Thanks to Lizzie MacGregor for being one of our guest bloggers. Lizzie compiled and edited ‘ Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Growing Older’ (Scottish Poetry Library/Polygon, 2016). Sally Magnusson, in her Foreword to this collection, commented, ‘they explore the never-ageing human heart in its encounter with mortality. And they do it beautifully.’
A few words from someone who is not a creative writer – I’m more of a bystander. I’ve worked on the side lines of creativity for a long time in my professional job – I was a librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library for 24 years – and in my role as editor of a series of poetry anthologies. It’s been a good position for getting to know the work of many poets, and the poets themselves, and to watch their work maturing as they do. I’ve had the privilege of knowing writers in their 70s, 80s and 90s who were and are much, much younger in mind than most of the rest of us, who have an endless curiosity about the great wide beautiful world, who manage to turn outwards rather than inwards, and who use all the benefits of age – experience, wisdom, craftsmanship – to their great advantage.
Knowing how many superb poems by Scottish writers there are about older age, and suddenly realising I was heading that way myself, a few years ago I became very enthused by the idea of putting together an anthology that would be for older readers, largely by older writers, on the things that matter most to older people, and to help in the celebration of landmark birthdays and anniversaries. My ever-generous colleagues at the Scottish Poetry Library took up the notion, and the enthusiasm, and worked the idea into reality as part of the Library’s response to creative ageing in 2016, furnished by funds from the Baring Foundation’s Late Style programme. The anthology was published by Polygon as Whatever the Sea: Scottish poems for growing older, enhanced by a foreword by Sally Magnusson.
The title comes from Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘At Eighty’ with its line ‘push the boat out, whatever the sea’. I hoped that’s what the spirit of the anthology would be: a sort of setting out with determination and grit into the later years of life, whatever might be in store for us. I wanted the book to be as upbeat as possible, so aimed to include poems that celebrate the unexpected bonuses of maturity – the ‘autumn compensations’ of lasting friendship, late love, contentment – but I didn’t want to shy away from the downside of older age. The writers don’t – I found much jollity about varicose veins and trying not to compare illnesses. I think I was looking for poems too which express what I myself am finding so noticeable about ageing – that the impulse to learn is still strong (even if facts quickly slip away) and above all, that along with aches and sadnesses there comes such an appreciation of the world, such a heightened awareness of beauty. As Alison Prince puts it so well:
‘My absent mind is filled with the delight
Of sweet horizons and the heron’s flight.’
But as well as this unexpected pleasure in the here and now, the poets show much fortitude in facing up to the inevitable: it’s in the poems about our final destination that the black humour and indomitable spirit really shine. This brave, if rueful, approach to death seems to be a modern phenomenon; the poets included in the book are 20th and 21st century – I found nothing suitable from earlier centuries, largely, I guess, because our forebears’ courage and hope were fuelled by religious belief. Though we may have a stronger hold on physical life, our grasp of spiritual certainties is weaker, and with firm belief in life beyond the grave rare, we needs must take our delight in this one. The poets who, like Iain Crichton Smith, as he urges that it should be ‘with pride / that we step outwards / into the darkness’ show a courage that I for one don’t yet have. But until we can reach that state, older writers and older readers can at least find solace in the fuller appreciation of each facet of our earth and our life upon it. And I’ll go along with Marion Angus as she looks back on the road of her life: ‘So rough and dark and – splendid!’