Poetry has always been an apt place to find strength, consolation, and inspiration, especially during life’s challenges like the process of growing older. From Sappho to Shakespeare, from Dylan Thomas to Billy Collins, the passage of time has been one of the great poetic themes. Here is a selection of my favorite poems that offer varying perspectives on growing old. “We turn not older with years,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “but newer every day.”
Changes With Age
When You Are Old
By William Butler Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And love your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars
By Billy Collins
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusions, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decide to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
By Grace Paley
What has happened?
language eludes me
the nice specifying
words of my life fail
when I call
Ah says a friend
dried up no doubt
on the desiccated
twigs in the swamp
of the skull like
a lake where the
water level has been
shifted by highways
a couple of miles off
Another friend says
no no my dear perhaps
you are only meant to
speak more plainly
Smell Is the Last Memory to Go
By Fatimah Asghar
on my block, a gate
on my block, a tree smelling
of citrus & jasmine that knocks
me back into the arms of my dead
mother. i ask Ross how can a tree
be both jasmine & orange, on my block
my neighbors put up gates & stare
don’t like to share, on my block
a tree I can’t see, but can smell
a tree that can’t be both but is
on my block, my mother’s skirt twirls
& all i smell is her ghost, perfume
on my block, a fallen orange
smashed into sidewalk
it’s blood pulped on asphalt on my
block, Jordan hands me a jasmine
by the time i get home
all its petals are gone
By Alora M. Knight
I see the sadness in your eyes,
The times that you are knowing
What's happening to your wondrous mind,
The symptoms you are showing.
It was so hard to recognize
When they started coming through.
The little things that changed you
From the person that I knew.
The doctor's confirmation
Was so hard to accept,
To know that little could be done,
That there's no cure as of yet.
Forgive me, dear, if sometimes
I give in to my frustrations.
It's just so overwhelming,
This change in our relations.
Now I'm the one to be on guard,
To keep you safe from harm,
Protecting you the best I can
And not showing my alarm.
I hope you still can understand
How much you mean to me.
Though you curse me or forget me,
I'll accept what has to be.
For I will still remember
The joys that we once shared.
You showed me in so many ways
How very much you cared.
I pray to God to give me strength
To do what must be done,
To trust that in the future
This battle will be won.
Leaving a Legacy
By Stanley Kunitz
Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
By Donald Hall
To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
There is a girl inside
By Lucille Clifton
There is a girl inside.
She is randy as a wolf.
She will not walk away and leave these bones
to an old woman.
She is a green tree in a forest of kindling.
She is a green girl in a used poet.
She has waited patient as a nun
for the second coming,
when she can break through gray hairs
and her lovers will harvest
honey and thyme
and the woods will be wild
with the damn wonder of it.
By Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
By Rhonda M. Ward
Now and then the phone will ring and it will be
someone from my youth. The voice of a favorite cousin
stretched across many miles sounding exactly as she always has:
that trained concentration of one who stutters—
the slight hesitations, the drawn-out syllables,
the occasional lapse into a stammer.
When asked, she says my aunt is well for her age but
she forgets. I remember the last time I saw my aunt—
leaning on her cane, skin smooth as river rock,
mahogany brown, gray hair braided into two plaits
stretched atop her head and held in place
with black bobby pins.
She called to say James Lee has died. And did I know
Aunt Mary, who had four crippled children
and went blind after uncle Benny died, died last year?
I did not.
We wander back awhile, reminding and remembering:
Me under the streetlight outside our front yard
face buried in the crook of my arm held close
to the telephone pole as I closed my eyes and sang the words:
Last night, night before, twenty-four robbers at my door
I got up to let them in... hit ‘em in the head with a rolling pin,
then counted up to ten while they ran and hid.
Visiting the graves of grandparents I never knew.
Placing blush-pink peonies my father grew and cut
for the occasion into mason jars. Saying nothing.
Simply staring at the way our lives come down
to a concrete slab.
By Carl Dennis
If a life needn’t be useful to be meaningful,
Then maybe a life of sunbathing on a beach
Can be thought of as meaningful for at least a few,
The few, say, who view the sun as a god
And consider basking a form of worship.
As for those devoted to partnership with a surfboard
Or a pair of ice skates or a bag of golf clubs,
Though I can’t argue their lives are useful,
I’d be reluctant to claim they have no meaning
Even if no one observes their display of mastery.
