Do older people have a best-before date creatively?
Last week as part of the Cork International Poetry Festival, Deirdre Brennan won the Farmgate National Poetry Award for her collection, Medea’s Cauldron, which is published by Arlen House.
She is a bi-lingual poet who has published 16 books, including 12 collections of poetry in Irish and English. She was previously awarded an Oireachtas prize for
Ag Mealladh Réalta, but this is her first English-language prize.
She is 89. I mention this only because it is virtually unheard of for somebody of her age to win a literary prize. When she was awarded the prize, Patrick Cotter, director of the Cork International Poetry Festival and Munster Literature Centre, commented: “When a very young poet wins a prize, a big deal is made of them, society at large rightly celebrates the arrival of a new talent — but it’s extremely rare in contemporary 21st century for a person of your age to win a literary prize.”
Deirdre Brennan had her first book published at 50. Asked by Patrick Cotter why she hadn’t gotten published sooner, she said: “I had five children. Lines would come into my head, but I banished them. My writing became a dream. I went back into the kitchen and did what you had to do with the kids.”
The truth is although there are female writers who manage to juggle family life with writing, many female writers’ careers are derailed by the domestic sphere.
The novelist Claire Kilroy’s recently published novel Soldier Sailor is published by Faber & Faber. Having published four novels at an interval of every three years, this latest offering has come after a hiatus of a decade. She became a mother in 2012 and was recently reported as saying: “I couldn’t afford childcare, so that was the end of that.”
Cyril Connolly, the influential literary critic and essayist once wrote: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”
Married three times but declaring himself to be “emotionally homosexual”, he envied the creative lifestyle of gay writers who he considered to be free of the obligations of family life that he described as that “dear octopus”.
Obviously, Connolly’s use of the term ‘homosexual’ and assumptions about gay families must be contextualised in the context of the time, which was the 1950s.
He considered family life to inhibit the writing life, and a writer who was married was only “half a writer”.
If male scribes are creatively limited by parenthood, that could be said to go double for some mothers who are writers and who, by Connolly’s metric, could best be described as “quarter writers”.
In reality, many women, whether they are writers are not, come into their own when they raise their heads after the quotidian demands of the largely blurry childcare years.
They will have compromised, had great joys, often sacrificed themselves, and they will have many things to say, some of them possibly interesting and enriching to this swim we call life.
After the to-do lists shorten, they may feel quietly exhilarated by a sense of freedom, and think: “This is my time. Finally. Now I get to say what I want. As me.”
As writers, they now have a shot at it. Except the cultural and literary environment, for the most part, doesn’t recognise this late transformation.
Many literary prizes and supports are for those under 40, whereas many female writers will not have had the chance to write until their early 40s — or much later, as in Brennan’s case.
The toxic stew of ageism and sexism affects female writers disproportionately, but actually, all writers are potentially affected by the covert age bar. The publishing industry demands new blood or the latest literary sensation, which often means young writers. This churn is commercially inevitable, but the literary world’s unspoken age-phobia is limiting.
Maybe it’s time for an overhaul of literary prizes and their narrow, age-based rules.
For such a supposedly liberal, diverse community, the arts can be remarkably narrow and conservative. Laughably so, which is why everyone in the room last week was so pleased when Deirdre Brennan won. Her work is brilliant, the fact she won shouldn’t have been so novel.
The truth is that Deirdre Brennan, prize-winner, would have more chance of being hit by a terrorist bomb than being published in some of the supposedly hip literary magazines by virtue of her age. The deep suspicion is if she submitted her poems posing as a Millennial, they would bite her hand off — but back on planet Earth, she has the wrong age profile.
Does age stereotyping in the literary world matter? Literary magazines and literary prizes, while pleasing to those who move in that world, are low stakes. And yet, ageism pervades our society.
The cultural consensus that people over a certain age have had their chance, when often factually this is not the case, seems short-sighted and irrational. It seems to emanate from prejudice or some idea that older people were educated for a world that no longer exists, and that we should look past them into the future.
Older people are sidelined every day, both in obvious and more subtle ways.
It’s interesting how many people who would (rightly) throw all their toys out of the cot about the ills of racism or gender or class discrimination don’t appear to give a toss about ageism, which they may subtly or blatantly engage in. Age discrimination has become such an ingrained part of Western culture that it is entirely acceptable to the point that it often goes unnoticed.
On the same night last week, Molly Twomey was awarded the Southword Debut Poetry Collection prize, for Raised Among Vultures. She was also shortlisted for the prize Deirdre Brennan won. Molly Twomey is in her 20s.
We need young and older voices to be added to the canon. Diversity in literature, poetry, and life serves the larger society well.
Ultimately writers and poets, or indeed people in general, shouldn’t be selected for their age — which is just a number — but rather for what they have to say.
We moved between knowing and not knowing, so much said in the end, so much unsaid.
Months pass. Your face grows less clear.
Still no words will come for sorrow, only the cry from the throat of a
curlew, the slow air from a plaintive flute.
Soon the clocks will go back.
Another season and the ground frosts that flank the heart.
But not for you the drifts of leaves, your sloughed off days and nights at my feet.