Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 224 Poetry


Mrs. Caulkins required that we memorize this when I was a junior in high school:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real!  Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;--

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.


You may recognize that as some of the verses from WHAT THE HEART OF THE YOUNG MAN SAID TO THE PSALMIST by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I suppose Mrs Caulkins thought it was inspirational and might help us through life. That was fifty odd years ago. Poetry has a way of staying with us. It becomes part of our blood. It is concise, meaningful, and nourishing.

A few months ago, a retiree, Eileen Allen author of I Like Being Old invited Brenda and I  to meet her in Seattle.  She told me that her eyesight was very limited. She had read much in her long life - she is 93. She read enough to obtain a PhD among other things. Now her vision is gone and the printed word has disappeared. She has taken up memorizing poetry. She chooses poems that have special meaning for her and then lives with them until they become internalized. When she leans in towards you and starts into a poem it feels like you have been transported into a new world.

Now I Become Myself

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"Hurry, you will be dead before--"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

Now I Become Myself is a poem written by May Sarton and certainly speaks to the retired.

Writer's Almanac by Garrison Keillor is a short program of poetry and airs over National Public Radio almost every afternoon. The poems come from all sorts of people spanning several centuries. Just for this brief time life pauses and we catch a glimpse another world. It comes like an invisible knife making an opening in the mind.

Maybe it has to do with the demand a poet makes. We listen carefully. We pause when they pause, we move when they move, we consider what they consider. We recognize the universal ties that bind us to the another human being.

Maybe it has to do with the craft of poetry itself. Extraneous words have been eliminated. The story emerges with care. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has a turning point. A "nick" Robert Frost called. A place where a question or problem appears. The poem turns.

My introduction to poetry came from Mrs Caulkins during my junior and senior year of high school. It was cemented by hearing and seeing Carl Sandburg in the spring of 1961. It was one of his last public readings.

He came to our college and I spent my last dime to get a ticket. I went early and sat down front. There was a small table in the center of the stage and on it sat several books and a Goya folk guitar that had been provided by a friend of mine. A straight backed chair sat next to the table and a red and black Indian blanket lay draped over it's back.

The lights dimmed and this white haired elderly poet came slowly center stage. A single spot provided the only light in the hall. His suite was black. The back drop was black. His hair glistened. We sat in silence as he arranged the blanket around his lap and legs. "There is a real draft up here", he said.

He picked up a book and started to read. He had this sing song voice that reflected growing up on the flat central plains of Illinois.


"Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler,
Stormy, Husky, Brawling, City of the Big Shoulders."

He read many others including Fog:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

He picked up the guitar: strummed once and sang:

Frogy went a courting' and he did ride,
Frogy went a courting' and he did ride,
Frogy went a courtin' and...

He stopped; the hall was silent. He placed the guitar on the table and reached for a book. "I'll read some more poetry now", he said. He read more poetry. Then picked up the guitar again:

Froggy went a courtin' and he did ride,
Froggy went a courtin' and he did ride,
Froggy went a courtin' and...

He stopped in the same place;  placed he guitar back on the table.  "I forget the words to that song right now. I'll read some more poetry."

This was repeated three or four times. The audience remained absolutely silent. We were witnessing a great mind that was leaving us. The poet was dying.

He did in fact die within  just a few years. For us the poetry lives on, and on, and on.

Retirement gives us time to pause with poets both living and dead. We could do worse than spend some time in their world.

This is Retirement Talk.



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