No one is listening to the librarian
I can call to mind as she practices, after work,
In her flat on Hoover Street, the viola da gamba
In the one hour of day that for her is golden.
So what if she’ll never be good enough
To give a concert people will pay to hear?
When I need to think of her with an audience,
I can imagine the ghosts of composers dead for centuries,
Pleased to hear her doing her best with their music.
And isn’t it pleasing, as we walk at dusk to our cars
Parked on Hoover Street, after a meeting
On saving a shuttered hotel from the wrecking ball,
To catch the sound of someone filling a room
We won’t be visiting with a haunting solo?
And then the gifts we receive by imagining
How down at the beach today surfers made sure
The big waves we weren’t there to appreciate
Didn’t go begging for attention.
And think of the sunlight we failed to welcome,
How others stepped forward to take it in.
The True Meaning of Life
By Pat A. Fleming
The Years have passed by,
In the blink of an eye,
Moments of sadness,
And joy have flown by.
People I loved,
Have come and have gone,
But the world never stopped,
And we all carried on.
Life wasn't easy,
And the struggles were there,
Filled with times that it mattered,
Times I just didn't care.
I stood on my own,
And I still found my way,
Through some nights filled with tears,
And the dawn of new days.
And now with old age,
It's become very clear,
Things I once found important,
Were not why I was here.
And how many things,
That I managed to buy,
Were never what made me,
Feel better inside.
And the worries and fears,
That plagued me each day,
In the end of it all,
Would just fade away.
But how much I reached out,
To others when needed,
Would be the true measure,
Of how I succeeded.
And how much I shared,
Of my soul and my heart,
Would ultimately be,
What set me apart.
And what's really important,
Is my opinion of me,
And whether or not,
I'm the best I can be.
And how much more kindness,
And love I can show,
Before the Lord tells me,
It's my time to go.
By Fleur Adcock
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Youth and Age
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Verse, a breeze mid blossoms straying,
Where hope clung feeding, like a bee—
Both were mine! Life went a-maying
With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,
When I was young!
When I was young?—Ah, woful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands,
How lightly then it flashed along:—
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together.
Flowers are lovely; Love is flower-like;
Friendship is a sheltering tree;
O! the joys, that came down shower-like,
Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,
Ere I was old!
Ere I was old? Ah woful Ere,
Which tells me, Youth’s no longer here!
O Youth! for years so many and sweet,
’Tis known, that Thou and I were one,
I’ll think it but a fond conceit—
It cannot be that Thou art gone!
Thy vesper-bell hath not yet toll’d:—
And thou wert aye a masker bold!
What strange disguise hast now put on,
To make believe, that thou are gone?
I see these locks in silvery slips,
This drooping gait, this altered size:
But Spring-tide blossoms on thy lips,
And tears take sunshine from thine eyes!
Life is but thought: so think I will
That Youth and I are house-mates still.
Dew-drops are the gems of morning,
But the tears of mournful eve!
Where no hope is, life’s a warning
That only serves to make us grieve,
When we are old:
That only serves to make us grieve
With oft and tedious taking-leave,
Like some poor nigh-related guest,
That may not rudely be dismist;
Yet hath outstay’d his welcome while,
And tells the jest without the smile.
In View of the Fact
By A. R. Ammons
The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who
died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it's
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:
it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:
now, it's this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never
thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won't: some of us
are losing a leg to diabetes, some don't know
what they went downstairs for, some know that
a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,
so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our
address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our
index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:
at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip
to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on
the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we
think the sun may shine someday when we'll
drink wine together and think of what used to
be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .
Do not go gentle into that good night
By 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.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
By Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad's forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it's done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, "Bye,
we're leaving," and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.
Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map—
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar's blond torso.
Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light--
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She's too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.
Memories in Aging Senior Years
By RoseAnn V. Shawiak
Watching as people get up and dance all the way to the
dance floor with smiles on their faces, traipsing down
measures of chords being brought together.
Being totally synchronized and felt in our bones as we
listen carefully in this evening twilight, capturing
the energy as we continue to be led down hallways.
Landscapes that have been left behind through the years
as reminders of our having been there in the past, loving
to go back and reminisce.
