Keats was dead at 25, Shelley at 29, Dylan Thomas at 39, Sylvia Plath at 30. Chatterton didn’t even make it to 18.
But Fergus Allen, who reads at this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, didn’t start the poetry business seriously until after retirement. His first book-length collection was published when he was 72. There have been three others since, and now, at ninety, he will be conversation with Peter Blegvad about all of this in November.
People, including poets, are (with unforgettable exceptions) living longer. Many of them have time and opportunity in their sixties to do things they’ve never done before. For some it’s sky-diving or cycling across India. For others, it’s poetry.
Moss Rich, now billed as ‘Britain’s oldest poet’ launched his first pamphlet publication with PigHog at the age of 95. HappenStance’s oldest poet is Cliff Ashby. Cliff didn’t start writing until he was 40, but once he started, he kept going.
During my reading window in July, the ages of the poets sending work varied widely. The young ones were older than Chatterton and the oldest ones were younger than Fergus Allen but there was an incredible range. The one thing writers significantly over 60 have in common, as it seems to me, is an increased sense of urgency.
But it’s all very well being welcomed into a writers’ group and then placing a few poems in magazines after a lifetime of reading and loving the stuff. It’s another thing to find a publishing outlet, especially if one prefers paper to keyboard, bookshop to online emporium.
On the other hand, older poets sometimes have a bit of an income and they have that commodity so hard to find in the world of work -- time. They can often get about to festivals and readings and meet people. They are shrewd and worldy-wise. They make it their business to secure a future for their poems.
W H Davies self-published his first brief collection, The Soul’s Destroyer, when he was 33. He felt he had started late, so he worked like a demon to win himself a place among the poets of his day. He was intensely prolific to start with, though as the decades went on, he began gradually to reduce his output. And here’s what he had to say about it. He is addressing one of the garden birds he loved in this poem: I have a dim memory it was a robin, though this may be my own invention.
.......The Spring was late in coming, so,
..............Sweet bird, your songs are late:
.......Have you a certain number, then,
..............Of verses to create?
.......If late to start means late to end,
.......You comfort me, sweet friend.
.......It was the summer of my life
..............Ere I began to sing:
.......Will winter be my summer, then,
..............As summer was my spring?
.......No matter how things change their hue,
.......We'll sing our number through.