Reading these essays feels like being in your company, talking over a glass of wine.
I loved writing them, and I’m amused by what I came up with, and they kept me going. Poetry had left me — I had 60 years of it; I can’t regret it — but I love to work, and I did not know what I’d be doing. One day I looked out the window and began writing about being an old man looking out the window at the year going by. And it was all kind of positive, until I went to the National Gallery and a crazy guard said to me, “Did we have a nice din-din?” But I’m grateful to him! In anything you write — in a short story, a poem — there has to be a counter-motion; it can’t go all in one direction. And all of a sudden came this funny condescension to old people, the invisibility of old age and the assumed mental frailty. Of course, I felt the same way 20 years ago. I never said, “Did we have a nice din-din?” to anybody, but I’m sure I condescended to the old.
Is the prose enough, or do you miss writing poetry?
I can’t say I do. I think my very best work came out when I was about 60, not when I was 20. I was publishing all the time when I was in my 20s, and some of those poems I still like. And there were a few after 60, and in my 70s, that I like. But they became fewer and fewer. I watched it sliding away. If it had happened suddenly, I might feel more loss. Thank goodness I retained the ability to write prose. Some of these essays took 80 drafts! Most of them took about 30. I’ve always been slow. I didn’t mind taking more time. I’d heard of writers who say they hate to write. Not me. I love to do it.
In one of your poems, “Affirmation,” you write, “To grow old is to lose everything.”
That was when I was 70, and I was approaching old age. In reality, I thought I was old. I remember writing it and when I sent it in to the New Yorker. I almost didn’t because I thought the poem went all in one direction, and it had no counter-movement in it. They took it immediately, and I got letters from everywhere; people were putting it up on their refrigerators. And I realized it was sufficiently complex. I just didn’t see it myself. Many times I have written something, and after it was published, I understood what I was saying. For me, poems aren’t exactly a saying, they’re a doing. The poem is a bodily object. When I was in my mid-20s, I had the ridiculous idea that before writing or finishing a poem, I had to understand its statement. I got over that.
Are you growing wiser?
Yes, I think so. It might be self-deceit. Actually, I feel better and more energetic and more positive at 86 than I did at 76. That seems very strange to me. I have an increase in confidence and the ability to concentrate and so on. How come? I know it will go away some time — well, I’ll die; everybody does.
Burns’s story collection, “The Missing Woman,” will be published in April. She teaches at the University of Southampton in England.
ESSAYS AFTER EIGHTY
By Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 134 pp. $22