Feeling the closeness of those who we still love very
much, but are now gone from sight, and our lives in the
Caressing our memories incessantly through the years,
especially now in aging senior years when alone and by
By Kahlil Gibran
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
By William Saphier
Those years are foliage of trees
their trunks hidden by bushes;
behind them a gray haze topped with silver
hides the swinging steps of my first love
On its face
grave steel palaces with smoking torches,
parading monasteries moved slowly to the Black Sea
till the bared branches scratched the north wind.
On its bed
a great Leviathan waited
for the ceremonies on the arrival of Messiah
and bobbing small fishes snapped sun splinters
for the pleasure of the monster.
Along its shores
red capped little hours danced
with rainbow colored kites,
messengers to heaven.
My memory is a sigh
of swallows swinging
through a slow dormant summer
to a timid line on the horizon.
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As a fond mother, when the day is o'er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,S
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
By William Shakespeare
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leave, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
By Matthew Arnold
What is it to grow old?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The luster of the eye?
Is it for beauty to forego her wreath?
—Yes, but not this alone.
Is it to feel our strength—
Not our bloom only, but our strength—decay?
Is it to feel each limb
Grow stiffer, every function less exact,
Each nerve more loosely strung?
Yes, this, and more; but not
Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be!
’Tis not to have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
A golden day’s decline.
’Tis not to see the world
As from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes,
And heart profoundly stirred;
And weep, and feel the fullness of the past,
The years that are no more.
It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were ever young;
It is to add, immured
In the hot prison of the present, month
To month with weary pain.
It is to suffer this,
And feel but half, and feebly, what we feel.
Deep in our hidden heart
Festers the dull remembrance of a change,
But no emotion—none.
It is—last stage of all—
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.
Youth Sings a Song of Rosebud
By Countee Cullen
Since men grow diffident at last,
And care no whit at all,
If spring be come, or the fall be past,
Or how the cool rains fall,
I come to no flower but I pluck,
I raise no cup but I sip,
For a mouth is the best of sweets to suck;
The oldest wine's on the lip.
If I grow old in a year or two,
And come to the querulous song
Of 'Alack and aday' and 'This was true,
And that, when I was young,'
I must have sweets to remember by,
Some blossom saved from the mire,
Some death-rebellious ember I
Can fan into a fire.
By Robert William Service
Somehow the skies don't seem so blue
As they used to be;
Blossoms have a fainter hue,
Grass less green I see.
There's no twinkle in a star,
Dawns don't seem so gold . . .
Yet, of course, I know they are:
Guess I'm growing old.
Somehow sunshine seems less bright,
Birds less gladly sing;
Moons don't thrill me with delight,
There's no kick in Spring.
Hills are steeper now and I'm
Sensitive to cold;
Lines are not so keen to rhyme . . .
Gosh! I'm growing old.
Yet in spite of failing things
I've no cause to grieve;
Age with all its ailing brings
Blessings, I believe:
Kindo' gentles up the mind
As the hope we hold
That with loving we will find
Friendliness in human kind,
Grace in growing old.
Age Is a Beautiful Adventure
There is a reason why our older years are called the “golden years” and you can make the most out of this time in your life by enjoying new adventures, lasting relationships, and passing on memories and a legacy to those you love. At CaptionCall, we want you to live your best life knowing full well that you are not alone—because staying connected is not a habit you want to lose. With the CaptionCall service, communicating with friends, family, and colleagues is easier for those who are eligible. Our captioning agents use cutting-edge technology to quickly provide written captions of what callers say on a large, easy-to-read screen and is available at no cost to anyone with hearing loss that necessitates the use of captioned telephone service.
As a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. federal government established a fund to provide individuals with hearing loss access to captioned telephone service at no cost. This captioning service is administered by the FCC using funds from surcharges on all telephone bills. So, if you’ve paid a phone bill, you’ve already contributed to this important service. CaptionCall is an FCC-authorized captioned telephone service provider and is compensated by the government for providing this service. No costs are passed on to qualified users.
Geraldine Connolly is a guest editor who curated this collection of poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Cortland Review, and Shenandoah. She has won several awards, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for The Arts, the Margaret Bridgman Fellowship of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Maryland Arts Council fellowship, and the Yeats Society of New York Poetry Prize. Her latest book, Aileron, was published by Terrapin Books in 2018.