I’ll be turning 30 next month, the age at which most ballplayers’ skills begin to erode. But what about poets? Do you think there is a peak age for turning in your best verse? Do we spend more of our lives on the uptick or the decline?
And what's the poet's best version of learning the knuckleball—that is, an entirely new skill to extend the career?
Gosh, if poets followed the same trajectory as the typical baseball player, it would look something like this:
- 18 — Begin eking out a living, traveling by bus between small southern and midwestern towns, reading amateur poems that show occasional hints of potential in front of sparse but affectionate audiences who are mostly there for the cheap beer.
- 22 — Get a shot on a grand stage and embarrass oneself thoroughly, disappointing dozens of onlookers. Then, spend a winter fearful of whether everything you’ve been working toward has all been one big sham.
- 25 — If not forced into “retirement,” then you are more or less succeeding. The caveat is that the suits dictate your earning potential and you feel a sense of mock-freedom, little more than a dog and pony show helping grind the wheels of industry for someone else’s fortune. Additionally, the late nights and habitual drinking prevent you from developing a normal relationship or family.
- 28 — Publish your best work, the stuff that will be anthologized decades later. You fail to savor the moment because it all passes so quickly and you’re thinking of nothing but reaching higher peaks.
- 30 — Only you know that you are already washed up. The others cling to your past achievements while their own fear of mortality prevents them from seeing the inevitable temporality of your beauty.
- 32 — You hit your biggest payday, yet as soon as the laurels are hefted the critics begin whispering loudly about whether you’re overrated.
- 36 — Perhaps better to walk away leaving your legacy intact, but you feel strongly that you have more to offer. Your great wisdom, you believe, will make up for your declining mental acuity and slippery sources of inspiration.
- 42 — They trot you out for one last book-signing and hand-shaking tour. The people who say they grew up enjoying your work are themselves scarcely younger than you. You retire to Peoria and open a chain of chicken huts.
...but that’s not how it has to go, thankfully.
Here’s to performance-enhancing drugs.