Poem of the Week / Aging Is Like Beer: One Day You Go Flat

American-Israeli poet Robert Friend on what happens when your stride slows down to a walk, to a shuffle, then a crawl.

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The Lecture
Robert Friend

Being young was natural.
I could not imagine that
what I felt in those heady years
like love and beer would go flat.

Though I read all the books
and was often sagely told
that the young at last grow middle-aged,
and the middle-aged grow old;

though it stared me in the eyes,
though I smelt mortality,
what applied to others
could hardly apply to me.

Would I sink like them into my bones,
grow querulous and mean,
and buried all day in a fat armchair
stare blankly at a screen?

Would my stride slow down to a walk,
to a shuffle, then a crawl;
would I complain that down below
I felt nothing at all?

Lonely at a window sill,
would I sit watching rain,
or gulping down a desperate pill,
clutch a side with pain?

Would I have rheumy eyes, a dribbling mouth,
and cough up blood and phlegm?
I swore, I swore in my young bones,
I would never be old like them.

I would never be old like them!
The years would not snow on my head
and bring a sleepy reason alone
for wanting to go to bed.

But seeing in the mirror one day
a first white hair start,
I slowly began to learn, young man,
What at last I learned by heart.

Copyright © Jean Shapiro Cantu / jeanshapirocantu@gmail.com


November 25 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Brooklyn-born, American-Israeli poet Robert Friend, who died in Jerusalem in 1998. He published nine books of poetry in English and numerous translations of Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, French and Arabic works into English.

A posthumous selection of his works, "Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998" (Menard Press London, 2003) is introduced by Gabriel Levin and edited by Edward Field.

Field writes that in about 1950, during a stint of teaching American soldiers in Germany, Friend “learned that because of his brief membership in the Communist Party a decade earlier his passport was going to be taken away, forcing him to return to the States, where the country was in the grip of Cold War paranoia about a Communist conspiracy to take over the country. One step ahead of the American authorities, he emigrated to Israel.” In Israel, he joined the faculty of the English Department at Hebrew University (and – full disclosure – was one of this columnist's teachers there).

Friend’s poetry exhibits stylistic mastery and courageous yet wry treatment of a variety of topics, including homosexuality; he was one of the first openly gay poets in Israel in any language.

In the first stanza of “The Lecture,” the fact of the rhymes comes as a surprise: Who would expect the seemingly dull word “that” in the second line to chime with the sharp observation about how eventually a young man’s emotions “like love and beer would go flat” – and then set off the powerful chain of rhymes? These tell an “under-story,” like alternating cheek slaps.

The topic – disbelief in one’s own mortality and aging – is evident from the outset but the context and the title become clear only at the end: The speaker is gently mocking his own pompousness in lecturing the “young man” and at the same time conjuring up Lewis Carroll’s “You are Old, Father William” and the stuffy, moralistic poem Carroll spoofed.

Like Father William, Robert Friend’s poetry has aged well. Listen to Garrison Keillor read three of Friend’s late poems here.

*“I smelt mortality” refers to Shakespeare’s King Lear (IV: vi). Gloucester: “O let me kiss that hand! ” Lear: “O let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.” How do the voice in the poem and the voice in the play compare? 

Robert Friend.Credit: Courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu
Robert Friend.Credit: Courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu

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