The line that’s been buzzing round my head the last couple of weeks is from Robert Lowell’s heartbreaking poem ‘For Sheridan’, from his final book of poems Day by Day. The poem’s opening lines set a tone of mournful, wry regret: ‘We only live between/ before we are and what we were’.
By the poem’s final stanza, the dial has barely moved an inch. If anything, it’s gone backwards:
Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense of suicidal absolution that what we intended and failed could never have happened— and must be done better.
I first read these lines in my twenties, when fifty seemed an impossible milestone. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Now I can’t get past those two simple words. Partly this is because I can’t quite persuade myself to believe in ‘suicidal absolution’. It just just seems too stagey and performative to me. Not to mention completely abstract. What Seamus Heaney once said of his early poem ‘Digging’, that it possessed something of the gunslinger about it, comes to mind.
But: ‘what we intended and failed/ could never have happened—/ and must be done better’: now you’re talking. Past fifty, that is all that is going on. Looking back, wondering if it was good enough (mostly not), and looking forward at what must be ‘done better’.
Learning is taking place here, but it is slow, painful and not glorious-looking, like in the films. Past fifty, like ‘awful but cheerful’ and ‘badly-lit’, is where a lot of life is being lived right now, for me, literally, and figuratively, too. I’d like to think I am learning, slowly to get it ‘done better’. (Perhaps that’s not even for me to say.) Past fifty. Past fifty. I can’t them out of my head.