nature.