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Portraits of Poets

On Anne Porter, Poet, 1911-2011 [by Lucette Lagnado, 1956-2019]

A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise

'You Can't Drive Anymore,
But You Can Still Write';
Homage to Her Late Son

By Lucette Lagnado (1956-2019)

The Wall Street Journal

Nov. 11, 2006 12:01 am ET

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- At 95, Anne Porter has senior moments, like finding a ticket that says "Keep This Ticket" in her purse and having no idea what it was for or how it got there.

It is one more frustration of getting old, along with relying on a walker to compensate for an uncertain gait and wearing oversize glasses to reinforce fading eyes. Mrs. Porter also finds inspiration in these setbacks, and that has helped to launch an unlikely, late-blooming literary career.

That mysterious ticket, for instance, inspired this poem:

I keep it carefully
Because I'm old
Which means
I'll soon be leaving
For another country

Where possibly
Some blinding-bright
Enormous angel
Will stop me
At the border

And ask
To see my ticket.

Mrs. Porter was 83 years old when her first volume of poetry, "An Altogether Different Language," was published in 1994. The book was named a finalist in the National Book Awards. A judge of the awards, David Lehman, a poet and professor at The New School in New York, subsequently decided to include Mrs. Porter in The Oxford Book of American Poetry, placing one of her longer poems alongside the works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.

"Anne Porter is a marvelously talented poet who has not yet received the recognition that is her due," says Mr. Lehman, who praises her work for its "literary simplicity and directness."

Asked why she keeps writing poems through her 80s and 90s, Mrs. Porter responds that art may be the only pursuit that old age can't wreck:

"You can't sing anymore, you can't dance anymore, you can't drive anymore -- but you can still write," she says.

Poetry is a field filled with productive old people. Stanley Kunitz, the American poet laureate who died in May at the age of 100, was writing poems and being published till the end of his life. The late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz received the Nobel Prize when he was nearly 70. John Ashbery, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is prolific at nearly 80. The new U.S. poet laureate, Donald Hall, is 78 and still working.

Mr. Hall muses that some elderly poets may find the medium well-suited to the rigors of old age: "Poems are made for other persons to read but made out of silence and solitude, and perhaps there is more silence and solitude in the world of the old," he says.

Mrs. Porter has developed a knack for chronicling the rigors of old age with biting verse, as in "Old in the City":

You stay away from doctors,
They'd send you to the hospital,
Where pieces are cut out of you,
And after that you die.

She has done readings at Canio's Books, a literary hangout here in Sag Harbor, at churches, schools, libraries and at downtown New York bar called KGB, where many in the audience were in their 20s. "I was perfectly comfortable," she says.

Mrs. Porter was married to the artist Fairfield Porter, considered one of the greatest American painters of the 20th century. After he died in 1975, she found life on her own difficult, especially as her health declined. She lived with her youngest daughter for years. When her daughter married and moved out, Mrs. Porter suffered several crises. "I fell downstairs twice," she says. Alone and increasingly vulnerable, she decided to sell her home and move into an assisted-living community run by Quakers.

She was all set to go when her daughter and son-in-law offered her another option: come live with them in a nearby town, not far from the home she owned for decades with her late husband. They built Mrs. Porter a separate wing with vaulted ceilings, giving it the look and feel of a cathedral. In one sun-drenched room, they set up a desk and workspace and hung paintings and drawings by her late husband. In the space opposite the desk, they placed her favorite painting of all, of her late son, Johnny, who died in 1980.

One of Mrs. Porter's most acclaimed poems, written when she was in her early 70s, is a lengthy homage to her late son, who suffered from what she believes to be either schizophrenia or autism:

Though your shoelaces were hardly ever tied
And you seldom wore matching socks
You tried to behave with dignity in the village
"So as not to embarrass my little sisters."


And for years your times at home were so short and so far apart
That hearing them once called "visits" you turned white,
So deep was your speechless fear
That you might be only a guest at home, and have no home.

Mrs. Porter says she usually thinks about a poem and outlines it in her mind, and only then begins to sit down and write. She prefers scribbling verses on stray pieces of paper -- backs of envelopes, old invitations, whatever she finds at hand. Only when she has a final version does she sit down and begin to type it up.

Shunning computers, she works on an ancient manual typewriter belonging to her late husband. It is hard for her to walk, so she stuffs a pouch attached to her walker with notes and drafts and rolls it around from room to room.

After her 1994 book, she published "Living Things" this year. It contains the poems from her earlier collection and 39 new ones. This year, her publisher, Zoland Books, now an imprint of Steerforth Press in New Hampshire, asked for more poems that would go in a new anthology.

Being able to live with her family has helped her with her poetry, she suspects. "I feel sheltered. While I am in bed, I can hear them laughing and I know they are good," Mrs. Porter says.

She adds: "Institutional life is a little chilling to a person's imagination."

Born in 1911 to a family of Boston Brahmins, Mrs. Porter remembers writing poetry as a child of 7. She attended Bryn Mawr and Harvard, but dropped out of both. After her marriage, she raised five children and quietly continued writing.

The marriage was stormy, she and others recall. Mrs. Porter led her life in the shadow of her husband. "There was a lot of hospitality -- cooking, plus raising five kids and she had her hands full," says Elizabeth Porter Balzer, her daughter. Whatever poems Mrs. Porter wrote, she wrote on the side.

She only threw herself into her own work as an artist after her husband died. "I remember realizing that I was alone, and I'd have to be more organized," she says. "I had these poems, and I thought that it would be worthwhile working on them. I started to write."

In the mid-1990s, David Shapiro, a poet and art critic decided to help Mrs. Porter find a publisher for her work. "I thought that she was hiding in an Emily Dickinson way," he recalls. Mrs. Porter received a $1,000 advance from Zoland.

Anne Porter at a reading held in September at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary Church in Southampton, N.Y.

On a recent weekend Mrs. Porter read from her newest book at Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary, a Roman Catholic church in Southampton, N.Y., that she used to attend. The audience included parishioners who used to pray with her, many of them elderly, along with a sprinkling of artists.

She and her daughter took turns reciting "For My Son Johnny," as some in the room grew misty-eyed.

Afterward, lines formed and she greeted old friends who came up to embrace her and get her autograph. Finally, exhausted, she headed home with her daughter.

"People don't use their creativity as they get older," she said. "They think this is supposed to be the end of this."

Ed. note: Portrait of  Anne Porter by Fairfield Porter.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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