Poet's Choice: "Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets" by Thomas Lynch

By Thomas Lynch
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In this weekly online feature, we ask a poet to describe the inspiration for a recent poem.

My mother was buried on All Hallows Eve, 20 years gone now, in a blink. I remember the sad, sunlit morning at Holy Sepulcher and the countervailing gaiety of trick-or-treaters in that evening's dark -- how grieving and feasting are so juxtaposed. Her death at 65, 11 days after my 41st birthday that October, along with the routines of leaf-fall and withering, have always conspired with the liturgical calendar to make All Saints and All Souls a memento mori for me -- a time of year when I contemplate the dull math of time and mortality and their opposites.

So much of poetry depends on such counting and calculation, figuring and refiguring the stressed and unstressed syllabics of language, the iambics of our heartbeats and heartbreaks, lexicons and clockworks, inspirations, expirations, meters and rhymes. A line of Yeats or Auden, Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay will supply the breath-catching, breathtaking paradigm.

For many of my middle years I'd write a sonnet on my birthday, to keep track of time, its confines and limitations, its reoccurring themes -- how every end has a beginning in it: this October giving way to that November.

The older we get, the less pressing the past and future become, the more our memories and expectations blur, the more time tricks and treats us, much like children in the end -- homebound ghosts and goblins in the dark, haunted and haunting, free of old grievances, grateful for momentary, abundant, undeserved gifts.

The older we get, likewise, the less we seem to count. Which accounts, I suppose, for the title of this 15-line poem.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets

It came to him that he could nearly count

How many Octobers he had left to him

In increments of ten or, say, eleven

Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.

He couldn't see himself at ninety-six --

Humanity's advances notwithstanding

In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens --

What with his habits and family history,

The end, he thought, is nearer than you think.


The future, thus confined to its contingencies,

The present moment opens like a gift:

The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,

The hour's routine, the minute's passing glance --

All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?

At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.

Thomas Lynch's first book of stories, "Apparition & Late Fictions," and his fourth book of poems, "Walking Papers," will be published next year by Norton.

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